We talk a lot about decision making during emergency response. We advocate that there be a very short period between initiation of the alarm and our arrival on the fireground. One might call this the five-minute rule. It manifests itself in the phenomenon that no matter how big the emergency, we often only have a five-minute window to engage in critical-thinking skills. There is a tendency for us to regard this five-minute window as being the only type of critical-thinking skills that are needed in the fire service. Nothing could be further from the truth.
From a standpoint of training and education, critical thinking is a skillset that applies to almost all the activities of a fire agency. In previous columns, I have explored both concepts of training and education as a means of acquiring knowledge, but I have not discussed the transfer of that knowledge into the real world. One mechanism is through critical-thinking skills.
Training is designed to teach us to do things right, and education is designed to get us to do the right thing. Critical thinking is the skillset that marries the two concepts in the real world. Critical-thinking skills have five basic components: Reasoning, analyzing, evaluating, decision making, and problem solving.
Reasoning is the process of forming conclusions, judgments, or inferences from facts or premises. The shorthand version of reasoning is that a person is expected to think in a logical manner. The concept of reasoning seems to be linked to the concept of proof and rationalization. If a person pursues a line of thought that is not logical, his behavior is often said to be unreasonable.
Analyzing implies the dissection of material into constituent parts or elements and includes the idea of examining them critically to identify relationships.
Evaluating is the act of appraising something in the context of its component parts.
Decision making is most often regarded as a cognitive process resulting in the selection of a belief or a course of action among several possibilities. Every decision-making process produces a final choice; it may or may not prompt action. Deciding to do nothing is still a decision.
Problem solving is choosing an alternative course of action and following up on the solution. Problem solving is not the same as decision making and vice versa. However, decision making plays a role in problem solving.
There is a difference between critical-thinking skills conducted under stress vs. those that are more contemplative. With the five-minute rule on response, you do not have enough time to review and review over again all the facts and probabilities that you are likely to encounter. Moreover, most of those decisions will be made by an individual decision maker. There are often problems that are more worrisome than fireground scenarios that require critical-thinking skills, such as program management, staffing decisions, station locations, and human resources decisions. The conflict between desired and undesired situations in the fire department often involves group processes. Individuals might adopt their problem-solving processes as individuals as opposed to groups, whereas groups may often be influenced by the arguments for and against policy and procedure.
Individuals and groups are likely to have different approaches to critical-thinking skills. However, the goal should be the same: a reasonable solution for all parties. This opens the way for the development of other skillsets to support the decision-making process. Group decisions almost always take more time than individual decisions. The amount of time it takes a group to act in a specific manner can be affected by unproductive participation in the group process. On the other hand, group decisions are often better decisions, since all group members have a shared understanding of the problem through a discussion or debate.
Most groups use a variety of critical-thinking skills to form the environment in a fire agency. Developing a skillset to be an effective member of an organization is highly individualized. Some groups do not examine the critical-thinking skills at all and adopt traditional solutions to traditional problems. The quick generation of critical-thinking skills enhances the effectiveness of the decision making in an organizational setting, but in the fire service it is a challenge to create an atmosphere where critical thinking emerges as a preferred way of deciding how to solve problems.