Imagine being able to quickly acquire years of experience in making good firefighting decisions under pressure. Thanks to some high-tech, web-based simulation training, soon firefighters will be able to do just that.
The program, named AlphaACT FIRE, is being developed by AlphaTRAC, based in Westminster, Colo., with help from the IAFC’s Technology Council, and is designed to give less-experienced firefighters the decision-making skills of veterans with multiple incidents under their belts.
Note that the focus here is on decision-making—not the fire tactics used. That’s because, as AlphaTRAC’s Decision Psychologist Dr. An Oskarsson explains, “Good crisis decision-makers use a different process than others in the same or similar situation.” Good decisions are made, in part, because the individual decision-maker can draw from their history of similar experiences, but, as Oskarsson points out, “A lot of chiefs are retiring, and younger firefighters don’t have the same level of experience. There aren’t as many big fires as there used to be, so it’s hard to get that level of experience.”
The Psychology Behind Decision-Making
AlphaTRAC trains professionals, including firefighters, soldiers and others who respond to crisis conditions, to make good decisions. In the case of fire tactics, Oskarsson explains, “Experience alone doesn’t guarantee that you’re a good decision-maker; how you apply that experience also matters. That’s why there are differences even between experienced crisis managers. We went after why some are more successful than others.”
Their approach is based on the work of research psychologist Gary Klein, who developed the recognition-primed decision model or RPD. The basic principle of RPD is that a firefighter on scene will mentally process similar past experiences, apply what happened then to the current situation, and adapt their past decisions to fit the current situation. This is all done automatically, but the process can actually be broken down into six stages: characterize, recognize, analyze, customize, dramatize and utilize.
How It Works
Like AlphaTRAC’s hazmat training simulation program, which launched in January 2013, their broader-based tactical fire program takes users through those RPD stages to train them in the decision-making process.
Users select from a database of “experiences” or simulations based on actual fires. They can then view photos, maps and other graphics, and see data on the incident as they are asked to make decisions at each stage. As the IAFC Technology Council explains, the six stages in AlphaACT FIRE translate to:
- Sizing up the situation using available information.
- Searching a database of experiences for a past event that adequately matches current conditions.
- Evaluating the past event to see if it fits the situation at hand.
- Tailoring the past event to reflect the current event.
- Mentally rehearsing the decision to verify whether it’s likely to work.
- Putting the decision into play.
As users work through each simulation, they can rely on their own knowledge or that of others. “Our training is on how to apply those experiences,” stresses AlphaTRAC Marketing Director Jonathan Mackintosh. “And repetition of the training reinforces the decision-making process.”
At the conclusion of a simulation, the user can compare their outcome to those of other users—including their training officer or a subject matter expert. “We don’t evaluate your tactics, because there may not be one right answer. What we do score users on is their decision-making process,” Mackintosh explains. He also stresses that AlphaACT FIRE can train firefighters at all career levels. “Because every fire is different, even experienced firefighters can be placed in situations and can experience consequences that they rarely see.”
The program will also include extensive discussion forums, where users can share feedback with firefighters across the country.
A Database of Experiences
The scenarios used in AlphaACT FIRE include detailed information on real-life incidents, including all sorts of statistics and lessons learned.
Fire trainers and others can share their department’s experiences through AlphaTRAC’s online database XCapture FIRE. Although not all experiences will be chosen for inclusion in AlphaACT FIRE, the database will be available free to the fire community, and can be used for “official after-action reviews, or simply to tell your stories,” Mackintosh says. Departments can browse the experiences of others to learn new procedures or build their own tactics. “For example, if a small town is getting its first Wal-Mart, the fire department might need to learn how to approach a fire in a large industrial building—they can check the database,” Mackintosh says.
AlphaTRAC is planning to release the free version of XCapture FIRE this month through the IAFC (www.iafc.org); a pro version with additional features and functionality will follow soon after that.
Beta Testers Wanted
AlphaACT FIRE should launch in January 2014 and will be subscription-based. In the meantime, the simulation program will be ready for beta-testing this summer, and AlphaTRAC is seeking more fire departments to try it out. If you’re interested in participating, visit www.alphatrac.com to sign up.