Are Your “Slides” Blinding You?

By Persephone Whelan


So there I was, snuggled on the couch in the early morning hours with my 3-year-old, sipping coffee, idly flipping through Facebook when a Hotchkiss Fire District video of the Horse Park Fire came under my thumb. I thought, “Wow. That’s some interesting fire behavior. Wonder what the story is there.” Then I was interrupted with a request for more Paw Patrol videos or something.

Later on that day, a buddy called me up. “Did you see that video from the Horse Park Fire?! What were they thinking?”

STOP RIGHT THERE!

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Do I have your attention? Maybe half of it while you sip coffee, eat a sandwich, ride down the road? I’ll take what I can get. I want to stir the pot and see what comes up.

Have you ever been watching a video or reading about a near miss or something particularly hairy on a fire and heard someone say: “If they just stuck to the basics they would have been fine.” Or “What part of ‘base all actions on current and expected fire behavior’ did they not understand?” Or “How could they not see that coming?” Have you ever had these thoughts or conversations?

Let’s talk about THIS.

But before I launch into a series of questions and ideas to “stir the pot” I need you to take a moment and suspend your personal beliefs. Ready? Here we go.

Setting Us Up for Failure

Why do we keep getting surprised? What do we expect arriving on scene of an incident?

I would like to propose that this is where we have culturally strapped on the blinders. Your “slides,” your past experiences on fires, may be blinding you to what is right in front of you—and the possible future.

Perhaps we need to let go of the Recognition Primed Decision Making model. YIKES! What did she just say? I’m proposing this model, this mode of thinking, is setting us up for failure. Time to leave the 80s in the 80s and challenge our ways of thinking today.

No one starts their shift with the intention of only having half their situational awareness. Everyone starts their day, their strategy, or their tactics thinking that they have complete SA. They make decisions based upon that information they feel they are getting or matching-up to previous situations they have encountered. Sure, this practice might initially seem to work—right up until that moment everything goes to hell and they are running, thinking: “Wow! How did I lose my SA?”

Do you think the individuals in the Horse Park Fire video or FLA started their day thinking: “Hey I want to see how close I can get to being burned-over without actually getting hurt.”  Or: “I’m going to totally ignore the Fire Orders and Watch Out Situations when I go scout this fire because they don’t really work for me.”

You do not lose your SA. I once heard someone say, losing your SA is only possible if you are unconscious. You are only a human capable of processing X amount of data. It’s HOW you process that data that matters the most.

Mindfulness

Allow me to drop a hefty word on you: Mindfulness. If you are starting to picture hippy music, incense, meditation, etc., please pause. I am talking about mindfulness in a science/nerd type of way, not in a “gentle or nurturing” Buddhist approach. I’m talking about HRO mindfulness. Navy SEALs have mindfulness training. You picking up what I’m throwing down?

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Why does all this matter?

Judgements happen when you compare what you are seeing to a model, experience or “slide” in your mind. Once you make a judgement, your perspective is tailored to that moment. How closely does this scenario match others I’ve encountered? What tactics work best?

This leads you down a path where you may not be “seeing” what is going on around you because you already have a perspective selected which tailors the inputs to your mind. Everything else just washes away. You have now lost your SA.

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How is This Moment Different?

Here is where I ask you to make one subtle, yet very important shift.

Instead of asking yourself: “How does this scenario, this IA, this Division, etc. match others I have encountered before?” Ask yourself: “How is this moment different?” Instead of asking: “What worked before?” Ask: “What options do I have?”

Be creative. Be curious. Tune into your senses. Use the environment and the tools you have to engage—constantly reassessing what is different. And what needs tweaking.

On the other hand, asking yourself “What is working?” is confirmation bias and a dark path to travel. That kind of thinking reaffirms what you already “think you know” and leads to mindlessness and not mindfulness.

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Stop Trying to Make a Square Peg Fit a Round Hole

I do agree with those people who comment “Why were they surprised?” But I have a different perspective. Is it not common to joke “What is normal?” I haven’t heard many firefighters arguing that conditions or fires are the same as they were 20 years ago. If our fires aren’t normal, why are we using “normal” tactics?

“We’ve always done X” is a weak argument. I think this is how people get surprised. Stop trying to make a square peg fit a round hole. Stop forcing tactics that used to work on our current situations. We are a professional, adaptable group that performs at a high level in chaos.

Seek opportunities to allow your brains to operate at that high level without putting blinders on the inputs. Talk among yourselves, ask questions and listen to each other. Most of all <gasp> be safe out there!

Want to Know More?

Want to try to understand where these crazy ideas came from? Check out these sources:

  • Conklin, Todd. “What is all this talk about Mindfulness – Ellen Langer is someone you should know.” Pre Accident Investigation Podcast 151. December 9, 2017. https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-52idj-7d8e50
  • TedX Talks – “How to tame your wandering mind” by Amishi jha.
  • Fraher, Amy, Branicki, Layla and Grint, Keith. (2016) Mindfulness in action: discovering how Navy SEALs build capacity for mindfulness in high-reliability organizations. Academy of Management Discoveries.
  • Dotson, Travis. Ground Truths “Experience Builds Bias.” Two More Chains. Summer 2017. Vol. 7 Issue 2. Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center.