Decision Making | Firefighters

Firefights Decision Making Under Stress

The events of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath emphasize the severity of the consequences of decision-making in emergencies. Emergency responders make critical decisions as part of their response tactics. Frequently, these decisions involve tradeoffs. While catastrophes such as Hurricane Katrina result in intense media coverage, numerous other incidents result in the loss of thousands of lives and billions of dollars in property, yet barely attract attention. One major cause of these losses is fire incidents, in which firefighters are frontline emergency responders. These incidents claim the lives of approximately 100 firefighters in the line of duty each year in the United States, with firefighter injuries in the tens of thousands. Additionally, 3,000 civilian deaths and over $10 billion in direct property damage result from fires annually.

Most studies of naturalistic decision making use indirect methodologies, such as post-decision interviews, to examine the decision process. These methodologies suffer from significant deficiencies, resulting in contradictions among decision models relevant to emergency response. However, capturing the decision process while the decisions are being made is an enormous challenge.

In this project, we utilized human-computer interactions via Virtual Reality (VR) technology, in conjunction with decision tracing technology, to establish an advanced emergency response simulator. For the project, we developed a sophisticated real-time decision capturing algorithm to trace and analyze decision making processes in VR. To establish a higher level realism than laboratory experiments, VirtuTrace includes features that facilitate natural characteristics, such as audio/sound interactions between VirtuTrace and firefighters, allowing the inclusion of firefighters’ communication with their superiors, peers and subordinates during emergency response scenario, and capturing their emotional state (e.g., positively challenged, threatened). The development and implementation of the computer automated simulator represents a significant leap in studying decision making for emergency response. This project was supported by the National Science Foundation.

In the study we examined the effects of two stressors on firefighters’ decision making: (1) difficult tradeoffs; (2) time pressure. The results indicated that experienced firefighters know how to take ‘their time’ enroot to choice and are more likely to adopt variation 1 of RPD.