More information does not make for better decisions

New technology processes seemingly unlimited information in an instant, yet our brains do not.
Charles Bailey

Charles Bailey

By Charles Bailey

When I first started, we used a six-button mobile data terminal to status on calls. Our maps were made out of paper. There were only three radio channels we had access to before we were sharing talk space with the dogcatchers.

Some fire trucks still had only partial roofs, if any at all. We changed the light bulbs on the fire engine when they burned out and the only computer in the firehouse was for the computer-aided dispatch system.

We called them the good old days.

A few years later I was the officer on the hazmat unit responding to a call across town. In the back, a newer member was calling out not only directions but also the key points about the chemical we were running.

I was amazed. He was all maps and apps on a smart phone, and all I kept thinking was that I have to get one of those magical things.

There’s an app for that
Now depending on what system you are in, you can get the print out, premise history, incident remarks, units responding, pre-incident plans and the patient’s mother’s maiden name sent to your smart phone before you leave the station on the house fire assignment.

There are apps to guide your response, apps to figure out optimal pump pressure and apps that will plot evacuation zones using real-time weather data. On one radio we can talk to everyone from Ocean City, N.J. to Albuquerque, N.M. without a console patch (of course I am exaggerating a little).

All that and my intuition, my experiences, and my fear is that none of it has led to better decision making on the scene of emergencies. It may even be that having all that information has had the opposite effect, making decision making harder.

Need-to-know basis
My theory is that responders should only be given information if we expect them to do something with it. For example, consider a mid-sized fire department that’s standard procedures, like many, are predicated on the reasonable likelihood of someone being trapped in a structure.

For that reason they put a rather high emphasis on the initial search and the deployment of hand lines to support that search. They assume in the policy that people are trapped.

Why then would they announce that over the radio?

Given the system I just described, the expectation is that someone is trapped inside. What do we expect them to do with confirmatory information?

Knowing someone is trapped might alter a tactical approach, but that should only be true if it is not assumed in the policy. In other words, in this hypothetical system, announcing that someone is trapped in the house adds no value to the responder.

Do we want them to drive faster, be more aggressive or forgo stretching the line because someone is trapped? No, we want them to follow the policy.

That is one among myriad similar examples. At some point we have to become more careful about how much information we provide for processing.

Mental capacity
What has changed in the world is that more information is available more quickly than ever before. What has not changed are the cognitive limits of the person tasked with processing that information.

Having too much information may be more damaging than having too little.

I have heard a refrain over the years that argues that a unit’s initial on-scene report should “paint a picture” of what is happening. The question I ask now is, to what end?

A house fire with a person trapped, or a medical call with bystander CPR in progress is complicated enough without adding more complication. The house will not be less on fire if I spend more time searching for the right adjectives to describe just how on fire it is.

More often than not, too vivid a picture, a picture painted to clearly, only serves to disrupt the flow of thought for responding-unit officers. They spend too little time thinking about making sure that they are putting themselves in the right place at the right time to do the right things for the team and the public.

During those years when I was a paramedic, I remember responding on pediatric calls, including the especially difficult “baby not breathing.” I remember driving faster when I was driving. I remember thinking faster when I was the officer. I remember my stress was off the charts.

But I took the same bags and in the same manner applied a straightforward protocol. Knowing that it was a baby not breathing did nothing to improve outcomes; it just shortened my life by a few seconds.

No one is going to read this, run to his or her fire chief, and demand that we stop announcing things over the radio; I don’t expect anyone to. No one is going to turn off the fancy gadgets, apps, phones, maps and other tools of the modern day firefight. No one is trading in thermal imagers for thicker socks; I get that.

But people should be talking among themselves and eventually to their fire chiefs about the realistic limitations we have for information processing, especially when we think that a baby is not breathing or that someone is trapped inside that house.

About the author

Charles Bailey is a career Battalion Chief in Md. with nearly 20 years of active service. His hope it that firefighters everywhere will begin to ask hard questions about their operational behaviors and obligations to society using sound science mixed with common sense. Charles won the award for Best Web Column/Trade at the Western Publishing Association’s 2011 Maggie Awards, which honor the best print publications and websites in the Western United States. You can contact Charles with feedback at Charles.Bailey@FireRescue1.com.

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