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Improving Safety and Performance on the Fireground

Command during a disaster is a complicated and stressful time, the more we learn about how we react and make decisions the better we can handle ourselves and improve the quality of decisions we make.

Firefighters and other emergency and disaster workers often place themselves into situations of personal danger, in work environments where the risk of physical injury, psychological harm or fatality is not uncommon. Firefighters often accept risk commensurate with a sense of reward that is often tied directly to their identity. This equates to a mission focus that can blind them to changes in the environment, where risks are not static, predictable or controllable. When faced with such changing risks there is a natural demand for better communication and group sensemaking. Sensemaking is the process by which people work to understand issues and events that are novel, ambiguous, confusing, or in some way outside our expectations. Sensemaking is both an individual and a collective or group activity that is context dependent. Individuals engage in sensemaking to understand an unfolding event; however, it is also retroactive, in that the process involves people building meaning based on observed circumstances that they perceive to be true. Sensemaking involves situational awareness but is more encompassing and comprises: how we become aware of what is happening around us (changing conditions), our capability to build connections between changing conditions; differentiate ‘signal’ from ‘noise’; use our memories, expertise, emotions and reflection to analyse, create relative frames of reference, and create a plausible (shared) narratives or meaning. However, this is often countered by tactical, technical and social demands which distract front line operators.

We have developed a practical approach to help first responders to recognize shifting risk, called Margin of Manoeuvre or MoM, which is being introduced to early adopter groups of wildland firefighters in the USA and Australia as a trigger for sensemaking and adaptive thinking.

The Context for Innovation
Wildland fire operations have an unenviable record of fatalities, one that is shared by other high-risk, low frequency of event industries (e.g. timber harvest, aviation, oil extraction, mining, etc.). Since 1994, with the catastrophic loss of firefighters at Storm King Mountain, the US wildland firefighting community has suffered over 400 fatalities, attributed to a number of causes.

In the belief that the past is a good indicator of the future, it has become common practice to review catastrophic events to try to create prevention strategies. This has resulted in efforts to manage risk with ever more restrictive regulation or constraining organisational controls. However, the environment that first responders face is a complex adaptive system characterised by uncertainty, meaning that prediction is difficult and often misleading. A major missing piece has been the need for creating lessons learned and innovation to improve decisions and actions in real time.

In real-time operations there is often a perception that rapid action is required due to time constraints. Most of the time the intuitive, traditional, rote, ritual or habit-based responses combined with minor innovation, work well enough to deliver successful outcomes. However, in different circumstances the same adaptations that resulted in success can deliver a much different result.

To improve their work and reduce the risk associated with uncertainty in real time, firefighters need to better recognise when to engage in sensemaking. They need to consider different leading indicators that will direct their focus and use their expertise to read the current and changing conditions with which they are faced. Initial practitioner response during wildfires during 2014 and in early 2015 confirmed that Margin of Manoeuvre can provide an effective way to recognize such changes in the operational environment.

DM Hoberman sphere used to demonstrate contracting MoM.

DM Hoberman sphere used to demonstrate contracting MoM.

What is Margin of Manoeuvre?
We have conceived MoM as a (visualised) sphere that represents the amount of ‘space’ an individual or team has, within which they have to prepare for and respond to challenges arising from changes in the operational context/environment. The larger the sphere (the larger the MoM) the more room there is to experiment, make errors, learn from those errors and generate adaptations to challenges. The smaller the sphere (the smaller the MoM), the less room to experiment, and the more likely that errors will have unrecoverable harmful consequences.

We have trained firefighters and other emergency responders to visualise MoM as a virtual sphere. In training we use a Hoberman Sphere (a plastic expanding science toy see adjacent photos) to represent MoM. This provides hands on visualisation of a contracting or expanding MoM as they analyse the situation and their capabilities to manage it, and helps to consolidate the concept as an embedded mental model for subsequent operational use. Firefighters monitoring change in their MoM use it as a warning indicator and as a trigger for increasing attention and for considering a different approach or action. This allows for the influence of a wide a range of internal and external factors to be considered in a simple concept of contraction or expansion of MoM (see table below).


First responders have reported using MoM operationally:

  • To identify and capture unpredictable changes in the system;
  • As a common language to discuss unpredictable changes;
  • As a way to trigger sensemaking, including capturing senses, intuition and feelings of change in the system that are difficult to articulate;
  • To more rapidly improve expertise through dialogue.

MoM provides an alternate approach to fostering adaptation and resilience in a wide range of operational and strategic contexts. Central to adaptation is the ability to experiment and try out alternative options or solutions. Such experimentation has to involve making errors, because some options will be feasible, whilst others will not. For effective adaptation (the core feature of resilience) to occur, first responders need to be able to operate in sufficient ‘space’ that allows these errors to be made, corrected, recovered and critically, for lessons to be learned and acted upon. The MoM is way of conceptualising the extent of this space. Hence, the larger the MoM the greater room for error, recovery and learning. The smaller the MoM, the more likelihood that errors will have severe and unrecoverable consequences and any opportunity for learning will be lost.

MoM is successful because it exploits how the brain works and helps to avoid some of the mental traps that occur in non-routine situations. A first responder will often be presented with such a huge range and volume of information that their working memory and analytical thinking system will be overwhelmed. Working memory can hold only a small amount (about five pieces of information) at any one time, and as new information comes in, previous information has to be discarded. This means that key information can be missed or discarded, resulting in an incomplete understanding of the situation. For the first responder on the ground, using MoM actively reduces the amount of information that needs to be held in working memory, ensuring that it is continually being freed up, allowing the continuing stream of incoming information to be more effectively dealt with.

For more information, go to [email protected]

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Dr Carl A. Gibson is the Director of Risk Management at La Trobe University, Melbourne Australia and is a volunteer lieutenant and training officer for the Country Fire Authority.