From the Chief’s Desk
B y R o n n y J . C o l e m a n W e talk a lot about decision making during emergency response. We advocate that there be a very short period between initiation of the alarm and our arrival on the fireground. One might call this the five-minute rule. It manifests itself in the phenomenon that no matter how big the emergency, we often only have a five-minute window to engage in critical-thinking skills. There is a tendency for us to regard this five-minute window as being the only type
of critical-thinking skills that are needed in the fire
service. Nothing could be further from the truth.
From a standpoint of training and education, critical thinking is a skillset that applies to almost all the
activities of a fire agency. In previous columns, I have
explored both concepts of training and education as a
means of acquiring knowledge, but I have not discussed
the transfer of that knowledge into the real world. One
mechanism is through critical-thinking skills.
Training is designed to teach us to do things right,
and education is designed to get us to do the right
thing. Critical thinking is the skillset that marries the
two concepts in the real world. Critical-thinking skills
have five basic components: Reasoning, analyzing,
evaluating, decision making, and problem solving.
Reasoning is the process of forming conclusions,
judgments, or inferences from facts or premises. The
shorthand version of reasoning is that a person is
expected to think in a logical manner. The concept
of reasoning seems to be linked to the concept of
proof and rationalization. If a person pursues a line of
thought that is not logical, his behavior is often said
to be unreasonable.
Analyzing implies the dissection of material into
constituent parts or elements and includes the idea of
examining them critically to identify relationships.
Evaluating is the act of appraising something in the
context of its component parts.
Decision making is most often regarded as a cognitive process resulting in the selection of a belief or a
course of action among several possibilities. Every
decision-making process produces a final choice; it
may or may not prompt action. Deciding to do nothing is still a decision.
Problem solving is choosing an alternative course
of action and following up on the solution. Problem
solving is not the same as decision making and vice
versa. However, decision making plays a role in
There is a difference between critical-thinking skills
conducted under stress vs. those that are more contemplative. With the five-minute rule on response, you do
not have enough time to review and review over again
all the facts and probabilities that you are likely to
encounter. Moreover, most of those decisions will be
made by an individual decision maker. There are often
problems that are more worrisome than fireground
scenarios that require critical-thinking skills, such
as program management, staffing decisions, station
locations, and human resources decisions. The conflict
between desired and undesired situations in the fire
department often involves group processes. Individuals might adopt their problem-solving processes as
individuals as opposed to groups, whereas groups may
often be influenced by the arguments for and against
policy and procedure.
Individuals and groups are likely to have different
approaches to critical-thinking skills. However, the
goal should be the same: a reasonable solution for
all parties. This opens the way for the development
of other skillsets to support the decision-making
process. Group decisions almost always take more
time than individual decisions. The amount of time
it takes a group to act in a specific manner can be
affected by unproductive participation in the group
process. On the other hand, group decisions are
often better decisions, since all group members have
a shared understanding of the problem through a
discussion or debate.
Most groups use a variety of critical-thinking skills
to form the environment in a fire agency. Developing
a skillset to be an effective member of an organization
is highly individualized. Some groups do not examine
the critical-thinking skills at all and adopt traditional
solutions to traditional problems. The quick generation of critical-thinking skills enhances the effectiveness of the decision making in an organizational
setting, but in the fire service it is a challenge to create
an atmosphere where critical thinking emerges as a
preferred way of deciding how to solve problems.
Ronny J. Coleman is a retired state fire marshal for the State of
California. He has achieved chief officer designation at both the
state and national levels. Coleman has a master of arts degree
in vocational education, a bachelor of science degree in political
science, and an associate of arts degree in fire science. He is
president of Fireforceone, a consulting firm in California.
Developing Critical-Thinking Skills
Making choices with five basic components