Decision making in the face of fire

VIDEO NEWS RELEASE: Those charged with making predictions and decisions concerning these fires faced enormous challenges. Researchers at La Trobe University are working on improving decision making processes.

Your current version is out of date. Please upgrade your Flash player it only takes a minute.



The conditions that led to the recent Victorian fires were those of extremes. High winds and soaring temperatures let the fires burn with a ferocity that few could anticipate. With climate change predicted to increase the risk of similar fires in the future, academics at La Trobe University’s Bushfire Co-Operative Research Centre are working on ways of improving decision making skills during crisis. We talked to Dr. Mary Omodei for details.

We think we’ve got evidence that when fire-fighters have to make decisions, whether it be a fire officer turning up as the first person for a little fire or not knowing how big it’s going to be, right up to the incident controller in charge of a very big and large fire. They’ve got to cope with a lot of uncertainty, a lot of complexity and uncertainty, and with that goes the fact that they can’t make perfect decisions because they don’t have time to sit down and analyse all the options and weigh them up and discuss them, they’ve got to come to a very quick almost intuitive decision and get started, and then monitor carefully what the outcome at their first efforts at controlling it, and then keep getting more information. It’s sort of almost decision making in a chaotic situation.

Dr Omodei and colleagues in the School of Psychological Science have played a major role over many years in understanding how decisions are made in the attempt to predict and to control fires.

We’ve been working with fire-fighters with experimental simulations where we put them in situations of uncertainty and time pressure and they have to rely on their intuitions, and they know very well what they’ve been taught. But under pressure they do the natural thing that our brains are hard wired to do, they go back to these linear predictions.

We’re currently working with key people in agencies first of all to see if it rings true with them – we could be wrong. And then talking about what could be done to improve or change training to help people make more appropriate decisions. To help people realise when they are overloaded.

This research could be used to further develop decision making processes in high pressure environments, and could bring authorities one step closer to making sure that situations like the fires in Victoria are more manageable.

From our knowledge of what human capacities and limitations are and particularly how humans react when they’re put under stress and uncertainty, we’re absolutely amazed at just how well our fire-fighters can do.