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Decision making within and outside standard operating procedures: Paradoxical use of operational discretion in firefighters

Butler, Philip C., Bowers, Andy, Smith, Andrew P., Cohen-Hatton, Sabrina R. and Honey, Robert C. 2021. Decision making within and outside standard operating procedures: Paradoxical use of operational discretion in firefighters. Human Factors 10.1177/00187208211041860

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Abstract

Objective To understand how firefighters’ use of rules (i.e., standard operating procedures [SOPs]) and deliberative decision making (i.e., operational discretion [OD]) interacts with acute stress. Background Current operational guidance for UK firefighters combines the provision of SOPs, for routine incidents, with the use of OD, under prescribed conditions (e.g., when there is a risk to human life). However, our understanding of the use of SOPs and OD is limited. Methods Incident commanders (ICs; n = 43) responded to simulated emergency incidents, which either licensed the use of OD or required use of a SOP. Video footage of IC behavior was used to code their response as involving a SOP or OD, while levels of acute stress were assessed using a blood-based measure and self-report. Results ICs were less likely to use OD selectively in the simulated emergency incident that licensed its use than in the one for which use of an SOP was appropriate; IC command level did not affect this pattern of results; and the incident that licensed OD resulted in more acute stress than the incident that required use of a SOP. Conclusion SOPs and OD were not used in the manner prescribed by current operational guidance in simulated emergency incidents. Application These results suggest that firefighter training in SOPs and OD should be augmented alongside personal resilience training, given the impact of stress on health and wellbeing, but also to improve the deployment of SOPs and OD under stress.

Item Type: Article
Date Type: Published Online
Status: In Press
Schools: Psychology
ISSN: 0018-7208
Date of First Compliant Deposit: 9 August 2021
Date of Acceptance: 4 August 2021
Last Modified: 31 Jan 2022 07:39
URI: https://orca.cardiff.ac.uk/id/eprint/143247

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