Are Your “Slides” Blinding You?

By Persephone Whelan

So there I was, snuggled on the couch in the early morning hours with my 3-year-old, sipping coffee, idly flipping through Facebook when a Hotchkiss Fire District video of the Horse Park Fire came under my thumb. I thought, “Wow. That’s some interesting fire behavior. Wonder what the story is there.” Then I was interrupted with a request for more Paw Patrol videos or something.

Later on that day, a buddy called me up. “Did you see that video from the Horse Park Fire?! What were they thinking?”


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Do I have your attention? Maybe half of it while you sip coffee, eat a sandwich, ride down the road? I’ll take what I can get. I want to stir the pot and see what comes up.

Have you ever been watching a video or reading about a near miss or something particularly hairy on a fire and heard someone say: “If they just stuck to the basics they would have been fine.” Or “What part of ‘base all actions on current and expected fire behavior’ did they not understand?” Or “How could they not see that coming?” Have you ever had these thoughts or conversations?

Let’s talk about THIS.

But before I launch into a series of questions and ideas to “stir the pot” I need you to take a moment and suspend your personal beliefs. Ready? Here we go.

Setting Us Up for Failure

Why do we keep getting surprised? What do we expect arriving on scene of an incident?

I would like to propose that this is where we have culturally strapped on the blinders. Your “slides,” your past experiences on fires, may be blinding you to what is right in front of you—and the possible future.

Perhaps we need to let go of the Recognition Primed Decision Making model. YIKES! What did she just say? I’m proposing this model, this mode of thinking, is setting us up for failure. Time to leave the 80s in the 80s and challenge our ways of thinking today.

No one starts their shift with the intention of only having half their situational awareness. Everyone starts their day, their strategy, or their tactics thinking that they have complete SA. They make decisions based upon that information they feel they are getting or matching-up to previous situations they have encountered. Sure, this practice might initially seem to work—right up until that moment everything goes to hell and they are running, thinking: “Wow! How did I lose my SA?”

Do you think the individuals in the Horse Park Fire video or FLA started their day thinking: “Hey I want to see how close I can get to being burned-over without actually getting hurt.”  Or: “I’m going to totally ignore the Fire Orders and Watch Out Situations when I go scout this fire because they don’t really work for me.”

You do not lose your SA. I once heard someone say, losing your SA is only possible if you are unconscious. You are only a human capable of processing X amount of data. It’s HOW you process that data that matters the most.


Allow me to drop a hefty word on you: Mindfulness. If you are starting to picture hippy music, incense, meditation, etc., please pause. I am talking about mindfulness in a science/nerd type of way, not in a “gentle or nurturing” Buddhist approach. I’m talking about HRO mindfulness. Navy SEALs have mindfulness training. You picking up what I’m throwing down?


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Why does all this matter?

Judgements happen when you compare what you are seeing to a model, experience or “slide” in your mind. Once you make a judgement, your perspective is tailored to that moment. How closely does this scenario match others I’ve encountered? What tactics work best?

This leads you down a path where you may not be “seeing” what is going on around you because you already have a perspective selected which tailors the inputs to your mind. Everything else just washes away. You have now lost your SA.

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How is This Moment Different?

Here is where I ask you to make one subtle, yet very important shift.

Instead of asking yourself: “How does this scenario, this IA, this Division, etc. match others I have encountered before?” Ask yourself: “How is this moment different?” Instead of asking: “What worked before?” Ask: “What options do I have?”

Be creative. Be curious. Tune into your senses. Use the environment and the tools you have to engage—constantly reassessing what is different. And what needs tweaking.

On the other hand, asking yourself “What is working?” is confirmation bias and a dark path to travel. That kind of thinking reaffirms what you already “think you know” and leads to mindlessness and not mindfulness.

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Stop Trying to Make a Square Peg Fit a Round Hole

I do agree with those people who comment “Why were they surprised?” But I have a different perspective. Is it not common to joke “What is normal?” I haven’t heard many firefighters arguing that conditions or fires are the same as they were 20 years ago. If our fires aren’t normal, why are we using “normal” tactics?

“We’ve always done X” is a weak argument. I think this is how people get surprised. Stop trying to make a square peg fit a round hole. Stop forcing tactics that used to work on our current situations. We are a professional, adaptable group that performs at a high level in chaos.

Seek opportunities to allow your brains to operate at that high level without putting blinders on the inputs. Talk among yourselves, ask questions and listen to each other. Most of all <gasp> be safe out there!

Want to Know More?

Want to try to understand where these crazy ideas came from? Check out these sources:

  • Conklin, Todd. “What is all this talk about Mindfulness – Ellen Langer is someone you should know.” Pre Accident Investigation Podcast 151. December 9, 2017.
  • TedX Talks – “How to tame your wandering mind” by Amishi jha.
  • Fraher, Amy, Branicki, Layla and Grint, Keith. (2016) Mindfulness in action: discovering how Navy SEALs build capacity for mindfulness in high-reliability organizations. Academy of Management Discoveries.
  • Dotson, Travis. Ground Truths “Experience Builds Bias.” Two More Chains. Summer 2017. Vol. 7 Issue 2. Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center.


6 thoughts on “Are Your “Slides” Blinding You?

  1. I don’t think your post is inaccurate, but I do find it potentially misplaced.

    I would argue that while we wake up with slides and experience on our side we don’t wake up with situational awareness of an assignment we haven’t responded to.

    I have seen the Horse Park video and summary of events that led to an IHC coming too close to getting burned over, but I would argue that they were building their SA in order to respond appropriately to the Horse Park Fire. I would then ask what information were they provided before the start of the shift to guide their decision making process and then ask if it was accurate. Without Air Attack or drones we are frequently forced or required to gather information on foot or four wheels in order to safely engage in fire suppression. It’s what IHC crews do and what they’re good at. I believe they are the best in the world at doing just that.

    SA and margin are built off of information that is gathered through scouting or the transfer of information from one party to another that has gathered the info. My apologies if I’m preaching to the choir.

    My point is, you can’t base actions off of current and expected fire behavior from a fire that hasn’t been scouted yet. The IHC was in the process of building margin and gathering information in the same manner that all resources are when assigned to an IA or division for the first time. We don’t have suppression options until we know what opportunity the fire will provide us.

    There needs to be recognition that the most risk is often taken during the first shift while gathering information in order to provide SA to the masses and build the base of margin. The IHC involved used the basics and posted a lookout and kept their crew in a spot they could leave safely and then did what all IHC crews would do and that’s set out to gather information so that individuals assigned could safely engage or disengage based off of the 10 Standard Fire Orders and 18 watchouts. They minimized exposure.

    What is the relationship to burn over incidents and the first 24 hours of engagement when SA and margin are in their infancy?

    Recognition needs to be emphasized that margin and SA are built and often times they are built on the backs of IHC crews that are given an incomplete intent and a chunk of ground to figure out. A majority of the time that results in successful suppression operations on a large scale.

    I enjoyed your post and thought I’d respond with a few of my thoughts.


  2. I found the original post intriguing because I both heartily agree and heartily disagree. First the disagreement. To say we need to let go of the RPD model is akin to saying we should stop breathing or we should never have tunnel vision. As Daniel Kahneman — the current expert in human cognition — pointed out in his magnificent book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” our intuition (System1, as he termed it) is just there. In the context of RPD, we cannot stop making “slides” and we cannot stop reacting to them — it’s how our minds work. Kahneman was at first skeptical of RPD, so he invited Gary Klein, prime originator of the model, to work with him. Kahneman concluded that with one caveat, the model does reflect the reality of our minds, and the working of System 1. (His System 2 is the analytical as opposed to the intuitive aspect.) The caveat is that those who operate in RPD must be highly experienced and trained in their field — exactly what the fire service demands. One of Klein’s case studies involved a municipal fire captain who led a crew into a burning residence. Shortly after entering, the captain suddenly shouted: “Out! Get out NOW!” He later admitted he didn’t know why he gave the command. Moments after exiting the structure, the floor they’d been standing on collapsed into a firey basement. Only afterwards, when there was time for analysis and investigation, did the Captain consciously identify the cues his expert-level RPD had intuited.
    Now, the agreement. Your intuition — always there and always ready to be deployed — can be wrong. That’s where mindfulness enters. We can’t shed RPD, nor should we try, but we can modify/enhance it. Most humans are not naturally mindful in the way we’re using the term. Mindfulness must be cultivated. Langer’s book “Mindfulness,” and “Rapt” by Winnifred Gallagher are two excellent sources of information and guidance. The practice of mindfulness meditation is one of the most effective means I personally know.
    Can RPD blind you? Certainly. It can also save your life — in time sensitive, high-tempo operations it might be the only tool you have. Should everyone cultivate and practice mindfulness? Absolutely, but it doesn’t make RPD go away, and it would be dangerous if it did.

  3. The human mind has a hard time judging the moving speed of fire in relation to fuels. Now factor in fuel moistures, wind speed, drainage alignment, and 1 million other small things that matter. My personal thoughts on this are the correct usage of wise old sage Paul Gleason’s L.C.E.S. By the Supt., to post a look out, who has enough slides to recognize her situation and take actions into her hand. Stage the crew in a good spot while the overhead was trying to scout and help build a plan for the IC. It says ALOT to me that the lookout was dialed in and aware of her personal SA. Then the 2 folks who acquired the UTV on their own thought process and jumped into actions. Many crew would find it action as a dismissible offense. My personal thoughts are this crew lived and breathes the usage of L.C.E.S.

    Now some other thoughts what if the supt. truck was followed by the buggies?

    What if it was not the most experienced people in the lead dog truck?

    Would a rookie or second year stay longer trying to get the supt. truck unstuck?

    I am looking at this as an amazing discussion of why good things happen to people who train for the worst case.

  4. I really liked Persephone Whelan’s message in Are Your “Slides” Blinding You? (September 27, 2018 / WILDFIRELESSONS)

    Since she challenges the usefulness of Recognition-Primed Decision Making (heretically, she admits) in favor of a more mindful approach, it’s worth a few words clarifying the nature of RPD.

    Is it time to “let go” of RPD? That’s not really a choice. Based on the science we know today, RPD is not a decision-making style we opt in or out of. RPD is an academic description of how humans naturally make decisions under time or stress constraints. Mother Nature chose it for us as a survival mechanism. It’s why our visual cortex is directly wired to the fight/flight response center in our noggins. When you come around a corner and see a terrorist with a gun, a grizzly bear or a motorcycle coming straight at you – you are not going to critically think your way out of that, develop at least two courses of action, weigh cost/benefits of each… RPD is going to kick in and try to save your ass.

    RPD also saves us from using up lots of time on deciding which position a light switch should be in, deciding how we should brush our teeth, and the all-important morning coffee routine. RPD helps explain our auto-pilot sub-routines for things that are habitual and relatively inconsequential (coffee excepted).

    Where Persephone rightly highlights a problem is during situations that are neither urgent nor threatening, yet they are important. Relying solely on naturalistic, slide-based decisions (RPD) out of complacency or an artificial sense of urgency is inviting trouble.

    Gary Nelson, a long-time MCS cadre member, a retired LA County Division Chief and someone I respect tremendously says:

    “There are very few offensive decisions requiring an immediate action. I have seen several wildland accidents in the last few years where the false sense of urgency conditioned by inexperienced leaders and the chemicals driven by “code’ responses have caused hasty offensive decisions.”

    Maybe practicing mindfulness might be better framed as choosing to go beyond RPD. Training your mind to apply critical thinking wherever and whenever practical.

    An Aussie colleague, Country Fire Authority Brigade Captain Bill Cook, describes mindfulness as:

    “…a thinking firefighter’s situational awareness tool.”

    It consists of a set of principles to internalize and add to your decision-making tool box. Like other tool boxes, problems arise when you favor one more than the others. The old saw (sorry) that “When your only tool is a hammer then every problem is a nail.”

    One of my favorite quotes from COL(R) John Boyd (Read: Boyd: The Fighter Pilot Who Changed the Art of War) is from a presentation he once gave to senior Air Force staff:

    “Day One Doctrine. Day Two Dogma.”

    I believe this is what is at the heart of Persephone’s message. SOP’s and checklists are awesome. They comprise the play book that makes up the game plan. But on game day, the team that failed to adapt the play book to what the other team was doing would be ridiculed. “Why would they try that same thing? The other team was totally dialed in to that. That’s just not good situational ___ball!”

    It’s easy to fall into the trap of letting the tail wag the dogma. Of allowing a principle to become policy. Or doing the same thing each time because… well… that’s what we do.

    Mindfulness, in my mind anyway, is about not letting RDP become the path of least resistance (i.e. complacency). Murphy’s Law preys on the complacent. Mindfulness is about staying switched on, even in routine tactical situations and believing that Murphy is waiting just around that boulder or in the top of a tree.

    When time and space run out, you want RPD on your side. The right combination of slides from experience, training and planning, on autopilot fueled by cortisol and adrenaline will save your life. You want to nurture your RPD abilities. Think of this as working on your short game.

    At the same time, Persephone is right on. For most wildland fire decisions, you want to be more deliberate. As your RPD slides pop up and offer you a “viable solution” – take the next step of validating that. What could go wrong with that? Weather change? How far to a medevac? What would Murphy do?

    This step is more than a few “What ifs?” It is a disciplined thought process to consciously evaluate both the most likely fire and the most dangerous fire. It is about developing your internal trigger point to take a “tactical pause” in order to build your SA and make the best decisions under the circumstances.

    Legendary CalFire chief Bill Clayton said it best on a card he once gave me:

    “If your mind is on the same ridge as the fire or you can’t think any faster than the fire is moving you will lose. Devote your mental energy not only to the actual, but more importantly the potential.”

    That’s the long game. Critical thinking skills.

    There’s an old Special Forces maxim: “Your mind is your primary weapon.” Like all complex weapons, this one has more than one part. You want to work on both your short and long games. They work holistically together and are equally essential to survival.

    To rely on one without developing the other is to allow half your weapon to rust, greatly increasing the potential of a misfire.

    Thanks for opening an important conversation Persphone!

    Mark Smith
    Mission-Centered Solutions

  5. Persephone, nice work getting the conversation going, really valued the feedback provided in comments, thanks!

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