Making life-or-death decisions is very hard – here’s how we’ve taught people to do it better

In the face of a fast-moving fire that threatens a community, it can be difficult to know how to best save lives.

Is a quick evacuation better or is it safer for residents to stay where they are? The whole situation can change in an instant and delay and indecision can be fatal.

As wildfires spread across California, a report of a huge fire in London in 2017 could offer useful lessons for emergency managers and residents.

Gary Chartrand

Inside the Grenfell Tower fire
On June 14, 2017, a refrigerator in a London apartment had an electrical malfunction that caused a fire. For the first two hours after the fire was reported, officials told the residents of the condominium not to evacuate. Rather, they recommended that people stay in their apartments and rely on the building’s design to contain the fire in the unit it started in.
The city firefighters faced two types of potential tragedies: people who died in their apartments or who were injured or died trying to evacuate.

In hindsight, it took too long for them to realize the fire was out of control and to change their instructions, telling people to leave. Less than four hours after it began, the fire engulfed the 24-story Grenfell Tower, which houses just under 300 people, 72 of whom died.

A similar problem emerged in the fires in California, including in 2018, when delays in the order to evacuate the City of Heaven, California, killed 56 people.
Choose the “less worse” option
As academics studying human decision-making in life-threatening circumstances, we have learned that many people, including trained military personnel and emergency responders, have difficulty making decisions in extreme situations, such as large fires.

The resulting delay, which we have called “redundant deliberation,” occurs when people take too long to choose between difficult options.

We have found that indecision is the most dangerous aspect of a high-risk situation. We have also proposed theories about the origins of this delay and how it can be overcome in our recent book “Conflict: How Soldiers Make Impossible Decisions”.

Our research found that redundant deliberation is more likely to occur when there is no standard policy to guide decision makers or, as in the case of the Grenfell fire, when normal practice does not fit the actual circumstances.

Fire plans for many condominiums require you to tell residents to stay still, because fireproof walls, floors, and ceilings are designed to contain the flames in the apartment they started in.

This was the Grenfell Tower floor. London firefighters followed that advice even as the fire spread to dozens of nearby apartments.

Their mistake was to rely too heavily on fixed rules and written policies, rather than figuring out how to best protect human life in a rapidly evolving fire that defies the expectations on which those policies were based. Years of experience in London firefighters had not prepared them to handle what happened at Grenfell Tower. It was simply too rare an event, with much more at stake than in other fires.
Telling dark stories
Our research has developed a better way to enable people to act decisively in urgent situations. Rather than being swayed by rules and experience, fast-thinking leaders need to be creative, adaptable, and imaginative.

We have developed a way to teach people to transcend their past training through a method of guided imagery we call “shadow storytelling”. It is based on scenario-centric discussions where participants create scenarios (often from their own experiences) for their colleagues to work in the military and air force communities.

In the sessions we conducted, we had three groups of four. Each group developed a scenario based on a real situation they had faced in the past, but much more complicated and challenging. Each group then presented the scenario to the others and asked them to choose a course of action from several options, all of which were rather poor.

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