Decision Fatigue

Decision Fatigue stress decision makingnote: first appeared in March 2015

So I came home, walked in the door, plopped down on the couch, turned on the TV and started watching a show. I have no idea what show it was, no idea who the cast was or even if it was in color or black and white. Then my wife walked in about 15 minutes later. I was quiet and barely said “hello.”

The dogs greeted her, she set her bag down, walked over and kissed me on the cheek. So far so good; then it went downhill real quickly, she started to talk to me. Oh boy, wrong move.

First she asked me how my day went, did I stop and get milk on the way home, and did I remember we had a meeting that night with some friends. Before I could really get much out of my mouth she then asked me if we would be able to do… That is when I asked her if we could talk about it later, for now I just wanted to relax. She then started asking why I needed to relax, did I have a bad day? Oh boy, wrong move…Decision Fatigue stress decision making

I finally just told her in my day-job command voice that I just wanted to relax and we could talk about all those things later. And that was a wrong move on my part. Fifteen minutes later she was still asking me questions and I was still telling her I just wanted to relax. Sound familiar?

I was suffering from “decision fatigue” in a big way and I had no idea that I was…suffering from it. I had never even heard of such a thing then, now I have.

Decision fatigue is a psychological phenomenon that has only been in the research and discovery phase for about four years now. However, its effects have been felt for many thousands of years.

Decision fatigue manifests itself in:

  • Poor quality decisions
  • Impulsive decisions
  • Paralysis in decision making
  • Reduced self-regulation

Decision Fatigue stress decision makingDecision fatigue is caused by making decisions. Yes, you read that right. If you were doing hard physical work all day, far beyond what you were used to doing, there would come a point where you would become physically exhausted and unable to continue the work. The very same thing happens in your mind when living one of those days where you find yourself having to make continuous decisions all day long. And the more stressful the decisions are, the more wear and tear on your brain. Eventually your brain starts having real problems making good-quality decisions and will ultimately completely shut down your ability to make decisions at all.

Yes, all decisions take energy whether they be simple decisions or complex decisions. Stressful decisions take more energy than easy decisions. “Do you drink the white milk or the chocolate milk with breakfast?” is an easier decision. “Do we take a chance on this firefighting tactic and increase the risk of life safety?” is a much tougher and more stressful decision and thus takes far more energy.

Decision FatigueMaking a decision at breakfast will come easier than one in the evening. Why? Because you’ve been working your brain all day making decisions and you brain is more tired in the evening. If those decisions you’ve been making all day are stressful then you will be mentally exhausted and the decision you make will make in the evening be of lesser quality. Alternatively, you may become paralyzed and unable to make any decision at all.

“What would you like for dinner sweetheart?”

“I don’t care.”

“No sweetie, really, what would you like to eat tonight?”

“I don’t care at all. Whatever sounds good to you is fine with me.”

“Well, it sounds like you had a rough day. I would like to fix you whatever you would like to make you happy.”

“I don’t a crap what you fix or even if we eat tonight!”

Ah yes, marital bliss. I would never admit that this conversation ever took place in my home or vehicle. But maybe you Decision Fatigueknow of someone that has had this experience – decision fatigue.

So how does that affect us during an incident? Every day, all day and in ways you may not have thought about it. We find ourselves having to constantly make decisions throughout the day. Some decisions are significant, other more trivial, but all are important in one way or another. Understanding the physiological issues is the first step to reduce decision fatigue.


Here are the ways to reduce decisions fatigue:

  1. Understand and accept that it is real.
  2. Reduce the number of decisions you make. You can do that in a number of ways –
    1. Make leader’s intent clear and use subordinates, allowing them to make decisions for their area of responsibility.
    2. Make it clear that if someone brings you a problem, they are also responsible for bringing you a solution (or at least an idea).
    3. Have “habits” that make a decision for you rather than going through an entire decision making process.
  3. Move important decisions to earlier in the day.
  4. Make decisions a head of time and use predetermined trigger points to implement those decisions.
  5. Water, stay hydrated, and that also includes electrolytes.
  6. Eat and keep your glucose levels up but not spiked.
  7. Rest; get good quality sleep and take breaks. Any sleep and any breaks are better than none.
  8. Don’t over analyze a problem before making a decision. Use the minimal amount of high-quality information and then choose the first “right” decision. Notice I didn’t say choose the “best” option or the “ultimate” option. Over analyzing doesn’t do anyone any good and just adds to the stress of making a decision.
  9. Know that decision fatigue happens to everyone and that includes you. You are not immune to decision fatigue so take the necessary steps to avoid it.

Failure to mitigate decision fatigue can manifest itself as:Decision Fatigue stress decision making

  1. Making a costly decision based on impulse vs. logic and reason. You might just not want to “deal with it” so you make a decision quickly, too quickly, to get the decision over with and out of the way. Few of us like inducing pain on ourselves, especially mental pain and anguish. When suffering from decision fatigue we are more likely to make any decision, even it if it is a bad decision, just to relieve ourselves from the pain associated with the decision making process.
  2. A serious manifestation of decision fatigue can occur as decision paralysis. This is where a person just won’t make a decision. The amount of incoming information is overwhelming and the decision process just becomes too much to handle. At that point a person can shut down and become incapable of making any decision at all. The ramifications of decision paralysis can be fatal if taken to the extreme; costly at a minimum.Stressful environment
  3. Lastly there is the “self-regulation” side effect to decision fatigue. This can be very ugly and personally costly. Researchers have found a direct correlation between decision fatigue and poor decision making in a person’s life. Examples would be; substance abuse (including alcohol abuse) and sex-based dalliances. In some circles individuals who were considered “high speed – low drag” leaders were at particular risk at suffering from self-regulation problems.

Prepper GroupStressful environments where decision making is demanded of you can be mentally costly to you. Understanding decision fatigue and appropriate mitigation options can go a long way towards keeping you in the game and performing at acceptable levels. And “acceptable” means safe and productive in the field where your people depend on you.

Don’t neglect (i.e. ignore) decision fatigue…it cost you too much.





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I am out of the loopnote: I think this is one of the single most valuable pieces of information you will ever read for a grid-down event. When the violence is knocking at your door you better understand this concept or you will get killed. Yes, it is that important and I am that serious.

I am sure everyone has heard the saying “I was out of the loop on that” or some variant. Generally it is meant that a person wasn’t aware of something that was going on. However, the origins of the saying is a fascinating story itself. It goes back to the early Col John Boyd OODA Loop air force jet planes fighterdays of the Air Force and man by the name of John Boyd, a Colonel.

Col. Boyd developed this model to assist the training of military pilots. Dogfights occur at a very high speed in a three-dimensional environment. A pilot must not only have lightning fast physical reflexes, he must be able to out-think his opponent as well. To win a dogfight a pilot must be able to get his plane inside the decision loop of his opponent to line-up a kill shot…and do so without himself being shot down. It is a daunting task in the best of circumstances. And the speeds at which is occurs is unrealistic and unfathomable to most of us mere mortals.

Any high-stress, high-risk environment tends to be high-speed as well, or at least at critical points in time. A person must be able to function in that environment to the point of success. Failure to function successfully in these types of situations can lead to injury or death of yourself or someone else. Boyd developed a system that trains a person Col John Boyd developed the OODA loopon success under stress, in high-risk environments. That system is all about acquiring information, processing that information, making a decision, and then acting on that decision.


The decision making model he developed is called OODA.

That is an acronym for; Observe, Orient, Decide, Act.


Broken down it means –

  • Observation of the raw information on which decisions and actions are based.
  • Orient the information to your situation and environment.
  • Decide a course of action.
  • Act quickly and decisively.

While it would be convenient to allow those brief explanations stand on their own, it is impossible if you want to truly understand how it all works together for success.

One of the best explanations of the complete OODA cycle was by Harry Hillaker –

“The key is to obscure your intentions and make them unpredictable to your opponent while you simultaneously clarify his intentions. That is, operate at a faster tempo to generate rapidly changing conditions that inhibit your opponent from adapting or reacting to those changes and that suppress or destroy his awareness. Thus, a hodgepodge of confusion and disorder occur to cause him to over- or under- react to conditions or activities that appear to be uncertain, ambiguous, or incomprehensible.”

What I am understanding Hillaker to say is fairly simple – Embrace the confusion and use it to your advantage to defeat your enemy. I think I have that understood pretty clearly but that explanation is purely for a military or tactical situation.

What about when there is no person as an enemy?

How do you even describe “enemy” is these terms?

For this discussion I will revert back to our discussion on “objectives” as the enemy. We must “win” in terms of meeting the objective. If we can’t claim a “win” then we “lose.” Losing means that our objective was not met. And success in this arena is based on achieving our objectives, hence “losing” is the enemy.

To review the 2-part series on “objectives and priorities” that appeared on August 8th and 11th.

Based on the foundation I just laid out where there is no person as an enemy, there is no option to turn confusion against our enemy. Confusion in this sense only hurts our team and hinders the successful accomplishment of our objective. However, we can easily state with certainty that seeing through, and/or eliminating, any confusion would make attaining our objective far easier. We can now agree that we only need to go half way on the confusion issue, remove it vs. install it on our non-person enemy.

In retrospect haven’t we already started down the path of confusion elimination?

Back in Objectives and Priorities (Part #2), when we were given Leader’s Intent we can/did ask for clarification to ensure a solid foundation of understanding. On the other hand, if we are the one delivering Leader’s Intent we used the SMART model to clarify the task. So exactly what confusion is left to clear-up?ColJohnBoydOODA-003If you look closely at the OODA Loop you will notice that there is a very close relationship between the “OO” and the Situational Awareness. In plain English the “Observe” and “Orient” matches perfectly with the concept of Situational Awareness (SA). If your SA is good, your OO functioning correctly as well.

Situational Awareness & OODASo why the need for both?

There is a vital need, the OODA loop outlines the entire process along with explaining the “why.” The “why” being defeating your enemy, or accomplishing your objective(s). I see the OODA loop as a bridge between two more detailed systems –

  1. Situational Awareness
  2. Risk Management

If you go back to Hillaker’s explanation there is a key part “…operate at a faster tempo to generate rapidly changing conditions…” That integrates a true sense of urgency into the overall process. The need to move at a sufficient pace to outperform your enemy. Is it not reasonable to assume that if you outperform your enemy that you win?

Col John Boyd OODA loop jet fightersBut, what about dealing with an objective as the enemy?

When you consider the different aspects of an inanimate foe, the process can be both more difficult, and yet easier. When dealing with a person as a foe you have to assume many things about that person and hope you are right. A smart foe can do things entirely unpredictable which subsequently disrupts your SA and hence, the outcome. However, an inanimate objective can be almost as unpredictable, but it is lacking the ability to purposely be unpredictable. The end result is there are pluses and minuses to both situations, animate vs. inanimate foe. For this discussion we will focus on the inanimate foe, an objective.

Let’s review what the Swiss Cheese model of risk management looks like –

Swiss Cheese Risk Management You have any number of opportunities to stop an incident from occurring. Plugging just a single hole in any slice of cheese prevents the incident from ever occurring.

If you were to chart the OODA Loop process as consisting of a combination of Situational Awareness and Risk Management it would something like this.

Adding in Situational Awareness

Adding in Situational Awareness

Then adding in calculating the probability & severity aspect of the risk.

Then adding in calculating the probability & severity aspect of the risk.

Here we see the OODA loop link two systems that were previously envisioned as “stand alone.” While both of those systems were valuable and applicable, they did form a complete picture for our purposes. However, there is a third system that is still missing that carries considerable influence, if not total control, over everything – Leader’s Intent.

While some could argue that Leader’s Intent would be one of the “filters” of the SA process I would disagree. I think Leader’s Intent drives all of the systems from the very beginning. Thus I propose the proper graphic representation of the system should look more like this.

Leaders Intent OODA Situational AwarenessNonetheless I still maintain that the graphic reorientation is still lacking a key piece. No doubt that you would accomplish the object, but in the graphic it is implied, not explicit. And, depending on the situation you may or may not be able to undertake planning process formally, it may have to be done “on the fly” and not in written form. I am of course referring to planning as a key element.

In my way of thinking Situational Awareness is a more complete system/process to define and accomplish the observe and orient of the OODA loop. And, Risk Management encompasses the decide and act aspect of the OODA loop. Clear Leaders’ Intent drives the whole loop in harmony. How does planning work into the process?

Planning is actually a combination of orient and act parts of the OODA loop with a heavy influence of leader’s general eisenhowerintent. Have no doubt that planning will be a key element of any success in accomplishment of an objective. However, General Eisenhower said, 

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

What he was trying to get across through that statement was the fact that though the planning process we find the weaknesses, strengths, and alternatives to the environment in which we will operate. A good example of that is “combat loading” of ships. If you loaded a ship for an invasion such as D-Day the same way you would load a normal cargo ship, you would be doomed to failure.

Why? All the ammo would be loaded together in one area, all the trucks parked in another, tanks in another, Humvees it yet another area, etc.

As the invasion takes place do you need all the Humvees at one time? No. How about needing all the trucks at one time? No. And the same is true for tanks, ammo, medical supplies, etc. The military loads ships in a manner that the supplies come off in the order in which they are needed. You may only need 20 trucks at first, but you need 10 tanks before that, and 15 Humvees along with the tanks and trucks. But a sufficient amount of fuel, ammo, and medical supplies need to off-loaded with the appropriate vehicles. The planning process allows for the discovery of such issues and making the appropriate adjustments.

Another example would be the same situation of the actual invasion. The leader’s intent would be to secure town “x.” While in the planning process it becomes obvious which beach in the best to land on due to any number of factors. But, good planning demands that you have multiple alternatives. The same would be true for routes to get off the beach and to the town you are supposed to secure. Once again, in the planning process you are looking at maps that show the best/fastest way to reach the town. And yet again, you must have multiple alternatives in case your run into resistance or other obstacles with the primary route.

As the invasion unfolds different invading units run into problems getting off the beach for any number of reasons. However, since the planning process revealed multiple routes to the town, the local unit leaders can pick alternative routes as the battle unfolds. And, those choices can be made without running it up the chain of command because the optional routes are already in the plan…and approved. Hence, the local leader on the ground is still operating within the authorization given through leader’s intent.

Had there been no formal planning, the alternative routes would not have been identified ahead of time. The leader on the ground would have to discover the optional routes causing loss of time and jeopardizing successful completion of the objective.

Yet another revision of the entire process would look something like this…

LeadersIntent-004Do I have you confused by now?

How about…do I have your eyes glazed over yet?

That is obviously not my intention or objective.

What I do what you to think about is how to be successful when it comes to surviving after “grid-down” when all your prepping comes into play. But, surviving is a whole lot more than just beans, bullets, and band-aids! It is about how you become a successful prepper to become a successful survivor. And success depends on skills. No, not skill…SKILLS !

And you need to understand how to use systems such as OODA Loop, Situational Awareness, and Risk Management to improve your odds of success. If you can improve your odds of success in a grid-down situation, then it will be much easier for emergencies and disasters as well. But it all takes time, effort, and commitment.



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No reproduction or other use of this content 
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Objectives and Priorities (Part #2)

Three days ago in Part #1 in this two-part series of articles I went into detail about Leader’s Intent and how to set SMART objectives. And yes, I explained why this subject was relevant. But, it will be up to you to decide how it applies to your prepping.

I can imagine some folks started reading the article a few days ago and became disinterested quickly. Or after a few paragraphs of reading some people may have become bored. And that is OK, this subject may not be for everyone. Or, some people may already know the material well enough. But, the information contained in the previous article coupled with today’s information is extremely valuable for group/team operations.

It is nice to have some cans of food stored, a gun or two, plenty of ammo, and other prepping gear. But, do you know how to bring a group together to accomplish life-saving goals or how to set priorities correctly?

Can you do so in a high-stress environment of an emergency, disaster, or grid-down? No fear! I explain how you can do just that…with confidence in your process and your decisions.

If you haven’t read the previous article three days ago you should before reading this one because today’s article builds on that one.

Recapping Part #1 –
  • A leader must be clear in stating the “intent” of all missions/tasks.
  • All mission and tasks must be realistic.
  • When setting objectives use the SMART system.

Now let’s move on…

Setting Priorities –

There is a significant need for being able to set correct priorities in high-stress situations – which most emergencies, disasters, and grid-down events are…high stress. Without being able to set priorities consistently and correctly, a mission or group is doomed to failure. Priorities are also based on a mutual belief foundation that the entire team has agreed to.

While possibly stating the obvious, different cultures do have different beliefs…hence, different priorities. The need for the team to share a common set of beliefs and priorities is paramount.

Without an agreed upon set of beliefs and priorities I propose that any team would struggle to make good decisions. And I propose that is especially true when it comes to high-stress, high-value decisions.

Upon what basis would/could/should common priorities be set?

Without a common set of priorities, how easy would it be to make decisions? I suggest it would be increasing difficult to make decisions that would be acceptable to everyone as the stress increases. Conflict would ensue, splits would emerge, and finally the fracturing of a group or team.

Now, we could get into a whole discussion of “morals” as it relates to beliefs and priorities but that is best left for a conversation around a campfire in your own camp. For the purposes of this article I will stick to a non-religious, non-cultural based concept that has proven to work in emergencies and disasters. Over my decades in emergency services I have seen a system that works every time, in every situation. Yup, it works every single time…it is that good of a system. It is called L.I.P.S.

Back in 2005 I was at the National Fire Academy in Fredricksberg, Maryland attending a week-long course to be an instructor of instructors for all levels of ICS (100 – 402). ICS was relatively new to the structure fire department world and I was there to acquire national certification to teach ICS to students and to be able to certify other instructors. During that class the head of the national ICS course development team asked us to peer review the new ICS training materials for FEMA/DHS. Now that was interesting!

One of the areas we spent a lot of time on was the L.I.P.S. system of priority setting. It was something new to just about every aspect of emergency services at the local level. Our class developed the “S” part. But it was too late to get it into the materials. Fortunately I have my notes from that review process.

The goal was to develop and refine a decision making system that would be consistent across every emergency situation that first responders would find themselves in. It had to be applicable to hurricanes, structure fires, HazMat scenes, wildfires, floods, building collapses, plane accidents, train wrecks, vehicle accidents, bridge collapses, etc. It had to be universally applicable in every conceivable emergency situation. The outcome was L.I.P.S.Learn more about LIPS

L.I.P.S.. stand for –

  • Life Safety
  • Incident Stabilization
  • Property Conservation
  • Societal Restoration

Life Safety – The physical safety of people is always paramount. Stated again…People’s safety is always the number one priority. There are two areas of thought on this and they vary rather widely. I refer to them as; 1) traditional, 2) New Age.

The traditional view of “life safety” puts the safety of the person being served as the most important. The person’s life doing the act of service is secondary. Example…In my structure firefighting world we would risk our life to save the life of a person trapped in a house fire. No, we wouldn’t do it stupidly, but in the traditional view, the other person’s life (the victim) had great value and was worth taking a significant risk. Even to our own potential peril.

The New Age view of life safety says the value of the person providing the service (responder) carries far more value than the person needing the service (victim). The “risk” threshold was much lower, “reasonable risk.” In other words, the rescuer would take far less risk trying to save someone, placing a much higher value on their own life then that of the victim. The new fad of thought manifested itself when I saw the newer firefighters being hired (mid-1990’s) making statements such as, “Hey, I have go home at the end of the day.” Or, “My life is more important to me than theirs.” The New Age folks also use the justification that “If we get killed or injured doing our job, then who will take care of the victims?”

There is a middle-ground…mitigating risks. There is always risk in any high-stress dangerous situation such as emergencies and disasters. Actually, even the “stress” itself carries risk to a person’s health. So the key is mitigating the high-risk actions down to “reasonable” or “acceptable” risk categories. And that is a decision, a standard, that each team must set for themselves.

Let me be clear, all emergencies, disasters, and grid-down events will have high-risk elements to them. It is impossible to avoid risk but a smart person will mitigate those risks. But, sometimes risks simply must be taken. Which ones? Well, how about rescuing your child from your burning house and risking your own life? How about saving your wife from an outlaw gang and risking your own life? Is that worth the risk, almost certainty that you might die trying?

That is the decision you must make…Is the act worth the risk?

Whichever philosophy you adhere to, traditional or new age, the common ground is life safety is the number one priority whether it be life safety or the person you are trying to save or yourself, the rescuer.

Incident Stabilization – This principle is pretty easy to understand when you realize that when an emergency or disaster has occurred, people are having a bad day. One of your primary goals is to ensure that you don’t make it worse. In other words…you want to stabilize what is happening so it doesn’t continue to escalate in terms of loss of life and property.

A good way to view this is through an example –

Incident Stabilization!
Notice how they stabilized the vehicle from rolling over while they worked he accident.

As a firefighting crew we would respond to a house fire. It was important that we arrive on scene as quickly as possible. Upon arrival we could then attempt to rescue people inside the structure or begin firefighting operations if no victim’s lives were at risk. However, none of that would be possible if the fire engine driver drove recklessly and had an accident on the way to the fire. If an accident occurred there could be multiple injuries, fatalities, property damage, and then tying up more emergency personnel that would need to respond to the accident vs. the house fire. In this situation…don’t make a bad day (house fire) worse by having an accident and not being able to get the fire engine and crew to the fire.

Another example would be a wildfire burning in industrial area with woods on three sides. On the fourth side was a large number of propane tanks in close proximity to a gas station. Where should the firefighters focus their actions? Of course, prevent the fire from affecting the propane tanks and gas station. If the wildfire spread to that facility the wildfire would transition to a structure fire and a HazMat situation, potentially on a large scale.

Your actions should help remedy a bad situation, not make it worse.

Property Conservation – This particular principle changed into “property/environment conservation” not long after the course material was released. I personally would rather it state “resource conservation” but LIRS wouldn’t sound as cool as LIPS. Regardless, the principle is…while responding to a problem don’t destroy anything you don’t have to.

The reasoning behind it is fairly straight forward. Everything has value; don’t destroy anything if you don’t have to. I will add to that, because you may need it later. Bottom line, don’t tear stuff up unless there is a really good reason to.

The perfect example of this comes to mind taking me back once again to my structure firefighting days. One of the early methods of fighting a house fire was to enter a house with the water flowing from the nozzle as you searched for the fire itself. The concept was to push the heat and smoke away from the firefighters. However, it also put thousands of gallons of water in the home doing tremendous damage.

That tactic was changed to not flowing water till you found the base of the fire. Then you put only enough water on the base of the fire to extinguish it. That saved 10’s of thousands of dollars of damage to the home. I remember clearly one day my crew rolled up on a house fire, the fire was located in the kitchen. My nozzleman and another firefighter pulled the 1-3/4” attack hose and headed for the kitchen. Before they could spray any water, and flood the kitchen, I had the driver run the 5 gallon pressurized water extinguisher to us. I used about 3 gallons of water/foam mixture from the portable extinguisher to put out the fire. Attacking the fire with the large hose would have probably dumped 500 – 750 gallons of water into that same kitchen. But, we put out the fire with only 3gals of water. Which tactic did less damage?

Don’t destroy or damage any resource you don’t need to, you may need it later.

Societal Restoration – This is a somewhat nebulous principle, even for emergency responders. Naturally, emergency personnel are trained to come into a bad situation and stop that situation from getting worse and not doing further damage. Once the immediate threat has been resolved the responders normally pack up and leave. But, what about the victims? Their problem is only half resolved, maybe the easiest half.

Once again take the example of the house fire. Firefighters come in and extinguish the flames, get the smoke out of the house, and even remove some of the water that they used to put out the fire. But they also did what’s called “overhaul” to ensure there is no more fire, so some of the walls and ceilings now have large holes in them. The last of the fire trucks drive away. Is the nightmare over?

Maybe the imminent threat to life and property is, but is that family immediately back to a normal life? Hardly!

The family now has to secure the home, find a place to live, contact the insurance company, deal with the adjuster, find home repair contractors, have the home repaired, replace damaged personal possessions, and try to salvage family treasures. The fire may have taken a couple of hours, or a couple of minutes, to put out…but it may take months for that family to live in their home again.

Now, take that same concept and expand it to an entire community, town, or state. The idea is to return society, family, or community, to the same condition it was before the incident occurred.

Now let’s restate LIPS this way –Learn more about LIPS

  • The #1 priority is to protect people from death and injury.
  • The #2 priority is to not make a bad situation worse.
  • The #3 priority is not to destroy resources you don’t have to.
  • The #4 priority is to restore the situation back to normal, or better.

Let’s go back to the wildfire jeopardizing the propane tanks and gas station. You are the Captain of the first fire engine to arrive on the scene. What are your priorities?

Here are my suggestions according to LIPS:

  1. Make sure that my crew and fire engine aren’t going to be blown up.
  2. Evacuate anyone from the gas station and propane tank area.
  3. Take action to prevent the wildfire from reaching the propane tanks and the gas station infrastructure.

Notice I took care of my crew, we have to be functional to be effective, and there were no other lives as risk so I didn’t have to put my crew in jeopardy trying to save someone else. Next we had to ensure that no one would be hurt if the fire reached the gas station or propane tanks so we just had them leave the area. Then we got to work stopping the fire.

Does that priority-based action make sense? I protected life, then attempted to stabilize the incident by not letting the fire turn into a major explosion.

Let me do a little hypothetical to make my next point, please indulge me. I have a fence between my engine and the fire. To effectively suppress the fire mentioned above I have to get to the other side of the fire…with the fence preventing free movement. There are a few options –

  1. I could drive the engine across the field and right through the fence. Although doing so would destroy the section of the fence and potentially do an unknown amount of damage to the fire engine. We might even get stuck.
  2. I could drive down the dirt road to the gate about 100 yards away and cut the lock. The gate access would take me about 3 additional minutes during which the fire would spread.

Which is the better decision? I hope you picked #2.

OK, we just pulled up to the fence, it’s locked. We could –

  1. Drive through the gate without opening it, the fire engine could easily do that.
  2. Hook a chain to the gate and the front tow hooks on the engine, then back up the fire engine pulling the gate off.
  3. The nozzleman can get off the engine, retrieve the large bolt cutters, cut the lock, open the gate while we drive through. It will take more time than Option #1, about the same amount of time as Option #2.

Which is the better decision? I hope you picked #3.

Assuming we are cutting the lock on the gate…where do you cut it? Don’t worry, that is a trick question. You actually don’t cut the lock, you cut the link of chain right next to the lock. What you have left over is a lock that still works and a chain that is probably still long enough to secure the gate.

So far, we protected the safety of the civilians in the gas station, and didn’t destroy the fence, the gate, or the lock; and we haven’t damaged the fire engine. Now we can go about the business of preventing the fire from creating an explosion at the propane tanks and gas station.

Next step in our scenario…We’ve been fighting the fire for 5 minutes and have made no headway, the fire is growing and we haven’t had much success in stopping the movement of the fire towards the propane tanks. We are almost out of water, maybe another minute or two of waster is all we have left. The next fire engine is 5 minutes away. What do we do?

But, before you answer that, let’s review LIPS one more time –Learn more about LIPS

  • Life Safety
  • Incident Stabilization
  • Property Conservation
  • Societal Restoration

OK, now go ahead, what do we do?

There could be a number of right answers, but I hope you were thinking that we needed to load up the crew and drive to a safety zone. Since we weren’t being effective in stopping the fire and we were running out of water, it was too much of a risk to the crew and potential damage to the fire engine as well. We had little choice but to leave.

I hope these examples have helped show you how to use LIPS to set priorities and then make decisions based on those priorities. But how does that tie SMART and LIPS together?

Using the same wildfire approaching the propane tanks and gas station scenario, knowing that he only has about 20 minutes before the fire reaches the gas station and propane tanks, the leader does this…

Using SMART he made the decision on what actions to take:

  1. LIFE SAFETY – Evacuate all civilians in the vicinity of immediate danger before the fire can cause an explosion.
    • SEvacuate all civilians in the vicinity of immediate danger within 10 minutes.
    • MEvacuate all civilians in the vicinity of immediate within 10 minutes.
    • AEvacuate all civilians in the vicinity of immediate danger within 10 minutes.
    • REvacuate all civilians in the vicinity of immediate danger within 10 minutes. (The fire won’t reach the area for 20 minutes. All things being equal, this is “realistic” and evacuation is “relevant.”)
    • TEvacuate all civilians in the vicinity of immediate danger within 10 minutes.
  2. STABILIZE THE INCIDENT – Stop the fire from reaching the propane tanks and gas station.
    • SSuppress the fire on the other side of the fence, closest to the fire, before it can reach the propane tanks.
    • MSuppress the fire on the other side of the fence, closest to the fire, before it can reach the propane tanks.
    • ASuppress the fire on the other side of the fence, closest to the fire, before it can reach the propane tanks.
    • RSuppress the fire on the other side of the fence, closest to the fire, before it can reach the propane tanks. (This would be based on the Captain evaluating the probability of success based on his resources.)
    • TSuppress the fire on the other side of the fence, closest to the fire, before it can reach the propane tanks.
  3. PROPERTY CONSERVATION –Don’t damage the fence, the gate, the lock, or the fire truck while approaching the fire..
    • SWhile approaching the fire on the other side of the fence don’t cause damage to the fence, the gate, the lock, or the fire truck.
    • MWhile approaching the fire on the other side of the fence don’t cause damage to the fence, the gate, the lock, or the fire truck.
    • AWhile approaching the fire on the other side of the fence don’t cause damage to the fence, the gate, the lock, or the fire truck.
    • RWhile approaching the fire on the other side of the fence don’t cause damage to the fence, the gate, the lock, or the fire truck. (It is realistic to not cause damage by following fire department policy.)
    • T – While approaching the fire on the other side of the fence don’t cause damage to the fence, the gate, the lock, or the fire truck.

You can see that following the LIPS priority guidance and implementing SMART objectives you can accomplish quite a bit, even in a high-risk, high-stress environment.

Let’s see you put LIPS into action. Answer the following questions –

  • Would you fight fire first, prior to evacuating the civilians in the immediate area? Why?
  • Would you have your firefighters climb over the chain link fence and hand them the hose to fight the fire instead of going through the gate? Why?
  • Would you leave the area and not worry about the fire because it was close to the propane tanks and the gas station? Why?
  • Would you take the time to write down each objective using the SMART template? Why?

Since this is a time-sensitive operation the Captain wouldn’t lead the crew through writing down, discussing/reviewing, and then implementing the plan according to SMART. However, the Captain and his crew would surely be making decisions on what will be done using the SMART principles of objective setting. But they would be doing rather informally and quickly. When time is less critical you can use the full formal SMART process and actually write everything down, documenting each step and task.

As leaders develop and grow into the LIPS and SMART systems to priority setting, decision making and objective setting become second nature and virtually automatic. But, it takes learning, training, and practice to acquire those skills to be able to do that. You can learn it now, or you can learn in when the high-stress, high-risk emergency or disaster hits. Your choice.

I hope I have helped you learn a proven way to set priorities and make decisions on what actions to take. When you experience an emergency, disaster, or grid-down the ability to set priorities and make decisions quickly in high-stress and high-risk environments will be common place. I hope and pray you are a little more ready now.




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No reproduction or other use of this content 
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Objectives and Priorities (Part #1)

how to set Priorities ObjectivesHave you ever wondered, “What do I do next?” Or, “Where do I start?

Have you ever asked either question about any project that loomed in front of you?

Well, this article is all about answering those questions with a rock-solid, bullet-proof system. And there is only one logical place to start – Leader’s Intent.

An easy way to understand what Leander’s Intent means is to ask this question, “What does success look like?” Yup, that easy. When we are done, and we are successful…what does that success look like?

Now, just for the record…this is no light reading! This is not a short article to dump some little tip out there. It is not some tidbit of info on radios or how to harvest onion seeds. This article is a heavy-duty, in-depth article that will take a lot of reading and thinking. Some of you may not be in the mood for it, I understand that. But the information contained in this article is rock solid information on how to get things done. And in emergencies, disasters, and especially during a grid-down…you better know how to operate effectively as a group to get things done. Failure will not be an option!

Here you go…

Under most circumstances a single leader will define that “intent” for the group. They will outline what the Leadership during emergencies, disasters and grid-down teotwawkisuccessful outcome will be, or what it will look like. Yes, a good leader will also take input from all team members and allow everyone the opportunity to participate in defining that outcome. If they are a good leader they won’t, or shouldn’t, get into the details, they should only set the “goal” or the “vision.” The details are left to the individual experts that will be assigned tasks (objectives) within the project.

Whomever the leader is must be very clear and specific about what the “success” actually looks like. This is sometimes referred to as “end-state.” While latitude in accomplishing objectives is encouraged for team members, the leader must make their intent, or end-state, very plain so everyone fully understands it. This will also allow subject matter experts (SME) a significant opportunity to provide appropriate and valuable input during the planning process…and virtually a free hand during the implementation stage.

Once the team understands the end-state, they can work on individual objectives for the team. Sometimes this might be limited to a core of individuals who will be ultimately carrying out the action or mission. Other members of the team may only be responsible for providing support, so their participation in the primary planning would be limited. Their input/participation would come later in a meeting where it was determined if the whole team could “support the plan.”

Here is an example of Leader’s Intent –

“We will plant a garden large enough to provide at least 50% of all our vegetable needs the first year and 75% of all our vegetable needs the second year.”

From that statement there should be no confusion concerning the “end-state” or what “success looks like.” If there is confusion there are two options; 1) the leader continues to share their vision and information until all team members come to a full understanding, 2) Leader’s Intent is modified to meet the capabilities of the team.

Technically there could be a third option as well. If there is a single team member that is not comprehending the end-state, that person could be replaced with someone that does. I would caution against that option. Let me explain why.

The members of the team are there for a reason, hopefully due to their expertise in one or more areas of Team Membersgardening. If that knowledge is sufficient in breadth and depth, then they could/should be considered subject matter experts (SME). While the end-state is being discussed an SME raised concerns or confusion, the leader would be well-served to reevaluate their end-state vision. The leader may need to look at the realistic expectation of the end-state. If an end-state is unrealistic, an SME will usually raise that question. A leader or team ignores those SME concerns at their own peril.

Realistic End-State –

How do you determine if an end-state is realistic? To answer that question you fallback to a time tested set of parameters, “who, what, where, when.” Go back to the leader’s intent statement, or end-state. With that statement in mind, formulate the question –

“With the people we have and with what resources we have, can we accomplish that goal within the time and location we have been given?”

If the answer is anything but a resounding “Yes!” you might want to seriously review the leader’s intent as being realistic…or not. That is not to say that the team may not have to stretch their capabilities, or expand their own personal vision a little, but the question still stands…Is the end-state realistic?

If it is deemed not realistic then the immediate goal now becomes to find out why not. It may be a simple matter of the team lacking confidence in itself. Or, it may be there are just not enough resources to accomplish the task. And therein lies one of the keys to this issue, lack of resources. Customarily, the only reason a team cannot accomplish the desired end-state is due to a lack of resources. The “lack of” may be perceived or real. By that I mean that there is actually a lack of available resources to accomplish the end-state, or the team simply thinks that there is a lack of resources. That is a leader’s conundrum that the leader is responsible for deciding and should have both the ability and wherewithal to do so.

If a team member, preferably an SME, raises the Who-What-When-Where-How-and-Why-001question of the end-state being unrealistic, go down the list of questions: – Is the end-state realistic with:

  • who, the people we have to work with?
  • what, the resources that we can use?
  • where, in the location(s) in which we will work on the mission?
  • when, in the time-frame we’ve been given?
  • how, did we choose the right way to do this task?

It is important to do this formally and systematically to specifically identify where the team is lacking. Without addressing each of the questions above, the team will simply flounder in project failure.

Project – “Move 125 trees from the logging area to the cabin area to complete the structures before the snow falls this weekend.”


  • Who – We have 10 people, adults of varying age.
  • What – We 125 trees that average 80′ in length and we have 1 truck and 1 SUV (both are 2-wheel drive).
  • Where – We must haul them over muddy roads that have been exposed to rain for two weeks..
  • When – We have to have the trees moved in 5 days.
  • How – We must drag the trees with truck & SUV.

Problem raised:MUddyRoad-001

  • The roads are already muddy and the vehicles are only 2-wheel drive. The trucks will probably get stuck trying to drag the trees up the mountain from the logging site to the cabin site.

To problem solve this the team must start brainstorming the four “W” areas mentioned. And, you go about it in the exact same order as outlined above.

  1. With two vehicles that wouldn’t get stuck, could we do it with enough people?
  2. If we had more vehicles could we get this done?
  3. If we had vehicles that could operate off-road could we get this done?
  4. If we had more time could we get this done?

Since it is not just mission accomplishment we are looking for, we are also looking for safety, effectiveness, and efficiency.

Example #1: Yes, we could get this done if we just used people to carry the logs and not use vehicles. And we would have to find 150 more people. Obviously not efficient and probably not very effective. So, the number of people becomes the problem. The initial “yes” becomes a “no” because we can’t find the people and even if we could, it wouldn’t be efficient.

Example #2: No, simply having more vehicles won’t help us accomplish this mission unless they are 4-wheel drive and large enough. Once again, we can spot that the option of more vehicles won’t help unless they are a specific type. The option of simply more vehicles lends itself to being ineffective.

Example #3: Yes, if we could accomplish the if one of two conditions could change; 1) we can accomplish the mission in another location where 2-wheel drive vehicles can operate successfully, 2) we could use 4-wheel drive vehicles that are large enough. And for this conversation let’s say that moving the location isn’t feasible.

Example #4: No, we don’t have more time to accomplish the mission, it must be accomplished within the time-frame set down because the snow will expose the families to the incoming deadly weather.

You have probably already mentally resolved the problem in your head but let me ask the obvious…What-001

“What is the solution?”

Since you can’t change the location of the mission you must acquire 4-wheel drive vehicles that are large enough for the task. And since you can’t change the time-frame, you have to ensure that you acquire enough vehicles to get the job done. But no more than 10 vehicles, because you only have 10 people; assuming each person could drive a vehicle.

Let’s return to the end-state’s “realistic” question, the answer would be “no” unless the team could acquire the 4-wheel drive vehicles first. Without those 4-wheel drive vehicles, the end-state is completely unrealistic. That being the case a whole new end-state, or mission, must be decided on.

Setting Objectives –

Let’s continue the discussion above and assume that the end-state must be met, that the time-frame is fixed, and you only have the people already on-hand to work with. What is your first objective?

It should be to acquire 4-wheel drive vehicles. If you can accomplish that acquisition then the rest of the mission is within the team’s realm of capabilities. But how do you go about setting that objective? The same way you go about setting any objective – S.M.A.R.T.

The SMART system of defining objectives has been around a long time. The general SMART system is attributed to Peter Drucker, and first appears in print is Management Review by George T. Doran as he was discussing “management by objectives.” The SMART system has been contorted over the years to meet personal opinion and specific situations, I will do the same here.

As I will use the term, SMART means –

  • SpecificSMART objectives
  • Measurable
  • Action
  • Realistic/Relevant
  • Time-frame

Let me break down each one in detail:

Specific – The end result must be very specific in nature. There can be no room for error in what must be accomplished. The clarity must be understood and agreed to by all parties; the person making the assignments and the people that will carry out those assignments.

Measurable – You must be able to clearly determine that the result has been achieved, or not. It must be easily and readily apparent when the result has been accomplished. And the measurement system must be known by those involved. An objective without a way to measure the success can potentially result in a “completed” assignment that is not successful.

Action – An action must be present. The person(s) given the assignment must be responsible for carrying out some kind of act in the accomplishment of the objective. If the objective doesn’t contain an action, then the people assigned that objective have little to no control over its success or failure.

Realistic/Relevant – The objective being assigned must be realistic within the scope of training, experience, and skills, of the assigned resources. Consideration must be given to the objective vs. the person(s) assigned the objective and their potential for success in that assignment. The action that the people will carry out must be 100% relevant to the accomplishment of the mission.

Time-frame – The action for successful accomplishment of the objective must have enough time in which to complete it. The time allotted for the successful accomplishment of the objective must be sufficient in length, clearly stated, and realistic.

Here would be an example of a poor objective:

“We will plant a garden because we need the fresh food. Let’s go get that done.”

Here would be an example of a properly formed objective preceded by clear leader’s intent:

“We are short on fresh food, a garden can solve that problem. We will plant a garden that is two acres in size, consisting of a variety of foods to meet our dietary needs. We must have the garden soil ready for planting in 10 days, seeds planted within 5 days after that. Individual families will be assigned rows to keep them free of weeds. Those same families will keep plants watered on a daily basis or as needed.”

The “intent” is clear – Planting a garden will provide fresh vegetables.Garden for teotwawki

The objective(s) meet the SMART criteria using clear tasks, time-frames, and relating each action to be taken to the overall intent of the project.

Of course, once this have been laid out specific tasks would be assigned to meet each major objective of; soil readiness, seeds planted, watering, and weeding.

The process for setting objectives must be clear and used by all team members. The leader is responsible for laying out clear “intent” and overall “objective(s).” Subordinates are responsible for developing the tasks (also objectives) to meet that intent based on priorities.

And tomorrow I will finish up this article by going over “setting priorities” and how that fits with SMART objective setting.

Yeah, originally I was going to have this just be a single article…but it just grew too large for a single post. I hope you are getting something out of this…it has taken me 30+ years of incident management experience and training to learn all of this.


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No reproduction or other use of this content 
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