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Meet our innovators – Sabrina Cohen-Hatton

10 October 2018

I’ve always been interested in what we can do to make firefighters safer.

My husband is also in the fire brigade. There was an incident one day where someone on his fire engine had been badly burned. Going to that fire was probably the longest four minutes and thirty-four seconds of my life.

It wasn’t my husband that was injured but someone else had some really bad news and that, from a personal level, was a driving force behind me being interested in how we make decisions on the fire ground. In particular, how we make risk critical decisions.

The project started as a collaboration with the Chief Fire Officers Association (National Fire Chiefs Council), arising as a result of my dual role as Honorary Research Fellow at Cardiff University and co-author of the National Operational Guidance for incident command.

As an operational officer undertaking this research, the ultimate motivation has always been firefighter safety and developing a greater understanding of psychological processes that might further mitigate risk when we deal with incidents.

The project investigated whether the balance between different types of decision making by experienced Incident Commanders could be modified through training in the use of a rapid mental checklist – ‘Decision Controls’

Fire officers were asked to go through various scenarios and incidents presented in virtual reality. They were still reacting quickly but they were using the controls to evaluate the alternative options available to them.

We wanted to introduce a new method that would allow us to gather empirical evidence, so we decided to fix GoPro cameras to the Incident Commander’s helmet; giving researchers a unique perspective on how decisions were made in emergencies.

Instead of mimicking something that happens in the ‘real-world’, we were going out there with the people on the ground, for whom it really mattered.

There had been very little direct study of how fire officers perform at incidents, so no one really knew how their problem-solving and decision-making developed over an incident. This method gave officers the opportunity to see again what they saw during the incident and gave us a rich tapestry of data that we were able to use going forward.

The study showed decision-making was often intuitive and reflexive, with officers drawing on past experiences of similar incidents.

Having established decisions were being made intuitively, additional work created new training methods, improved processes and a national policy.

This was a real step forward for us as the fire sector to gather some real empirical research and use it as a fundamental basis for our policies. The new approach helps officers to improve their situational awareness when making decisions and also improves officers’ operational goals.

The research has been recognised internationally and has provided an important driver in the development of policy, national operational guidance and training.

The research transformed the new national National Operational Guidance for Incident Command and it features in the doctrine of the Joint Emergency Services Interoperability Programme.

A number of fire and rescue services have adopted helmet-mounted cameras to support training and development. The pioneering methods were also used at the UK’s largest ever multi-agency exercise—Exercise Unified Response—which featured a full-scale model of a train derailment and tunnel collapse at Waterloo Station.

It’s about moving ahead of best practice and into the realms of research and innovation. Why wouldn’t you want to focus on finding answers to the questions that have the biggest impact?

Led by Dr Sabrina Cohen-Hatton, National Fire Chiefs Council, and Professor Rob Honey, School of Psychology, the study picked up the Innovation in Policy and People’s Choice Awards at the 2017 Cardiff University Innovation and Impact Awards.