Decision making in extreme environments

Emergencies are unforeseen. They can happen anywhere and at any time. This is why one should equip themselves with the necessary skills to ensure a positive outcome in the onset of an emergency. During emergencies, effective emergency decision making plays a critical role for emergency workers and the general public in ensuring management of the emergency or crisis.Although it might be hard for one to gain control of such incidents, decision making is the ideal problem-solving solution. As you may know, emergencies are complex and at times may lead to dire consequences. The success of solving an emergency highly depends on the decision making process.

To clarify the relationship between decision making and emergencies, let us define what the two entail. An emergency is a problem, which is unexpected, might be dangerous and requires immediate action.

On the other hand, decision making is a mechanism designed to solve the emergency or problem by analyzing and implementing decisions in every step of the problem-solving process.

From the above, we can conclude that effective decision making plays an integral part in solving problems during emergencies.

Ultimately keeping occupants safe.


The steps towards effective decision making during emergencies

Outline of the steps:

Step 1: Situational Awareness – Identify The Problem
Step 2: Gather Information
Step 3: Embrace Excellent General Leadership Traits  
Step 4: Formulate Possible Alternatives
Step 5: Select The Best Alternative
Step 6: Execute The Decision and Evaluate Results

Now that you are familiar with what decision making and emergencies are, below are the critical steps in the emergency decision making process.


Step 1: Situational Awareness – Identify The Problem

Recognizing the problem and any options around you is the first step to decision making during emergencies. Situational awareness can be defined as knowing what is going on and around us. It entails a team’s or person’s ability to recognize that something is about to happen, understand what the effects of that particular emergency, and finally familiarize yourself with the future outcomes.

Situational awareness entails the following;

  • Perception – It is the recognition aspect that something has happened. This comprises of the monitoring and evaluation of the emergency by workers or management.
  • Comprehension – Understanding of the happening or occurrence. You should ask yourself what the emergency means by use of techniques such as analysis, interpretation, and analysis.
  • Projection – It is the ability to project the evolving situation into the future. In this scenario, the public or emergency workers should project the future state of the emergency.

Situational awareness plays an integral role in the decision making process, and this later leads to action that remedies the situation. The first part of situational awareness can be achieved through perception. Once you understand what the problem is, you can comprehend the situation. And, you can then conclude by projecting and knowing how the situation will evolve.

Once you have made a mental model of the emergency, a leader can share this information easily with colleagues. Don’t forget that situational awareness also has its limitations which include limited human memory as well as the complexity of the emergency. Note that, we cannot always remain aware of everything going on around us. This is why we must conduct investigations and analyze the situation.

Step 2 – Gather Information

Before you make a decision, you must gather all the essential details. It is impossible to decide without gathering relevant data. During emergencies, you must collect data as fast as possible. Any delays might cause more problems. Here are the strategies you can use in gathering information during effective decision making.

Come Up with A List of Questions – Many are the times’ managers ask questions blindly. This isn’t an effective emergency decision making strategy. You need to come up with a list of relevant questions that aim to find out more on how to resolve the emergency. The questions shouldn’t only be appropriate but should be as straightforward as possible. Bear in mind this is an emergency, and you shouldn’t want a situation where you have to filter through irrelevant answers.

Ask The Right Audience – Now that you know what the problem is, the first step in gathering information entails asking the right audience. In this case, your audience will be the affected personnel. For instance, let us take an example of a cyber-security emergency. Before you make any decision, you need to ask the ‘IT Guys’ on how the breach came to be and what might have caused it.

Probe Deeper – Don’t just take their word for it. If you are part of the emergency team, you need to probe deeper. Ask different people from different sections. Using the example above, ask employees from other departments until you fully get the information that you need. In such a scenario, curiosity is a must-have trait. While probing, ensure that you don’t accuse anyone of anything as this may worsen the situation.

Solving an emergency requires diligence and effective communication. The above strategies will ensure that you gather the required information which will help you significantly in emergency decision making.


Step 3 – Embrace Excellent General Leadership Traits  

Successfully handling an emergency is perhaps one of the biggest challenges of being a leader. There is a lot of pressure, all eyes are on you, and there is no room for mistakes. Nonetheless, because you are a leader, you need to do your job and ensure that the emergency is handled correctly. This is an opportunity for you to embrace excellent general leadership traits.

They include:

  • Don’t Panic – Irrespective of the nature of the emergency, never lose your cool. Always remain calm, no matter how difficult the situation is. Don’t forget that everyone is looking up to you. If you panic, what do you expect the general public to do? There are a lot of benefits to being calm. With a clear mind, you can achieve lots of things. Your brain will have more focus and clarity, helping you make an effective emergency decision.
  • Be Time Conscious – In emergencies, you need to be cautious about time. There are some scenarios where time management may mean the difference between life and death. Assess the situation as quickly as you can though you shouldn’t make a rash decision. It is of great importance if you think about the effects of a decision before making it.
  • Be Prepared Always – Since emergencies can occur at any time. Every good leader needs to be prepared at all times. This includes having a list of emergency numbers of the police, fire department amongst others. Ensuring the HR department has medical records of all employees and staff. A leader should also oversee that first aid kits are installed in every office or department.

One’s leadership skills are usually tested during emergencies. Things can get out of control if the leader panics; this is why they should maintain calmness and work on ways to remedy the situation.

Step 4 – Formulate Possible Alternatives

Having analyzed the emergency and gathered all the details, the next step is to formulate possible alternatives. A decision can’t be termed as effective if other options weren’t considered. You need to come up with different options and the pick the best one out of them all. You can formulate possible alternatives by doing the following;

  • Brainstorm – It entails coming up with ideas on how to solve the emergency. Ensure that you have a pen and paper near you so that you don’t forget about any idea that might have crossed your mind. Never make a decision when brainstorming. The aim of this strategy is only to list possible ideas.
  • Ask for Help – Not unless you have been tasked to solely handle the emergency, which is a very rare case, asking for help is always a great idea. If you are the manager of a firm, feel free to call department heads for a meeting. Or, you can even ask employees to help you formulate possible alternatives. You will be surprised at how many solutions you can get from a group meeting.
  • Try to Rephrase The Problem – Most of the times, if you play the same scenario in your head. You might end up coming up with only one perspective. But, if you develop different angles, you will arrive at several alternatives.
  • Reverse The Problem – In the most difficult to solve emergencies, you might want to reverse the problem. Try to imagine that you want to cause that problem instead of solving it. During this process, you will surely come across possible alternatives.

Step 5 – Select The Best Alternative

If you have reached this step, then you need to clap for yourself because you have come closer to your emergency decision making process. By, now, you have a set of possible alternatives that can help you resolve the situation. There are three key factors that you can consider when selecting the best option. They are;

  • Experience – As they say, experience is always the best teacher. Though you may not know it if you are an experienced leader, the things that you might have accomplished and the mistakes you have done give you a foolproof guide to the future. The more emergencies you deal with, the easier it will be for you when it comes down to emergency decision making. During the course of your career, you will develop better judgment, and you will be able to refer to previous instances that forced you to make certain decisions.
  • Experimentation – This is the most commonly used approach in emergency decision making. Most leaders would prefer to experiment with one alternative and see if it will or won’t work. If it works, then it’s all good, but if it doesn’t, then they may have to pick another suggested alternative. The experimental method, unfortunately, is quite costly. Since it may either be unsuccessful or it may require the usage of more company resources. Also, with experimentation, the general public will always remain in doubt. This method of selecting the best alternative should be used when you ran out of options.
  • Research and Analysis – The reason why research is last on the methods of selecting the best alternative is because it takes time. It is the best method for solving problems but not that suitable for handling emergencies. Research and analysis allow you to examine the issue and analyze which solution is best. It’s not similar to experimentation. With research and analysis, you can be assured of effective emergency decision making.

The method you will use to derive to the best alternative is entirely up to you. It all depends on the nature of the emergency and its effects. If experienced professionals are handling the crisis, then they can arrive at a suitable conclusion. In instances where emergencies occur on start-ups or growing firms, research, and analysis, as well as experimentation, can help solve the problem.


Step 6 – Execute The Decision and Evaluate Results

Once you have made a decision, all you need to do is to execute it. Stop making or accepting any excuses. If you have followed all the above steps, then you can be confident about the emergency decision making execution. You need to set strict deadlines and make the goals of the decision clear. Outline to your team how you will want the emergency to be managed. Don’t make it complicated for other employees. Be part of the process and if you think that it is not going well, share this with your supervisors.

After the execution of the decision, what follows is a thorough evaluation. You should analyze if the decision is valid or not. The goal here is not to monitor the success of a decision but also look for faults. Your primary goal should be to prevent the emergency from ever happening again. And you can only achieve this by evaluating the results. You can also use this opportunity to learn something new. It is an opportunity for the organization to reflect on a situation and know how to handle it in the future.


Are you an emergency response professional, or do you take a leadership role in your organization? Then the above are ways on how you can make effective decision making during emergencies. Follow the step by step guide, and you will arrive at a valid problem-solving strategy. Don’t forget that, as a leader or emergency response professional, the decision you make can affect the lives and well-being of employees and the general public. You, therefore, need to make an effective decision as quickly as possible. Make a habit of always examining potential problems before emergencies occur.


Name: STG Fire Safety Training

Address: Melbourne VIC 3000, Australia

Phone:  (03) 9005 1767


By Ken Walker

Hi, I'm Ken. I am the owner and senior director of Syncretic training Group Pty Ltd. If you have any questions about the website content or require guidance please let us know we are always happy to help.

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