Fire alarm or false alarm?! Situation awareness and decision-making ‘bias’ of firefighters in training exercises

Di Catherwood, Graham Edgar, Geoff Sallis, A R Medley, David Brookes

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Citations (SciVal)


Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to assess whether firefighters display different decision-making biases: either a liberal bias to accepting information as true or a conservative bias to rejecting information, with the former carrying risk of “false alarm” errors and the latter of “misses”.

Design/methodology/approach – Situation awareness (SA) and decision-making biases were examined in Fire and Rescue (FRS) “table-top” and Breathing Apparatus (BA) training exercises. The former involved showing 50 operational FRS personnel a powerpoint presentation representing the drive-to, views and information related to the incident. The BA study involved 16 operational FRS personnel entering a smoke-filled training building in a search-and-rescue exercise. True/False answers to statements about the incidents were analysed by a signal-detection-type tool (QASA) to give measures of SA and bias.

Findings – In both studies, there were two groups showing different bias patterns (either conservative with risk of “miss” errors, or liberal with risk of “false alarms”) (p≤0.001), but not different SA (p>0.05).

Research limitations/implications – Future work will involve more realistic training exercises and explore the consistency of individual bias tendencies over different contexts.

Practical implications – Risk in fireground decision making may be minimised by increasing awareness of individual tendencies to either conservative or liberal bias patterns and the associated risk of respectively making “miss” or “false alarm” errors.

Social implications – The results may help to minimise fireground risk.

Originality/value – This is the first evidence to show firefighter decision bias in two different exercises.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)135-158
Number of pages24
JournalInternational Journal of Emergency Services
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 2012


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