Examining firefighter decision making process and choice in virtual reality

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Bayouth, Shawn
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Nir Keren
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Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering

Firefighting is an inherently dangerous occupation, with over 100 fatalities and 85,000 injuries in the United States annually (National Fallen Firefighter Foundation, 2005). Though poor decision making may contribute to this high prevalence, surprisingly few studies exist of how emergency responders make decisions. The objective of this study was to utilize the virtual reality environment to identify relationships among firefighter experience, decision-making processes, and acute stress. Broadly, the research questions asked what were the effects of tradeoff values, time pressure, and experience on decision-making characteristics in firefighters; as well as, what were the associations of physiological responses to stress with firefighter decision making? The rationale for this research was that, once decision-making processes by firefighters are better understood, and the relationships among decision-making quality, stress, and firefighting experience are identified, decision-making quality may be enhanced. Interventions could lead to the acceleration of the development of expertise in novices.

Utilizing the highest-resolution computerized virtual reality system in the world on the campus of Iowa State University, participants were exposed to realistic scenarios varying in the stressors of time pressure and tradeoff values. Decision-making processes and final decision choice were assessed in real-time, while heart rate and blood pressure were used to characterize participants' stress state. A total of 62 career firefighters from fire departments throughout central Iowa participated in this study.

Several important findings in this study included the identification of two previously unclassified decision strategies: diminished expectations (DE) and poliheuristic to diminished expectations (POLI2DE). Other findings showed that decision tasks under high tradeoff resulted in significantly less time, required the processing of less information, and were significantly more alternative-based in the search review process. Novices took less time to reach a decision and utilized dimension-based information search patterns more frequently. When time pressure was high, the time to decision decreased significantly and may have been perceived less as a challenge-related task, than under low time pressure. Between 48 - 55% of participants utilized recognition primed decision-making strategy while under time pressure. Lastly, novices seemed to best recognize the scenario, in that none misidentified the scenario under both low and high time pressure.

Sat Jan 01 00:00:00 UTC 2011