FRIDAY FORUM: Questioning the Puzzle

We are all puzzle builders, but without the benefit of the front of the box.

Consider arriving to a spontaneous fire, rescue, or tactical event. Your brain seeks out information to size up the incident, trying to make sense and provide context to what you are encountering. You are taking the available information and giving it structure, building corner and edge pieces, and as information increases, the tricky pieces in the middle, forming a picture of what is actually happening. Or so you hope.

The trouble with puzzle building in uncertainty is that you don’t know the extent of your information or its validity. Couple this with the understanding that our brains are wired to make the simplest puzzle as fast as possible, prone to seek “cognitive ease” over “cognitive strain.”  We construct a mental model that says “I am facing this” when really we could be confronting something completely different. Even when all the evidence points to a particular model, we must remain vigilant for the unexpected.  We must constantly question the puzzle we are constructing.

I recently saw a clip of Philadelphia Fire Lt. Matt Letourneau’s helmet cam footage where he provides a dwelling fire size up in 2018 that would leave him dead 30 minutes later. “E45 L14 are on location to 2240 N Colorado street, 2 story middle of the row dwelling 15x45, I got fire showing first floor…”  I’m haunted by the information he didn’t know, and could never have known: 5 tons of hoarding debris on the second floor and every floor joist drilled out dead center for a century old gas pipe, a combination that cost him his life.

What we know and what we THINK we know are two different things. When we perform or hear a size up, it's important to never fully commit to the information given, but hold in tension the ever present uncertainty that rules our operational environment.  Always question the puzzle.


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