Base of Experience and Emergency Preparedness

How campus employees will perform under extreme stress and time pressure in various physical settings and situations will depend on a variety of factors, including the depth and breadth of simulations requiring them to make decisions on an individual basis.

In his extensive research of fire commanders, emergency medical personnel, military personnel, and others who must routinely make life or death decisions, Gary Klein, a research psychologist famous for pioneering in the field of naturalistic decision making, documented that people need a solid and broad base of experience to prepare them to make correct decisions on a regular basis.

The naturalistic decision making (NDM) framework has emerged as a means of studying how people actually make decisions and perform cognitively complex functions in demanding situations. These include situations marked by time pressure, uncertainty, vague goals, high stakes, team and organizational constraints, changing conditions, and varying amounts of experience. The NDM framework focuses on cognitive functions — such as decision making, situational awareness, and planning — that emerge in natural settings and take forms that are not easily replicated in the laboratory. For example, it is difficult to replicate high stakes, or provide for problem detection, or to achieve extremely high levels of expertise, or to realistically incorporate team and organizational constraints.

Klein’s research implies that the broader the base of experience people have, the higher the chance of making appropriate decisions under stress they can have. His research, as well as the work of others in the field, demonstrates that the overemphasis on one category of event approach utilized by many organizations in the development of their emergency preparedness measures is fatally flawed because it does not match the way human beings make decisions under crisis situations.

Don’t Overemphasize One Approach
There is often a dangerous overemphasis on what the response should be if there is an active shooter situation on a campus. Emergency preparedness plan content and training sessions, as well as drills and exercises, often focus more on this one type of event than other equally dangerous types of campus crisis situations that occur with at least as much, if not greater, frequency, such as tornadoes and fires. An overemphasis on one type of event can deny campus employees the opportunity to improve their ability to think and act in different situations when lives are at stake. The frequently out-of-balance emphasis on active shooter situations is an example of just how easy it can be to work tirelessly on emergency plans while inadvertently creating deadly gaps in emergency preparedness for the organization. There have been several instances of emergency plan failure in crisis situations involving campus shootings, even when they have been the type of event mostly emphasized in preparedness measures.

Employ the All-Hazards Approach

To prepare staff and students to be more likely to make correct life and death decisions, a greater emphasis on the all-hazards approach is needed. Focusing more than 10 to 15 percent of our energies on one type of scenario, such as acts of violence, will not help employees fully develop their base of experience for crisis situations as much as a more balanced approach does. Understanding how important a wide base of experience in life and death decision-making is can significantly influence how campus employees are trained and empowered. This aspect of emergency preparedness should also significantly impact the types and frequency of drills and exercises. Focusing too much on a potential gunman on campus can result in needless losses, even if that is the type of event we someday encounter.

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