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There is no Substitute for Experience

The IAFF is often asked why we feel so strongly that fire departments should be staffed with full-time, professional fire fighters.   A book authored by a Nobel prize winning psychologist offers a valuable insight into this issue.

Professor Daniel Kahneman has spent his career researching how people make decisions, and in his international best seller, “Thinking, Fast and Slow” he explains that there are two entirely different thought processes going on inside us all the time.   A “fast” process, which is intuitive and effortless, and a “slow” process which is deliberative and strenuous.

While much of his work focuses on the fact that our “fast” thinking is often wrong (many things that intuitively seem right, are not), Kahneman notes that a key exception is a phenomenon he calls “expert intuition.”   This is a form of intuition that a person develops after many years of being exposed to certain environments.   An expert can sense things without thinking about them just because he or she has been in the situation many times.  In a recent discussion about his book, Kahneman offered two real-world examples of expert intuition.  The first is a chess master who can glance at a chess board and instantly and say “white mates in three moves.”  The chess master did not need to think through those three moves.  But based on many years of studying various arrangements of chess pieces, he was able to intuitively sense the outcome of the game.

The second example Kahneman used was a veteran fire fighter who saved his crew during what seemed to be a routine kitchen fire.   The crew had largely extinguished the blaze in the kitchen when the veteran captain yelled “everyone out—NOW.”   The crew quickly withdrew and moments later the floor collapsed, revealing that the basement was fully engaged.   If the crew had remained in the kitchen, they probably all would have perished due to the extent of the fire in the basement.

When the captain was asked why he gave the order to evacuate, he said “the fire seemed quiet and my ears were hot.”   When he was asked why he interpreted these sensations as signs that the fire was in the basement he said:  “I had no idea the fire was in the basement, I just knew that something was very wrong and very dangerous.”

Just like the chess master, the fire captain’s intuitive “gut” assessment was actually based on many years of experience and training.  Would a part-time or occasional fire fighter have made the same call?  Perhaps, but it seems unlikely.  

When split-second, life and death decisions have to be made, Professor Kahneman’s research shows there is no substitute for experience.

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