Book Review – The Heat of the Moment by Sabrina Cohen-Hatton

I read and enjoyed Sabrina Cohen-Hatton’s “The Heat of the Moment: A Firefighter’s Stories of Life and Death Decisions” last year but neglected to blog about it at the time.  It was only when listening recently to media coverage of the London Fire Brigade’s (LFB) response to the Grenfell Tower fire that I was reminded of this oversight.

The book is a very interesting read on two levels.  I approached it from a technical perspective – wanting to see if any lessons from the emergency services could be usefully applied in training business leaders to tackle corporate crises – but my lasting impression was of a truly inspiring story of the author’s triumph over adversity.  I finished the book feeling like a serious under-achiever!  That said, I will focus here on the technical content.

The central theme of the book, the tension between intuitive and analytical decision making in a crisis situation, is very well explained; and illustrated with many memorable case studies.  The key output from the author’s study of decision-making by firefighters is a simple practical tool, consisting of three confirmatory questions to ask in the brief moment between making a decision and actioning it:

  • Goal – what do I want this decision to achieve?
  • Expectations – what do I expect to happen as a result?
  • Risks versus benefits – how do the benefits outweigh the risks?

Whilst the author takes the perspective of an individual Fire Commander, one could easily substitute “we” for “I” and apply the same questions in a corporate Crisis Management Team.

Despite my overall positive impression of the book, I have a couple of issues.  My first observation relates to the author’s repeated assertions that nobody had really investigated decision-making by firefighters before her.  This immediately struck me as odd as I knew that both Gary Klein in the US and (my former colleague) Katherine Devitt in the UK have published on this very topic; Rhona Flin’s work on crisis decision-making in other high-risk industries is also very relevant.  It in no way diminishes the author’s contribution to our understanding to acknowledge the important work that has gone before, so the omission is curious.

My other note of caution is around the author’s focus on the most challenging decisions, or “wicked problems”: this could create the impression that tragedies generally arise from a failure by an individual or team to deal with such extreme mental challenges.  However, the reality is that the shortcomings in LFB’s response, highlighted in Phase One of the Grenfell Inquiry, concerned much more straightforward decisions.  This is even more so in the world of corporate crisis management in which I operate: root cause analysis of problems identified in real incidents almost inevitably throws the spotlight on failures in fairly simple decisions, such as “Should we invoke the Crisis Management Team at this point?”  Despite this, many corporate teams will only engage with an exercise scenario if it is sufficiently extreme, challenging, sexy (and unrealistic).  I would always encourage people to thoroughly master the simple stuff before trying to tackle “wicked problems”.

In conclusion then, I would highly recommend this book, if only for the superb case-study (in Chapter 10) of a senior commander trying to re-write history during a post-incident debrief in order to justify the decisions he made on the day: a powerful illustration of why log-keeping is so important during an incident.  Enjoy!

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