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Expert knowledge elicitation: the cognitive strategies used by expert firefighters and the potential for training intuitive skills

PhD research by Justin Okoli

Abstract

Background/Purpose: Experienced fireground commanders are often required to make important decisions in time-pressured and dynamic environments that are characterized by a wide range of task constraints. The nature of these environments is such that firefighters are sometimes faced with novel situations that seek to challenge their expertise and therefore necessitate making knowledge-based as opposed to rule-based decisions. The purpose of this study is to elicit the tacitly held knowledge which largely underpinned expert competence when managing non-routine fire incidents.

Image of expert firefighters on site 

Design/Methodology/Approach:The study utilized a formal knowledge elicitation tool known as the critical decision method (CDM). The CDM method was preferred to other cognitive task analysis (CTA) methods as it is specifically designed to probe the cognitive strategies of domain experts with reference to a single incident that was both challenging and memorable. Thirty experienced firefighters and one staff development officer were interviewed in-depth across different fire stations in the UK and Nigeria (UK=15, Nigeria=16). The interview transcripts were analyzed using the emergent themes analysis (ETA) approach.

Findings:Findings from the study revealed 42 salient cues that were sought by experts at each decision point. A critical cue inventory (CCI) was developed and cues were categorized into five distinct types based on the type of information each cue generated to an incident commander. The study also developed a decision making model — information filtering and intuitive decision making model (IFID), which describes how the experienced firefighters were able to make difficult fireground decisions amidst multiple informational sources without having to deliberate on their courses of action. The study also compiled and indexed the elicited tacit knowledge into a competence assessment framework (CAF) with which the competence of future incident commanders could potentially be assessed.

Practical Implications: Through the knowledge elicitation process, training needs were identified, and the practical implications for transferring the elicited experts’ knowledge to novice firefighters were also discussed. The four component instructional design model aided the conceptualization of the CDM outputs for training purposes.

Originality/Value:Although it is widely believed that experts perform exceptionally well in their domains of practice, the difficulty still lies in finding how best to unmask expert (tacit) knowledge, particularly when it is intended for training purposes. Since tacit knowledge operates in the unconscious realm, articulating and describing it has been shown to be challenging even for experts themselves. This study is therefore timely since its outputs can facilitate the development of training curricula for novices, who then will not have to wait for real fires to occur before learning new skills. This statement holds true particularly in this era where the rate of real fires and therefore the opportunity to gain experience has been on a decline. The current study also presents and discusses insights based on the cultural differences that were observed between the UK and the Nigerian fire service.

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