Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Psychological PPE: Human factors and high-stakes decisions

By James Rychard   

Features canadian firefighter firefighter First Responders mental health wellness

Photo: Martin-DM / Getty Images

Unraveling the threads of success and failure in the fire service

Decision-making in the fire service is critical for both emergency and non-emergency situations. We applaud leaders who make sound decisions because the outcomes are usually positive and successful. When decisions are not ideal, the outcomes can be negative with impactful consequences. Those consequences can have residual effects, affecting others directly and indirectly. Similar to an earthquake and its aftershocks – impacts can be felt greater distances away.

Human factors and human performance are new concepts for the fire service. Human factors are used, for example, when ascertaining root causes of airline accidents and investigations; it’s an area of cognitive and industrial psychology that focuses on the reduction of human error. It increases productivity and enhances safety and comfort; errors are human. Human performance is used, for example, for professional athletes when seeking peak performance in the athletic world; it is an area of performance psychology that examines psychological factors which influence optimal human performance. It addresses improvements in performance for individuals, teams and organizations. Merging the two concepts creates a hybrid for fire service decision-making: merging psychology with performance.

“Fallibility is a part of the human condition. Errors cannot be eradicated, but they can be anticipated and managed accordingly,” stated University of Manchester psychology professor James Reason. For someone who dedicated his life to studying factors that affect human performance and safety, he knows human error. Reason divides error into three types: slips, lapses and mistakes. Slips are something that interrupts the execution of an idea, and you do the wrong thing. Lapses are moments of forgetfulness; you intend to do something and then you forget to do it. Mistakes occur when you make the wrong decision due to a lack of relevant or correct information. According to Reason, “these can [even] happen to the most experienced and well-trained.” For the fire service, that can mean fire service leaders who, in general, are respected as such.

There is an abundance of historical incidents, accidents and even major disasters that when accessed through a human factors lens are the result of five to seven contributing factors. It’s these factors which have served as precursors, relative or unrelative to the situation. For example, fatigue, lack of sleep and sickness can all affect someone’s decision-making. By themselves they are not problematic; they are manageable. But when stacked one on top of the other, that’s when things get interesting. Further, aspects endemic of a leadership position such as character, lack of competence, unfamiliarity with a situation, time constraints like rushing and hurrying, or even distractions like a last-minute email from an executive have the predisposition for an additive if not a synergistic effect on a fire service leader’s decision-making ability.


Topics of human performance focus on habits that build and maintain an ideal performance state. They are the ones necessary to improve human performance, personally and professionally. Maximizing energy, better managing stressors (personal and professional), and productivity under stress help improve decision-making. Captured previously in my article “Mental Performance Coaching”1, happier, healthier and more focused leaders perform better at work and have happier and healthier lives. When viewed through an athletic lens, fire service leaders can be regarded as corporate athletes.

In the Harvard Business Review’s article “The Making of a Corporate Athlete”2, business executives used athletic concepts to be more effective in the boardroom. By focusing on habits to accentuate their best state: physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually, these executives gained feelings of creativity and control, minimizing both anxiety and frustration. Further, these habits which created an ideal performance state brought on “flow”3. Flow, which is common for elite athletes and top performers, can also help fire service leaders prevent boredom and burnout; two situations that affect leaders today with the latter regarded as a World Health Organization (WHO) problem because it can counterbalance stress.

“Fallibility is a part of the human condition. Errors cannot be eradicated, but they can be anticipated and managed accordingly.” – James Reason, University of Manchester

For the fire service, to understand the bigger picture of decision-making, it’s advantageous to look at the pieces of the puzzle individually; identifying events or factors that contributed to those well-intentioned poor decisions. Given that the fire service learns best from case studies and historical events such as the Worcester Cold Storage fire, or the Grenville High Rise Tower fire, studying other industry disasters can be valuable for improving the fire service – one industry being aviation. To illustrate the power of decisions we need to take a journey back to 1977. On March 27, off the island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands, two jumbo jet airliners collided on a runway that resulted in 583 deaths. But what led to this?

First, after being re-routed from their destination airport, two Boeing 747s, KLM Flight 4805 and Pan Am Flight 1736, along with other air traffic were diverted to a neighbouring airport. This airport, a small regional one, did not have the infrastructure to manage the surge of aircraft and passengers. Looking more like a parking lot rather than an airport, the situation appeared perplexing for the air traffic controllers.

Second, known for being the face of KLM, Captain Jacob Veldhuyzen Van Zanten was no ordinary pilot. He was senior and seldom flew; he spent his time in flight simulators teaching young pilots. With an over-confident and periodic short-tempered personality, he belonged to an era where pilots made all the decisions, and no one questioned their authority. All Dutch pilots, including Van Zanten, were operating under the restrictions of newly instituted government mandates which placed strict provisions on a pilot’s daily logged flying time. Van Zanten stated, if a pilot challenged those provisions “You get hung out to dry, you lose your licence, you lose your career, you lose everything.” Operating from an exhaustive state, Van Zanten knew he had a limited time window to get his passengers back to Holland. Compounding his exhaustion, Van Zanten felt the pressure of the government’s strict policies, which busied his mind further.

Third, anticipating the potential backlog of aircraft needing fuel at the pumps, Van Zanten took on an unprecedented amount; not the usual amount required to reach his next destination but enough fuel to get back to Holland. Unfortunately, this was a short-sighted decision as it increased the overall weight of his jumbo jet by 15 per cent. This decision demanded more speed and a longer-than-normal distance for takeoff. Van Zanten couldn’t see much as a thick cloud/fog rolled in, which challenged the acceptable visibility limits, and the centre-line runway lights were not operational. The culmination of these additional issues added to the weight pressing on Van Zanten’s mind.

Lastly, notwithstanding the airport’s sole runway being used for takeoffs and landings, the two 747s needed to taxi down the same runway because the other taxiways were full of aircraft, to await further instruction. Captain Van Zanten, used to making all the decisions and feeling the pressure to get his plane off the ground, pre-maturely commenced his take off without clearance. Taking off at full speed with less than permissible visibility, the second 747—a vehicle meant for flying not driving—couldn’t get off in time. Van Zanten’s now heavily fuelled KLM 747, which needed more runway and speed to lift off, collided with Pan Am’s 747, taking with it 583 souls.

In the fire service, firefighters, fire officers and chief officers rely on fire service leaders to make ideal decisions, personally and professionally. It is human to make errors, but when those errors (slips, lapses and mistakes) pile up in succession, less-than-ideal and/or disastrous outcomes can result. Worse is when leaders are tired, stressed, unfamiliar or dealing with a pile of other relating or unrelating factors; that’s when errors turn into disasters. Leaders are human beings; human beings are fallible.

But they have a duty. A duty to be in the best possible shape they can be physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Fire service leaders, like pilots, are best served maintaining an ideal performance state. By focusing on human performance, fire service leaders will exude great decisions via good judgment. Equally important, is five to seven; this seems to be the magic number of precursors that have resulted in incidents, accidents and even major disasters.

Situational awareness is an especially important subject for the fire service. Equally fundamental is the power that stems from unrelating or relating factors that can impact a decision, representing puzzle pieces to the picture of well-intentioned poor decisions. Although fire service leaders do not have similar responsibilities as jumbo jet pilots liable for both passengers and aircraft, they are accountable for making decisions that affect the staff’s professional and personal worlds; there lies a duty to take care of both the employees and the organization. Instilling habits that promote an ideal performance state, amidst having the awareness of the power five to seven precursors can have, makes for effective fire service leader decisions.


  1. Rychard, James. “Psychological PPE: Mental performance coaching.” Canadian Firefighter. July 2023. Accessed at
  2. Loehr, Jim and Tony Schwartz. “The Making of a Corporate Athlete.” Harvard Business Review. Jan. 2001. Accessed at
  3. Rychard, James. “Psychological PPE: Flow for the fire service.” Canadian Firefighter. Sep. 2022. Accessed at

In addition to being a firefighter and R2MR instructor from the city of Burlington, Ont., James Rychard is an advocate for mental and behavioural health in the fire service, sitting on multiple association committees. He can be reached at

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