Crisis Decision Making Models Application: West Fertilizer Facility

An Anhydrous Ammonia explosion at the West Fertilizer Plant, located in West, Texas near Waco occurred killing at least fifteen people and injuring hundreds in a forty square block area.  Among the dead were eleven firefighters.  The shock wave could be felt as far away as 100 miles.  Fire Rescue immediately responded to the scene, but was faced with several extenuating factors to consider before being able to get handle on fire and subsequent explosions.

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An Anhydrous Ammonia explosion at the West Fertilizer Plant, located in West, Texas near Waco occurred killing at least fifteen people and injuring hundreds in a forty square block area. Among the dead were eleven firefighters. The shock wave could be felt as far away as 100 miles. Fire Rescue immediately responded to the scene, but was faced with several extenuating factors to consider before being able to get handle on fire and subsequent explosions. First Responders had to look at whether or not to let the fire burn itself out or act aggressively and use water to soak the area to put the fire out. Run off from firefighting efforts can be as hazardous as the fire itself. During this catastrophic event, local government and top public safety officials were tasked with making numerous rapid decisions in the face of crisis. While this fire and subsequent explosion caused numerous casualties, the aftermath and cost to the community in human life, threat to the environment, and the monetary losses to the local economy was monumental. West Fertilizer is looking at a Federal inquiry as to how this incident occurred and will ultimately face fines and fees for cost of cleanup.


Incidents like the above are addressed in an active learning environment at Regis University's MSCR 680 Rapid Decision Making class by considering two important decision making models such as PrOACT (Problem, Objective, Alternative, Consequences, Tradeoffs), and OODA Loop (Observe, Orient, Act, Decide).

The following link clearly illustrates the PrOACT decision making process: PrOACT Decision Making Model: A Guide On How to Make a Decision

The PrOACT model is a great decision making approach because it examines both tangible and intangible aspects of the situation. It helps translate all pertinent facts, feelings, opinions, beliefs and advice into the best possible decision. The five key elements of the model are problem statement, objectives, alternatives, consequences and tradeoffs. It examines the core elements separately and simplifies and organizes your thoughts as you go (Hammond, Kenney, & Raiffa, 1999).


The first part of the model is the problem statement. Every decision has a problem that needs to be solved and the way you state the problem frames your decision. The better the problem is defined the easier it is to solve it (Hammond, Kenney, & Raiffa, 1999).


The second part of the model is the objectives. This is essentially a better definition of the problem and defines what you want to accomplish with the decision so there is no room for misinterpretation. Many people usually feel that the objectives are self-explanatory and do not need to be defined. However, clarifying the objectives helps improve our understanding of the problem and sets expectations for the possible solutions (Hammond, Kenney, & Raiffa, 1999).
The third part of the model is alternatives. This is when alternatives to the well-defined problem, as well as clear objectives, are generated. The more alternatives you have, the better the result you'll get from the final decision (Hammond, Kenney, & Raiffa, 1999). Some struggle with this step in the decision making process because once an idea has been implanted, it is not easy to consider alternatives.


Fourth in the progression of PrOACT decision making is consequences. This step requires that you evaluate the consequences of each choice. Once you determine which alternatives are acceptable, you need to examine the consequences of each one. You should talk to experienced people and gather as much information as possible (Hammond, Kenney, & Raiffa, 1999)

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The final step in the model is tradeoffs. This implies that your decision is challenging and presents tradeoffs that are difficult to face with each choice. If you are unable to make a decision, it might be best to return to step one and redefine the problem and objectives, looking for ways to simplify them with the information that was gathered during the process (Hammond, Kenney, & Raiffa, 1999).


The other decision making model used in MSCR680 is the OODA Loop. The OODA loop helps us process and respond to information coming at us very quickly. It is used when rapid, on-the-fly-planning and decisions are necessary.


It was developed by the late Air Force Colonel John Boyd to simplify the rapid-fire, life and death decisions made during aerial combat. Boyd's simple but very powerful conclusion was that any conflict was a time-based problem. Whichever side could move through their OODA loop the fastest would have the upper hand. This is tricky.


Observe our situation closely. What is our relative position to the enemy, and how is their behavior going to impact us?


Orient ourselves to the reality of our observation as fast as possible without making too risky or risk-averse moves. Orientation is the processing and analyzing of the observed information. This is where it is helpful to ensure that the biases and tendencies do not drive poor analysis.


Decide on a course of action. This is where the rubber meets the road. Depending on the complexity and stakes involved, this can be a simple choice or a complex decision after analyzing multiple courses of action.


Act! Nothing happens until the action takes place.


The OODA loop requires time sensitive planning – planning on the fly.


As stated in the examination of PrOACT and OODA Loop, adult learners who successfully complete the coursework in MSCR680 are prepared to make better life, and critical situation, decisions. The following is a recent testament as it relates to the course.


Dear Professor:


"I am not sure that you remember me, but I was in your Rapid Decision Making class a few terms ago. I could not help but to think back to our assignment regarding the hypothetical chemical fire when I saw the tragedy that occurred in Waco last night. As I was reading the updated reports this morning, it was like a flashback to the material that we covered, assessing the various aspects of the emergency situation. Additionally, I saw a video of a father and his son that were filming the fire from a field when the explosion occurred. Consequently, I could not help but think and ask myself, "why weren't individuals told to evacuate sooner?", "why would anyone be near a fertilizer (chemical) plant while it was on fire?", "should the rest of the town be evacuated since there is a chance that another gas tank may explode?", and "how will the expected strong winds affect firefighters' ability to put out the blaze?", etc. I pray for all of those involved, and at the same time, I would like to thank you for what you taught us in our Rapid Decision Making course. Instead of being consumed with what was happening, my mind automatically switched to "problem-solving mode." I always use the information I have obtained from this program (I found myself assessing the bombing in Boston in the same way), but this instance has made it more real than ever."

To learn more, explore Regis University’s Master’s of Science in Criminology degree program.


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