Dissertation Abstracts

The Art of Multimodal Decision Making by Incident Controllers on the Fireground

Author: Inham, Valerie , vingham@csu.edu.au
Department: Institute for Culture and Society
University: University of Western Sydney, Australia
Supervisor: Prof Bob Hodge
Year of completion: 2010
Language of dissertation: English

Keywords: decision , fire , multimodal , situational-awarenes
Areas of Research: Disasters


Decision making on the fireground is a difficult and accountable activity. Incident Controllers constantly juggle their legal obligations, the welfare of firefighting crews and the plight of victims and property in complex and often life-threatening situations. Assessing risk and subsequent decision making are core aspects of their role.

The positivist-scientific paradigm dominates the decision theory landscape in the form of the Rational Choice model. The best alternative is Naturalistic Decision Making, but its challenge has been almost neutralised by a struggle to shape research concerning experienced intuition into the framework of science.

Through an investigation connecting the aesthetic judgement of artists and the situational assessment of Incident Controllers on the fireground, Multimodal Decision Making is developed as a challenge to the position that somatic and aesthetic forms of awareness are unsophisticated and inferior sources of knowledge.

Aesthetic judgement is the place where disciplinary boundaries melt and new connections and networks electrify in an instantaneous moment of insight. Incident Controllers responding to the live image of a fire must read the image immediately and decide how to respond, given their available resources. Against the backdrop of the visual and the artistic, the image Incident Controllers on the fireground work with, work on, mould and shape, consists not only of the fire itself, but of the situation as a whole, incorporating risk, danger, sparse pieces of conflicting information and the pressure to act rapidly.

I apply the theories and practices used by artists in a creative investigation of the somatic response and aesthetic awareness of Incident Controllers. In the spirit of multimodality I draw upon visual culture, social semiotics, art education, and the concept of the artist-as-theorist found in arts-based practice. There is an exceptionally strong impulse within us to sort, delineate and categorise. I have resisted this impulse in an attempt to mirror the multimodal theory I am developing.

The benefit of recognising a connecting theoretical positioning between art and firefighting is the enriching and the heightening of alternative explanations and the encouragement of a decision making discourse which would otherwise remain within the framework of ‘science’. Understanding that Incident Controllers on the fireground may be relying on different discourses in their decision making should aid us as community members, researchers and emergency service professionals, to better understand alternative ways of conceptualising decision making behaviour.

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