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Dr Sabrina Cohen-Hatton

Dr Sabrina Cohen-Hatton

Dr Sabrina Cohen-Hatton, honorary research fellow at Cardiff University and Deputy Chief Fire Officer for Surrey Fire and Rescue, is using behavioural neuroscience to help improve high-stress decision-making in the emergency services.

Being a firefighter and a researcher is not a traditional combination, but then I’ve never wanted to be constrained by tradition. I left school at 16 and joined the fire service as an operational firefighter when I was 18. I worked my way through the ranks but one incident proved a watershed moment. I was called to an incident where another firefighter had been badly burned – and I knew my fiancé was part of that crew. When it wasn’t him, I was torn between relief and guilt that I had somehow wished it on my colleague. It played on my mind so much that I started to look into the major causes of injury to firefighters. To my surprise, I found 80 per cent of all industrial accidents – including the fire service – are caused by human error. Not inadequate policy or bad procedures, but someone making the wrong choice, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

I wanted to establish whether human error might be driven by unconscious biases. After completing an Open University degree in psychology, and a Masters in International Fire Service Development, I started a part-time PhD in behavioural neuroscience, while still working full time in the fire service (and had a baby at the same time, too). My research focussed on Pavlovian to instrumental transfer – looking at how cues in an environment may bias a person’s decision making. So, for example, whether a certain pattern of smoke might cause an incident commander to unconsciously select a course of action based on previous experience rather than analysis of the situation.

We found that 80 per cent of decisions firefighters make in the field are based on gut instinct and intuition, rather than an analytical approach. In high-stress environments, we also found ‘situational awareness’ was limited; commanders were operating very much in the here and now rather than anticipating what may happen next. So we developed a series of ‘decision controls’, quick mental checks commanders could run through to ensure they are making good choices. Our study showed that not only did the decision controls help them focus on operational goals, they also increased situational awareness without slowing down decision making. As a result, they now form part of the national command policy for the fire service, and have also been embedded in joint emergency services interoperability policy (JESIP).

There are a lot of stereotypes associated with the fire service, but I think the fact I don’t conform to any of them has given me the freedom to be different. My dual role has also enabled me to carry out on-the-ground research in an area that has previously relied on data supplied to scientists after the event because of the risks involved.

As a society we need to do more to encourage risk-taking in girls as much as boys. A study in a children’s playground showed girls attempting to slide down a pole were told to by their parents to be careful or asked whether they needed help, whereas boys were encouraged to be brave and go for it. These early impressions form part of our lens and affect the way we respond as we grow.