Naturalistic Decision Making: An Intuitive Approach for Emergency Response

The Role of Facility Managers in Emergency Management

Facility managers play a central role in managing emergencies that may occur at the facilities and cause business disruption, injury, death and/or property damage. These unforeseen events can generally be classified as:

  1. Natural emergencies that are resultant of weather or environmental conditions including fire, flood, earthquake and infectious disease outbreak;

  2. Technological emergencies such as power outage, hazardous material spill as well as heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) failure; and

  3. Human-caused emergencies like arson, workplace violence and acts of terrorism (Payant, 2016).

In some organisations, the facility manager is involved in planning for and responding to emergencies. For other organisations, the facility manager is tasked to manage all aspects of emergency management ranging from mitigation, preparation, response to recovery (Roper & Payant, 2014).

Emergency Decision Making

Good decision making is critical for effective emergency management. For instance, facility managers must make sound decisions when responding to emergencies (Sinclair et al., 2012) to avoid the situations from escalating into disasters with extensive damage and limited possibility for swift recovery (Payant, 2016).

Yet, emergencies tend to be dynamic and ambiguous with imperfect information and significant time pressure (Klein, 2008). Under such settings, it is inappropriate or almost impossible to apply the traditional analytical decision-making approach that requires time and perfect information to weigh up various options and select the best option (Flin, 1996).

Although analytical decision making does have its place in emergency management, it is more apt for emergency planning and policies development where time is not an immediate constrain (Paton et al., 1999).

Naturalistic Decision Making

Research on naturalistic decision making first emerged in the 1980s to study and understand how people make decisions in real-world contexts (Klein, 2008). In contrast to analytical decision making, naturalistic decision making is a faster and more intuitive approach that relies on experience (Flin, 1996) and, hence, is more applicable for high risk and low time contexts such as emergency response environments (Sinclair et al., 2012).

Based on the notion of the recognition-primed decision making (RPD) model, a subset of naturalistic decision making, effective naturalistic decision makers can appraise a situation rapidly and effectively, match the cues with their memories of previously experienced events to identify patterns and decide on the suitable course of action. When similar patterns cannot be identified, they can mentally simulate a workable course of action to evaluate how it may unfold and make necessary modifications to suit the situational context before initiating the action (Klein & Calderwood, 1991).

According to Canon-Bowers and Bell (1997), proficient naturalistic decision makers do possess six (6) distinct qualities:

  1. Flexible – The ability to cope with uncertain, complex and rapidly changing environments.

  2. Quick – The ability to make rapid decisions with severe consequences and under time pressure.

  3. Resilient – The ability to operate in stressful environments without suffering from degradations in performance.

  4. Adaptive – The ability to recognise when and how to apply a decision strategy and when to adjust based on problem demands.

  5. Risk Taking – The ability to use knowledge to assess the risk associated with different courses of action and weigh the consequences of error against any potential payoff. Successful risk taking is a crucial part of naturalistic decision making.

  6. Accurate – The ability to make decisions with accuracy which is often demanded in many situations.

While naturalistic decision making emphasises the role of experience in enabling people to speedily categorise situations for effective decision making (Klein, 2008), the infrequent nature and unexpectedness of emergencies can limit the affordances for facility managers to gain such experience (Klein, 2015).

Decision-Making Training

One way to enhance the capabilities of facility managers in naturalistic decision making is through decision-making training to impart the knowledge, skills and processes that underpin expert performance (Sinclair, 2011).

Specifically, the training must focus on five (5) naturalistic decision making mechanisms that are necessary for making good decisions (Canon-Bowers & Bell, 1997):

1. Situation-Assessment Skills

Naturalistic decision making theorists posited that situation-assessment skills are essential for making rapid, effective and accurate decisions. The two (2) main aspects of situation assessment behaviour include cue and pattern recognition.

As compared with novices, expert naturalistic decision makers are better and faster at identifying the relevant cues, the significance of these cues and the patterns they form.

2. Organised Knowledge Structure

Experience helps expert naturalistic decision makers form organised knowledge structures that they can readily access and apply for making decisions in new situations. As a result, decision making is quicker and more accurate.

3. Mental Simulation

Expert naturalistic decision makers can generate solutions from their memory using the recognitional process. When confronted with a novel situation, they can mentally simulate the potential solution and adjust it to suit the context before implementation. Thus, help save time and contribute to the accuracy of the decision.

4. Strategy Selection/Modulation

Expert naturalistic decision makers can select strategies best suited to the situation but will continuously assess and modulate the chosen resolution based on changing demands. This ability does, however, demands metacognitive skills.

5. Reasoning Skills

These reasoning skills would include creative problem solving, analogies, critical thinking (i.e. testing assumptions, checking facts, seeking consistency among cues) and domain-specific problem-solving.

Simulation Exercises

Beyond decision-making training, facility managers should likewise practice naturalistic decision making through simulation exercises (Sinclair et al., 2012) that can be discussion- or operations-based. The former may involve tabletop exercises that are highly versatile and can be customised to match almost any timeframe and budget while the latter may comprise drills, functional exercises and full-scale exercises that require more effort and resources to organise and implement (Canton, 2007).

Simulating different emergency scenarios during exercises can mediate experiential learning and enable facility managers to integrate naturalistic decision making theories with the application.

Furthermore, through these exercises, they can enhance their tacit knowledge and implicit information sharing abilities (i.e. they can foresee others' information needs and offer it without being asked) and develop shared mental models. These are vital for emergency response (Paton & Jackson, 2002).


Facility managers have always been and will always be involved in emergency management. However, the complex, uncertain, low time and highly stressful context of emergency response environments would require them to make swift, accurate and sound decisions naturalistically.

To equip themselves with this ability, facility managers should participate in decision-making training and practice naturalistic decision making through simulation exercises.


Canon-Bowers, J. A., & Bell, H. H. (1997). Training decision makers for complex environments: Implications of the naturalistic decision making perspective. In C. E. Zsambok & G. Klein. (Eds.), Naturalistic Decision Making (pp. 99-110). Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Canton, L. G. (2019). Emergency management: Concepts and strategies for effective programs. John Wiley & Sons.

Flin, R. (1996). Sitting in the hot seat: Leaders and teams for critical incident management. Wiley.

Klein, G. (2008). Naturalistic decision making. Human Factors, 50(3), 456-460.

Klein, G. (2015). A naturalistic decision making perspective on studying intuitive decision making. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 4(3), 164-168.

Klein, G. A., & Calderwood, R. (1991). Decision models: Some lessons from the field. IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man, and Cybernetics, 21(5), 1018-1026.

Paton, D., & Jackson, D. (2002). Developing disaster management capability: An assessment centre approach. Disaster Prevention and Management, 11(2), 115-122.

Paton, D., Johnston, D., Houghton, B., Flin, R., Ronan, K., & Scott, B. (1999). Managing natural hazard consequences: Information management and decision making. Journal of the American Society of Professional Emergency Managers, 6, 37-48.

Payant, R. (2016). Emergency management for facility and property managers. McGraw-Hill Education.

Roper, K. O., & Payant, R. P. (2014). The facility management handbook (4th ed.). American Management Association.

Sinclair, H. (2011). Local government emergency management: Emergency operations centres, training and decision making [Master’s thesis, Massey University]. Massey University.

Sinclair, H., Doyle, E. E., Johnston, D. M., & Paton, D. (2012). Decision‐making training in local government emergency management. International Journal of Emergency Services, 1(2), 159-174.