top of page
  • Writer's pictureRonin

ITRS 2023 Presentation

“Merging the Situation and Conceptual Models to achieve a desired end state”

Kevin Ristau, Ronin Safety & Rescue Inc.

The goal of this paper is to present a method for team leaders in the field to maintain situational awareness and modify their concept of operations to fluid, constantly changing environments - an adaptive response model. Incident Command System (ICS), or Incident Management System (IMS) training emphasizes a comprehensive size up as the first action of the response. The information collected during the size-up is used to develop the Incident Action Plan (IAP).

Following the initial stages of an incident leaders are generally instructed to conduct an “ongoing size up”. There appears to be little in the way of discussion or guidance for responders as to how to conduct an ongoing size up, and more importantly how to implement new information into updating the Incident Action Plan. There is a large body of work in the cognitive decision making field, and there is a lot that can be learned from the research. Much of it however is presented in a way that is far too complex for application at the team leadership level, and often needs to be distilled to find actionable processes. One decision tool that has seen widespread acceptance is the OODA Loop.


In the 1950’s The OODA Loop concept was developed by US Air Force Colonel John Boyd. The OODA Loop acronym stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. This tool was developed by Boyd to train fighter pilots to constantly update their understanding of the situation and make decisions and act on them based on a continuous source (observe/orient) of new input. He had deduced that faster detection of the enemy’s actions, assessment of their implications, and decision on how to respond could convey a significant combat advantage. Speed of completing the decision making loop ahead of the opponent was considered a necessary element for success.

In it simplest form the OODA Loop looks like this (Figure 1):

The four components of the OODA Loop are Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. The loop structure visually describes how the decision making cycle is a repetitive process. Figure 2 shows the OODA Loop in its more fully developed form, once known cognitive behaviour elements (circa 1970’s) were added. This adaptation of the OODA Loop represents a far more complicated structure than Boyd’s original concept. The additional elements were added to account for the processed that people use to conduct decision making in real time.

The OODA Loop is a powerful tool for training task level personnel in its original, simplified form. It is a useful tool to train people to continually reassess the situation they are dealing with and come to new decisions. It is however, a product of a very specific community, the fighter pilot community, designed for rapid decision making in a combat situation. In fact, the “Orient” portion of the loop specifically refers to pilots orienting their aircraft to the observed path of the enemy combatant.

In the context of modern cognitive decision making research and knowledge the OODA Loop does have some deficiencies:

1) The OODA loop does not capture the essential goal-directedness of command decision making.

2) This makes the OODA loop reactive rather than proactive

3) Provides no guidance on how to define information needs

(Bryant, 2006)

Modern cognitive decision making understanding places a great deal of emphasis on the following concepts, which are not inherent in the OODA Loop:

Goal Directed Cognition - the setting of objectives in the near-term as well as the long-term to achieve a desired state.

Constructive Theories of Perception and Understanding - these are sense making processes that provide a mental model that is used to plan actions.

Mental Models - defined as transient and dynamic representations that continually adjust to represent the current state. (Hatano & Inagaki, 2000)

Critical Thinking - the systematic questioning and evaluation of one’s own reasoning strategies. Critical thinking motivates one to look for evidence that could potentially contradict what one believes. Insufficient critical thinking has been identified as one common maladaptive aspect of decision making (Jansson, 1999).


David Bryant proposed an alternative to the OODA Loop, known as the CECA Loop, in 2003. (Figure 3). The CECA Loop incorporates more modern research on cognitive decision making into its structure, and addresses the deficiencies of the OODA Loop. This is also a complex model of human thought and decision making. The CECA Loop is designed to describe the decision making process, Bryant specifically states that it is intended to be used as a framework to develop decision making tools, rather than serve directly as a decision tool for an end user.

The four actionable elements of the CECA Loop framework are Critique, Examine, Compare, and Adapt:

Critique - questioning the conceptual model to identify critical aspects that, if invalidated, would render the plan for the operation untenable in some respect.

Examine - the active and passive collection of information/data

Compare - the situation model is compared to the conceptual model to determine what, if any, aspects of the conceptual model are invalid

Adapt - address the inconsistencies between the situation model and the conceptual model, using one of three options:

a) ignore the inconsistencies if they are deemed of low consequence (i.e. inconsistencies with the conceptual model have little practical impact)

b) alter the means by which the goals of the operation are to be achieved

c)alter the goals themselves if the most basic assumptions of the conceptual model are invalidated.

Deconstructing the CECA Loop

At the centre of the CECA Loop are two mental models, the Situation Model and the Conceptual Model. Focusing on these two components and the interrelationship between them provides an actionable method for emergency response personnel managing emergent incidents. The CECA Loop actions of critique, examine, compare, and adapt revolves around these two models. The continuous maintenance and comparison of the situation and conceptual models is embedded in the process. A leaders primary focus therefore is to formulate, disseminate, and adapt these two models continuously until the end state is achieved. Training of team leaders should emphasize this process.

Situation Model: Describes the current state of the incident. Identify aspects that differ from the desired state of the conceptual model

Conceptual Model: Goal driven Describes states of achievement over time All actions are driven by the conceptual model A shared mental model among all members of the response team

Situational Model Discussion

The situation is constantly changing, and will evolve over time. Evolution of the situation will occur with or without emergency responder intervention. It is the aim of the emergency responder to influence situational evolution to direct a favourable outcome to the incident (the desired end state). To that end, an accurate situational model must be developed and maintained. Information to build the situational model needs to be as objective as possible, so that individuals can make their own assessments versus making an assessment off of another persons interpretation.

Forecasting the situational change over time, with and without intervention, with consideration of the rate and direction of change will enable one to visualize the situation as it may be in the future, which is a precondition for creating a concept of operations.

Disseminating the Situational Model is an important task which requires continuous effort. When operating in a field situation, understand that trained personnel can reliably remember three factors about a situation (Klein, 1984). Focus the situation model description around three primary factors of importance. The factor categories utilized by the author in fire and rescue contexts when briefing personnel are as follows:

Rescue Context - Patient - Environment - Hazards

Firefighting Context - Structure/Environment - Occupants - Fire Conditions

Conceptual Model Discussion

The conceptual model is a shared representation of the concept or plan of operations over time. It should be goal directed rather than specific, and disseminated in a way that allows every member of the force to internalize an accurate representation of at least those aspects of the conceptual model that can be affected by that individual. (Bryant, 2006). The concept of operations will be based on the situation, the training and experience of the personnel (RPDM - Recognition Primed Decision Making, Klein, 1984) and will be guided by agency doctrine. The concept of operations, along with the desired end state, will drive the development of the Incident Action Plan.

Based on:

- Situational Model - Training/Doctrine - Experience (RPDM)

Consists of:

- End State - Concept of Operations - Incident Action Plan (IAP)

Communicating the Conceptual Model

Communicating the concept of operations in a way that allows all personnel to share the same vision takes effort. Tools to be utilized include statements of intent, briefing formats, visual representations, and reference to operational guidelines or procedures. When operating in a field situation trained personnel can reliably remember about six transition steps to a plan. (Klein, 1996). Avoid planning that involves more transition steps than this for task level field personnel. Written or prepared orders may contain more transitions.

Managing Situational Change

Successful management of an incident requires merging the Situational and Conceptual models over time, through iterative transition steps, to lead to a desired end state. A leaders work flow, once the initial size up and IAP development have concluded and the response is in the implementation stage, should be as follows:

Team Leaders Workflow:

1) Critique the Conceptual Model - Identify aspects that if invalidated would be consequential

2) Examine and update the Situation Model - Detach and observe - Query situation - How are things right now? - Query task progress - Where are we on task progress? - Query direction - What are your teams next steps? - Query information gaps - identified during critique phase - Prioritize disconfirmatory information; is it: - consequential? ( able to invalidate the CM) - verifiable? - mitigable?

3) Compare the newly updated situation model with the conceptual model; - identify inconsistencies - Identify invalidated aspects of the conceptual model

4) Adapt the Conceptual Model - Ignore the inconsistencies (if low consequence) - alter the means - alter the goals

Examining the situation:

Train objective query and response information gathering. We do not want to influence our own assessment of the situation before we have looked at the information, ideally we will gather objective date and make our own assessment first before sharing the assessment views of other personnel. (Klein, 2011)

Disconfirmatory Information is of significantly higher importance than confirmatory information. Disconfirmatory information that invalidates the conceptual model must be addressed. Disconfirmatory information drives adaptation of the conceptual model.

The team leaders attention (Commanders Telescope concept), when focused on one part of the response, will provide for a more detailed update of that portion of the incident/response. Focusing on one area, however, can lead to a loss of situational awareness of other areas.

Adapting the Conceptual Model

Iterative adaptation is generally simpler to accomplish versus rapid, significant change in tactics or techniques. The more significant the change to the conceptual model, the greater the communication needs will be in order to implement that change effectively. Once the conceptual model has been adapted, teams and personnel affected by the change must be updated. It is important to communicate why - the change in the situation model that is driving the conceptual model adaptation. PACE planning will assist with changes to goals, objectives, or strategy while teams are engaged with the response. Pre-prepared alternatives that are developed and shared will shorten the time needed to change techniques, tactics, or strategy when required.

PACE planning consists of the following elements:





In an emergency response situation it may not be possible to implement PACE planning during the first operational period, other than by pre-existing procedures. Situation specific PACE planning will take some time to develop and disseminate. The second operational period is a benchmark for when alternative plans are prepared to be implemented if needed.

Potential Problems

When the implementation of the response plan is not achieving the desired effect, it is likely due to one of the following three causes:

- Situation Model is incorrect

- Conceptual Model of response is ineffective for the situation

- Collective understanding of the Concept of Response is weak


This paper has discussed a model of command decision making based on more current concepts of cognitive psychology than the OODA Loop which preceded it. The OODA Loop has served its purpose, primarily to provide a framework in which to address both the time-sensitivity and the cyclical nature of decision making. It is intended that the CECA Loop proposed by Bryant provide a more modern framework to describe the decision making process; including important concepts such as goaldirected cognition, constructive perception and understanding, use of mental models, and critical thinking.

By deconstructing the CECA Loop we can focus on its core components - the situation and conceptual models. Training team leaders to update and adapt these models in a continual cycle should be foundational, “must know” concepts. The actionable elements - critique, explore, compare, and adapt - describe how to go about the process of updating and adapting these models and are “should know” concepts.

In simplified terms, stripped to the barest essentials, the response team leader should focus on the following cycle:

Update the Situational Model

Adapt the Conceptual Model

Communicate and Repeat


Bryant, D., (2003). Critique, Explore, Compare, and Adapt (CECA): A new model for command decision-making. Defence R&D Canada – Toronto, TR 2003-105, July 2003

Bryant, D., (2006) Modernizing Our Cognitive Model. Defence Research Development Canada – Toronto

Hatano & Inagaki, (2000). Knowledge acquisition and use in higher-order cognition.

Jansson, A., (1999). Goal achievement and mental models in everyday decision making.

Klein, G. (1996). Sources of power: The study of naturalistic decision-making.

Klein, G. (2011). Streetlights and Shadows: Searching for the Keys to Adaptive Decision Making

70 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page