Embracing neurodiversity in the fire and rescue service

April 22, 2024

Hayley Brackley, Learning Consultant and Coach at Great Minds Don’t talks finding a path to enhanced operational assurance for fire and rescue services

Our fire sector is ever changing; being prepared and constantly learning from each incident is not just a goal, it’s a necessity.

Operational assurance gives us the opportunity to develop, before, during and post incident, asking the question: “Are we assured that we are operating as safely, effectively and efficiently as we can be?’” 

Operation Assurance is not just about following procedures; it’s about creating a culture of continuous improvement and readiness.

When we consider continuous improvement, and mature learning cultures, we must remember what sits as the common link of every incident, every debrief, every culture and every service.

Humans. We, as humans are dynamically different. We can observe diversity from a multitude of perspectives. Not least of all neurodiversity.

Neurodiversity is a term that recognizes that each of us has a unique way of thinking and seeing the world, shaped by the diverse workings of our brains.

Some of us, have brains that work in the same way as the majority – neurotypicals.

And some of us, have brains that work in a way that differs from the majority – we call this neurodivergence.

The concepts of neurodivergence and neurodiversity give us an opportunity to understand how valuing human differences can enhance how we approach challenges and solutions in fire and rescue operations.

By considering the principles of operational assurance through the lens of neurodiversity, we gain new insights and perspectives.

Neurodiversity and neurodivergence in effective operational assurance 

Let’s consider this from the debrief and learning perspective.

Firstly, how individuals share vulnerability and receive feedback – many of us will find ourselves in a state of threat response when sharing mistakes we have made or receiving constructive or negative feedback.

We need to ensure that all neurotypes feel welcome and able to share – not everyone will feel comfortable in a room full of people, and some might wish to share information in other environments or formats.

By mandating verbal sharing in a group, the introverted, detail focused crew manager in the corner of the room might not share an insight that potentially could change the framing of a learning point.

Different neurotypes will interpret information differently.

If a wordy document is published with the learning guidance, it might not be absorbed by a dyslexic colleague.

If a colleague is used to continually struggling to absorb the guidance documents, they may well stop reading them in the first place.

Human factors is a field of study that considers how people interact with a system – optimizing the wellbeing of people and the success of the system.

The concept of Human Factors is widely observed in aviation and healthcare, to optimize continuous learning.

We need to ensure that all information shared, is accessible and easy to learn from.

Too many words to read, too many clicks on a screen to find it, too many passwords to enter to open it, are all barriers to accessibility.

And this isn’t about ticking inclusion boxes.

This is ensuring that operational learning, potentially life saving information, is reaching the right people.

Can neurodiversity actually benefit our systems and processes?  

There is much information that references the differences in problem solving, detail thinking, and seeing alternative perspectives, in relation to neurodiversity and neurodivergence.

Diverse neurological perspectives bring a wealth of benefits to the fire and rescue service.

This diversity in thought and approach is particularly valuable in operational planning, incident analysis, and developing strategies for continuous improvement.

For instance, a neurodivergent individual might excel in pattern recognition, identifying trends or risks that others might overlook.

This ability can be instrumental in predicting potential challenges or improving safety protocols.

Similarly, the unique focus and deep-dive capabilities of some neurodivergent individuals can lead to more thorough investigations and analyses, resulting in more effective learning and adaptation post-incident.

We need the cognitive diversity to help us to analyze, evaluate and explore, to ensure we are as safe, effective and efficient as possible.

How do we move forward?  

We must examine our culture, ensuring that we have a growth mindset across the organization.

 We must ask the question, when a human makes a mistake, how can we adapt the system to make a positive change? 

Leadership plays a pivotal role in cultivating an organizational culture that embraces diversity of thought.

Leaders across the organization must encourage openness, facilitate inclusive discussions, and actively seek out diverse viewpoints to guide decision-making and strategy development.

We must also consider the knowledge and understanding of our operational assurance teams, facilitating an increase in knowledge of human factors, neurodiversity, neurodivergence, communication and psychological safety.

Finally, we must ensure that the process is accessible; provide alternative options for communication, give an option to join meetings virtually, enable closed captioning for those who find auditory processing more challenging, issue learning and guidance in video, audio and written formats, ensure that the language used is as simple as it can be; solidified with  a plain language policy.

Forming focus groups with members from different neurotypes to discuss and review operational procedures and training materials, ensures that diverse perspectives are considered in decision-making processes.

Using technology to facilitate real time anonymous sharing, polls, and questions allows team members to submit ideas or feedback without the stress of public speaking or direct confrontation.

By integrating a human centric approach, embracing the neurodiverse teams we have, we unlock a potential for innovation, resilience and excellence in the sector.

We enhance our understanding and inclusion of diverse neurotypes, ensuring our approach to safety, learning and problem solving is as comprehensive and forward thinking as possible.

Embracing neurodiversity is not just about inclusivity; it’s a strategic imperative, that strengthens our operational assurance, making our services more responsive and capable in facing the dynamic challenges of our time.

This article was originally published in the April 2024 issue of Fire & Safety Journal Americas. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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