Degree Name

Master of Science (MS)

Semester of Degree Completion


Thesis Director

Luke J. Steinke


The purpose of this research was to determine whether the process of achieving occupational expertise could be accelerated enabling operators in high risk vocations to make effective decisions earlier in their careers. Scholars have hypothesized good decision making skills are largely a result of relevant experience within the specific domain. The rationale being that the greater the experience an individual has the more likely the operator has experienced similar situations and can apply solutions that have been successful in the past. Two distinct methods of decision making have been identified: traditional decision making and naturalistic decision making (NDM).

The ability to implement the traditional decision making method effectively is contingent on the availability of sufficient information and adequate time for the individual to examine the information, construct and weigh options, and ultimately choose the action that the operator deems most appropriate given the data at the time. Naturalistic decision making is a process an operator can employ in a high risk, dynamic situation (e.g., military personnel in combat, fireground commanders on-scene, police officers confronting armed criminals) to make decisions when data may be incomplete and time is critically short. Both processes depend on the operator's domain expertise.

Research has shown the naturalistic decision making process is the method many high risk operators revert to when conditions do not permit a deliberate, analytical decision-making approach. These conditions include ambiguous situations, serious time constraints, or inadequate information. Studies have determined that the fundamental element of NDM is domain experience, i.e., the seasoned decision-maker compares the current situation to a similar experience from the past. This pattern recognition enables the decision maker to apply tactics that successfully resolved previous problems.

The overarching limitation in NDM is gaining the requisite domain experience. One pedagogical process that has been recognized to enable occupational instructors to identify requisite skills and accelerate the process of placing operators in their chosen vocation is the method known as Design A Curriculum (DACUM). The DACUM process breaks an occupation down into areas of competence and the skills required within each area. Each skill level is given a numerical rating indicating the minimum performance standard for that skill. An operator with skills from a similar occupation can test for that skill and if the minimum performance level is achieved the operator is given credit for that skill and can focus subsequent efforts on other areas or skills. The DACUM process can help accelerate the training process and place an operator into the vocation sooner and thus begin gaining experience in the domain.

The DACUM process was employed for this research. A panel of expert firefighter instructors were assembled and spent two days analyzing the occupation of acquired structure live burn instructor.