National Wildfire Coordinating Group

2019 WOR Day 6: Slide Tray vs Critical Thinking

June 30-July 6, 2019

This Week of Remembrance is dedicated to all those who have fallen in the line of duty and is intended to serve as an opportunity to renew our commitment to the health, wellness, and safety of wildland firefighters.


Graphic of a slide projector and tray. We love the “Slide Tray” analogy, which stems from the model of Recognition Primed Decision making (RPD). It supports our fascination with “experience.” For many of us THE way to be a good firefighter is having lots and lots of experience…because it gives you more “slides” to pull from out on the fireline.

 Another view is that “slides” can sometimes be problematic. Slides can lead you to short cuts…taking in a situation and quickly equating it with a previous experience (a slide). This could theoretically lead to you seeing what you expect to see rather than what is actually there. This view would have you focus on critical thinking or mindfulness – intentionally trying to remain in the current moment and avoiding the “slide” dilemma.

Are these two views really at odds with one another? Graphic of a person wearing blinders with the words belief on each side.

Consider these quotes (comments on this blog post: Are Your Slides Blinding You?)

“To say we need to let go of the RPD model is akin to saying we should stop breathing or we should never have tunnel vision. As Daniel Kahneman — a leading expert in human cognition — pointed out in his book “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” our intuition (System1, as he termed it) is just there. In the context of RPD, we cannot stop making “slides” and we cannot stop reacting to them — it’s how our minds work. Kahneman was at first skeptical of RPD, so he invited Gary Klein, prime originator of the model, to work with him. Kahneman concluded that with one caveat, the model does reflect the reality of our minds, and the working of System 1. (His System 2 is the analytical as opposed to the intuitive aspect.) The caveat is that those who operate in RPD must be highly experienced and trained in their field — exactly what the fire service demands.” Peter Leschak

“Mindfulness, in my mind anyway, is about not letting RDP become the path of least resistance (i.e., complacency). Murphy’s Law preys on the complacent. Mindfulness is about staying switched on, even in routine tactical situations and believing that Murphy is waiting just around that boulder or in the top of a tree.

When time and space run out, you want RPD on your side. The right combination of slides from experience, training, and planning on autopilot fueled by cortisol and adrenaline will save your life. You want to nurture your RPD abilities. Think of this as working on your short game.

For most wildland fire decisions, you also want to be more deliberate. As your RPD slides pop up and offer you a viable solution – take the next step of validating that. What could go wrong with that? Weather change? How far to a medevac? What would Murphy do?” Mark Smith


As a group, discuss Slides and Critical Thinking (Mindfulness) as it relates to:

  • The Yarnell Hill Fire
  • The Willow Rappel Fatality
  • The South Canyon Fire


Purple ribbon symbol

How can YOU Honor through Learning?

The topics, review, and resources for the NWCG “Wildland Firefighter Week of Remembrance” have been contributed by the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center, the NWCG Leadership Committee, and many other field subject matter experts.


Week of Remembrance
Page Last Modified / Reviewed: 
Aug 2023

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