Training for the 3 Ring Circus

A trained pony is not memorizing a right turn and a left turn, or considering if this move will result in a figure eight. The pony is reacting to the way the whip is pointing, he is in the moment. A critical thinker is in this moment, and other moments; the future and the past moments and even moments they have never experienced. The critical thinker looks at the whip and decides if what the whip is indicating is truly the right direction to accomplish the desired goal – or not. Therefore the thinking must fully understand the desired goal first and foremost. For the accomplished critical thinker, there is no compulsion to agree with the whip simply because it is expected, or may result in punishment.

A critical thinker is always striving to make the right decision. And when they make an error in thinking, they think about their thinking. This thinking is not ‘disapproval’ of their own thinking but remedial or curative goals. And then, they add this corrective thinking about what happened, what should have been different to their arsenal of thinking tools. “Hmmm, to accomplish that I could have done this or that instead.” Of course in the 9-1-1 setting we certainly would prefer those errors in thinking to occur before they are on their own on the console!

A trainee can only learn critical thinking in a situation where the trainee doesn’t have someone point the whip. If someone tells you what to do, you don’t need to think at all, you only need to react to the whip! It is so much easier to be a trained pony. The danger of using the whip in Emergency Communications is that we cannot possibly recreate every configuration for the trainee. They cannot learn to PERFORM every act; they must learn to THINK their way through on their own. Therefore they must learn to think like the trainer. How does a trainer accomplish training people to think like them, or use critical thinking?


A Wikipedia definition of critical thinking

Critical thinking is the purposeful and reflective judgment about what to believe or what to do in response to observations, experience, verbal or written expressions, or arguments. Critical thinking involves determining the meaning and significance of what is observed or expressed, or, concerning a given inference or argument, determining whether there is adequate justification to accept the conclusion as true. The careful, deliberate determination of whether one should accept, reject, or suspend judgment about a claim and the degree of confidence with which one accepts or rejects it.

1 In a summary of a draft statement for the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking the authors state, Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action.


Critical Thinking in Emergency Communications

Critical Thinking definitions never address those decisions that must be made in seconds and involve life and death. In fact, the definitions seem to indicate the critical thinker takes time to think things through. Emergency Communications decisions have to do with data, information, assumption, interpretation, concepts, implications, points of view, clarity, accuracy, relevance, depth, breadth, and logical-ness. Astonishingly, also immediately and never with the same exact set of circumstances in the previous decision or judgment.
For a trainee to begin using critical thinking they must be given the opportunity to begin to use the process of examining their own reasoning: looking at purpose, problem, or question-at-issue, assumptions, concepts, empirical grounding; reasoning leading to conclusions, implications and consequences, objections from alternative viewpoints, and frame of reference. And all at the speed of light without knowing they are doing it. How do trainers accomplish this seemingly daunting goal?


Step One: Define the Goal

Ask the trainees to clearly define what success is in Call Taking or Dispatching. What is the promise of 9-1-1? Why does 9-1-1 exist, its purpose? Generally the answer is something like to serve and protect – not good enough. Serve who, protect against what? How about to send? Send who, where, when, how?
Teaching Critical Thinking involves a process of facilitating thinking. You cannot accomplish this by telling the trainee the answer to your questions. Trainers must painstakingly extract whatever is up there in the trainee’s head about the work. Some thinking will be right on, some will be misdirected. Some a vast black hole of nothing in which case Trainers can then fill in the ‘blanks’. Trainees may come up with something like this.


1. Send the right number and type of units (police, fire or EMS? Combined, support)
2. To the correct location – with zero delay.
3. With the right amount of information so that they know what they are facing.
4. While keeping caller or those at the scene and responders safe
5. Accurately record the information and times on the call in some manner.

Step Two: Match the Goal to the Actual Work

1 Summary of a draft statement by Michael Scriven and Richard Paul for the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking.

Once you have the ‘perfect outcome’ defined the trainee must be given the opportunity view the work being done in order to look at purpose, problem, or question-at-issue, assumptions, concepts, reasoning leading to conclusions, implications and consequences, objections from alternative viewpoints, and frame of reference. Simply stated they must work with a large variety of calls to determine if the ‘promise’ was kept in all regards. Did the Call Taker accomplish #4, if not what was missing and why? The call taking, dispatching example as well as the CAD print out can be offered this analysis to be complete and properly affect the reasoning of the trainee(s). Best accomplished in groups, these critical thinking exercises welcome disagreement, challenge, confusion, questions, assumptions and inaccurate interpretations of the work of the Call Taker or Dispatcher.

Step Three: Create A Safe Learning Environment

Critical does not mean only finding errors in the work but also encouraging the trainee to detect practices or methods that worked well to accomplish the goal. After analyzing call after call, the trainee begins to have a reservoir of experiences to recall for what works. After meticulously analyzing five calls where the REASSURE call was not used and five calls where reassure calmed the caller, the trainee can then enlist this into their ‘experiences’.
This type of critical thinking training is aimed at creating a ‘truth-seeker’ and therefore must be a safe environment to be wrong. Wrong is welcomed as it allows the trainer to correct, reframe, redirect and explain – modeling the desired thinking process. If not asked, the trainee cannot reveal what they do not know, or what incorrect perceptions they hold. If you want to know how they think, you must allow them to think in front of you safely.


Step Four: Put Thinking Into Action

To know how accurate a rookie officer shoots you must take them to the range. If they don’t hit the target they will need correction and more practice. To know if a Call Taker trainee has developed the ability to use good judgments you must give them opportunities to use judgment in critical situations. In order to correct poor judgment you can work with the trainees work example, encouraging self assessment in order to extrapolate, isolate and identify the good the bad and the ugly with them. This process offers the trainee to ‘practice’ thinking in simulation, self evaluate, get feedback and next recreate the exact same call with better aim. Practice, evaluate, feedback, recreate, practice, evaluate, feedback, recreate, and practice to the eventual goal of transforming understanding into behavior.



Look around the workplace and try to notice some object you have never seen but has been there all the time. Then begin to get curious about things that seem to bother you.

Ask yourself why is this like this, how did it get this way and what have I tried to do about it? Find someone or something that has been playing negative on your mind. Ask yourself to think differently about this situation or that person. Challenge the authority of your own thinking. Critical thinking doesn’t only apply to the work; it can apply to the workplace. Trainers can use the process above to encourage critical thinking differently about those challenges that seem to be never ending; gossip, social immaturity, negative behaviors, de-valuing one another. Not only trainees could benefit from a dose of critical thinking in these areas.

The work of the Emergency Communications Trainer is to provoke thinking. Adult learners actually do have thoughts when they enter the profession. What are these thoughts and will they lead to success, lead them to good judgment, proper decisions, correct actions? In not knowing what a trainee is thinking lays a potential for trouble if the trainee has been treated as a trained pony following the whip instead of their own experiences. Experience is the key to developing a trained mind. After all the Telecommunicator has only their voice, head and heart to accomplish success in the work. This success can come in many forms long before the person answers that first call. What we don’t want in our training is to create a one trick pony for a three ring circus.

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