Seven situational awareness thieves

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FlashoverRecently I had a video clip shared with me of a residential dwelling fire. The video captures a flashover event. It was reported to me that firefighters were operating inside the structure when it occurred.

As I watched the video progress, it was apparent interior conditions were getting worse, the color of the smoke was becoming blacker, the volume of the smoke was becoming greater, the velocity of the smoke was becoming faster and the density of the smoke was becoming thicker.

Bad things were coming and it did not appear as though the crews operating on the scene could see it. Let’s explore some of the situational awareness lessons of this incident and discuss seven ways situational awareness can be stolen away.

Michigan Flashover Video

Forming Situational Awareness

3 Levels of Situational AwarenessYou form your situational awareness by gathering information. You use your senses (sight, hearing, feel, taste and smell) to gather the information. These “inputs” are then sent into the brain via electrical impulses. The electrical signals are interpreted by the brain and the result is you have perception of your environment.

Then your brain takes the inputs from the various senses, consolidates the messages, and attempts to form one coherent understanding of what is going on. When this happens, it is said you comprehend your environment.

Finally, your brain takes what you understand is happening and makes predictions about future events – those events that have not yet occurred – and you are said to be able to project future events.

Paying Attention

Pay AttentionIt seems obvious but still needs to be stated. In order to have situational awareness, one needs to be paying attention to what is happening in the environment. Vigilance is the term I use often to describe the heightened state of alertness necessary to gather the information that forms the foundation of situational awareness. But paying attention in a stimuli-rich environment, under stress, can be very difficult. This is a point I stress extensively in my Mental Management of Emergencies classes where multiple exercises are used to demonstrate the vulnerability of situational awareness.

Situational Awareness Thieves

As you spend time evaluating firefighter line-of-duty death reports and near-miss reports you may notice how often flawed situational awareness is implicated as a contributing factor to the casualty. If you have not read many of the reports, I will simply say flawed situational awareness is cited in many, many of the reports. Also, there are many cited case studies, near-miss reports and LODDs resulting from flashovers.  Let’s examine some ways situational awareness may be lost and, thus, responders may not see the bad things coming in time to change the outcome.

Situational Awareness Thieves1. Tunneled senses: Narrowing attention to one geographic area of an incident scene.

2. Task Fixation: Narrowing attention to one task being performed at an incident scene.

3. Command Location: The person in-charge being hands-on or physically too close to the action to see the big picture.

4. Inexperience: Personnel lacking training and/or experience to understand the meaning of the clues indicating an impending flashover.

5. Complacency: Lowering of vigilance on the assumption the fire is routine and predictable.

6. Bravado: Blatantly ignoring the signs of danger and commencing with high-risk activities in spite of the presence of information indicating firefighters should not enter the structure.

7. Unrealistic Expectations: Believing personnel are able to accomplish tasks faster and more efficiently than is realistic – failing to give consideration to quantity and quality of the crews. Not all crews are created equal!

Chief Gasaway’s Advice

Situational Awareness Matters!Stop judging and start learning: The one thing that upsets me the most when I see a video posted on the Internet where something has gone bad is not the actual event as much as the Monday morning quarterbacking that goes on by those who were not there and were not dealing with the situation at the moment things went bad. When the brain is so busy judging the performance of others the lessons are so easy to overlook.

Ask hard questions: Most fire departments are vulnerable to have things go bad at an incident scene. A video that captures the events as they unfold creates an opportunity for members to ask each other hard questions about how the event degraded and how situational awareness was lost.

Share experiences: Truth be told, many experienced first responders have been on scenes where situational awareness was lost and an event deteriorated into a near-miss or a casualty event. Share the lessons of what happened.

Fix problems, not blame: It’s easy to blame others when things go wrong but it solves nothing. It is not likely that the person you are blaming did anything wrong ON PURPOSE. So, instead, ask how the problems can be fixed and create a plan to become a better organization.

 Action Items

Situational Awareness Matters!1. Watch a video where an event degrades. Stop the video periodically and have discussions about what is happening. If the situational awareness of the responders has been lost, ask why and offer ideas for how to prevent it.

2. Discuss an incident you responded to where things deteriorated. How quickly did it happen? Where there clues and cues things were going bad? Did responders see the clues and cues? Did they understand what they were seeing?

3. Discuss the seven thieves of situational awareness contained in this article and share examples of how this could happen at one of your emergency scenes. Share ideas for how to prevent the loss of situational awareness.

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The mission of Situational Awareness Matters is simple: Help first responders see the bad things coming… in time to change the outcome.

Safety begins with SA! 

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Post your answers to the discussion questions or share your comments on this article in the “Leave a Reply” box below. If you want to send me incident pictures, videos or have an idea you’d like me to research and write about, contact me. I really enjoy getting feedback and supportive messages from fellow first responders. It gives me the energy to work harder for you.

Thanks,

Email: Support@RichGasaway.com
Phone: 612-548-4424
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About Rich Gasaway

Richard B. Gasaway served 33 years on the front lines as a firefighter, EMT-Paramedic and fire chief. He earned his Doctor of Philosophy degree while studying how individuals, teams and organizations develop and maintain situational awareness and make decisions in high stress, high consequence, time compressed environments. Dr. Gasaway is widely considered to be one of the nation's leading authorities on first responder situational awareness and decision making. His material has been featured and referenced in more than 400 book chapters, research projects, journal articles, podcasts, webinars and videos. His research and passion to improve workplace safety through improved situational awareness is unrivaled. Dr. Gasaway's leadership and safety programs have been presented to more than 42,000 first responders, emergency managers, medical providers, military personnel, aviation employees, industrial workers and business leaders throughout North America, Europe, Asia and Australia.
This entry was posted in Accountability, Attention Management, Complacency, Culture, Decision Making, Distractions and Interruptions, Ego and Self-Esteem, firefighter situational awareness, Human Behavior, human factors, Incompetence, Neuroscience, Safety, Situational awareness, Stress, Task saturation, Teamwork, Tunneled Senses and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Seven situational awareness thieves

  1. Rick Davis says:

    The video is a fantastic learning opportunity and a tremendous amount can be taken away from it if we choose to do so. Several things ran through my mind as I watched the video including how many people (firefighters, police officers, and medics) may have been outside of the camera frame watching this unfold, but not realizing what was about to take place. A few years ago the National Wildfire Coordination Group’s (NWCG) theme for annual refresher training was “Say something if you see something.” In classes that I have taught to our department, I’ve encouraged people to speak up when they see something, even if they don’t fully understand what is taking place. It just might avert a tragedy. But nationally and internationally, how many firefighters and officers won’t speak up due to self-imposed ignorance (the “I don’t need to know that” mentality) or blind adherence to adverse cultural influences?

    This video also highlights and underscores the importance of being a student of fire behavior and understanding construction materials/methods. If we opt to ignore this or fail to understand it, then there will be an inevitable collision between our failure in this area and the last item in your article: expectations.

  2. James Regeling says:

    Rich,

    If you have any more info such as powerpoints and videos you would be willing to send me to use with training =s for my fire dept it would be greatly appreciated.

    Thanks

    • Rich Gasaway says:

      James,

      Additional resources, in addition to the 180 articles on the site include: Downloads under the Live Programs and Keynotes link, the Downloads and books and videos under the Store tab.

      Rich

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