Many first responder training programs use simulation in the development of decision making competencies. Simulation exercises help develop skills in setting strategy and tactics, in applying policies and procedures and in developing critical thinking skills. But how can simulations be used in the development of situational awareness skills?
The answer lies, in part, in understanding what situational awareness is and how it is developed. However, and equally important, is understanding how situational awareness is lost in the context of the environment first responders work in. It is this component of situational awareness, and it’s application to simulations, that I want to discuss here.
Defining situational awareness
Situational awareness is developed by gathering information (termed clues and cues) about what is happening in the environment around you (in the context of how time is passing). Then, understanding the meaning of that information. But it doesn’t end there. In part, situational awareness is formed by understanding what has happened previously (the things that led up to the current environment you experience) and being able to predict the future events before they unfold (those things that have not yet happened but are anticipated to happen – the outcomes of your actions or inactions).
Clues and cues (a.k.a. Information)
In the perfect world, a decision maker would only be provided with a short list of the most critical clues and cues – the critical information – essential to forming strong situational awareness. Unfortunately, the perfect world seldom exists, leaving decision makers with the task of having to make sense of a barrage of information (which can contribute to several situational awareness barriers, like: information overload (which can stall decision making), insufficient amount of information (which can lead to flawed assumptions) and inaccurate information (which can lead to flawed perceptions).
If the struggles of processing information were not challenging enough, the decision maker may not have control over the quantity and quality of information needing to be processed and comprehended in the formation of situational awareness. In some contexts, there will be too much information. In other contexts, there may not be enough information. Some of the information will be precise and accurate. Some may be vague and flawed. And on the fly, the decision maker is trying to make sense of it all.
Being aware of your surroundings in context is what some might term “mindfulness.” In 2004, a researcher (Bishop) and his colleagues advanced a definition of mindfulness that sums up the concept nicely for the purpose of our discussion:
Mindfulness involves two components. First, the self-regulation of attention so that it focuses on immediate experience, thereby allowing for increased recognition of mental events in the present moment. And second, adopting a particular orientation toward one’s experiences in the present moment, an orientation that is characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance.
To be mindful is to be aware of your environment in the context of place and time and avoid judgement by assessing the clues and cues without preconceived notions of what they mean. While this may seem vague, it is a trainable skill set. The military teaches mindfulness to soldiers to help improve their situational awareness.
Information, in the absence of context, has little value. The decision maker must have an understanding of the operational environment and this requires processing clues and cues and making sense out of what is observed and heard. The more complex the environment and the greater the volume of clues and cues, the more challenging the process of sense making can be. In fact, volumes of information are not what a decision maker needs. Rather, what is needed is a small amount of the most important information to help form situational awareness and prime, good decision making.
The simulation design
Simulations can be very helpful in teaching strategy and tactics. They are relatively easy to design, can use low-cost software (e.g. SimsUShare) to create realistic scenarios using actual buildings from your town. The objectives can be established and communicated to participants in a relatively easy way. The process of running scenarios over and over again helps develop memory and mindfulness through repetition. All good stuff. One component that can be overlooked in the design of simulation scenarios is making the decision making environment realistic.
The designer of a simulation may script a scenario to ensure the essential information is provided so the decision maker can form strong situational awareness. When first teaching decision makers it would be a best practice to only provide them with the small amount of the most critical information they need to manage the incident. This helps the trainee learn how to make decisions based on using the most critical information. In other words, they learn what critical clues and cues they need to know.
Then, once the trainee gets good at running the scenarios and making decisions, slowly build in some complexity. This can be done by adding additional information that are NOT critical clues and cues. It can also be done by leaving out critical clues and cues altogether. In other words, start making the scenarios realistic. As decision makers know, in the real world, the quantity and quality of information varies and rarely will be the right amount of high quality information coming at the right time. The real world is more complicated which requires the decision maker to sort through information for the important clues and cues, to apply perceptions of information that may not be accurate and to make assumptions to fill in the blanks where information is missing. THAT… is the real world. And that is the environment to be recreated in simulations to improve situational awareness.
Learning from Mistakes
If, during a simulation, a decision maker does poorly with the management of information and that, in turn, leads to a flawed decision, that is not a failure. In fact, that is success. Learning about how a decision is flawed based on errors in information management during a simulation is much better than learning about it following a real casualty event.
After a casualty event does occur, it is easy to see what information was absent or what perceptions were flawed or what assumptions were erroneous. Hindsight vision is near-perfect because those standing in judgment have the benefit of knowing the outcome. But those who were managing the incident in real-time were not aware of how things were going to turn out. Hindsight can be a valuable tool when it is used to trace how understanding broke down. When it is used to pass judgement, it is not a tool at all. It is a weapon.
Chief Gasaway’s Advice
If you’re going to create and use simulations to train decision makers (which I think is a great way to develop decision making competence), I would recommend involving currently practicing decision makers and ask them to offer up recommendations for how to maximize the realism. Ask decision makers about the stresses and challenges they face while trying to process and comprehend information in real time. Build that complexity into scenarios. Otherwise, you’re at risk of creating scenarios that are “technically” realistic (i.e., the clues and cues of smoke, fire, changing conditions, etc.) are completely accurate, but the environment in which the commander is operating is not.
1. Engage decision makers in a discussion about what causes them the most stress and what impacts their situational awareness when they are making decisions in real time. Make a list and build those barriers into your simulations.
2. Discuss with participants of simulations if the scenarios match the real world environment they work in – physically, emotionally, psychologically, stressfully, realistically. If it falls short, identify ways to improve realism (with consideration for safety).
3. Consider all the barriers to situational awareness that are present in the real decision making environment and develop simulations that reproduce realistic environmental factors (e.g., noise, lighting, temperatures, distractions, interruptions, extraneous information, etc.)
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