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Episode 16: The impact of fatigue on situational awareness

Episode 16: The impact of fatigue on situational awareness

Back in episode 7 I answered a listener question about the impact of fatigue on situational awareness. I promised in that episode that I would dedicate more time to this topic in an upcoming episode. So I want to explore the issue of fatigue some more.

Length: 20 minutes

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Show notes

Back in episode 7 I answered a listener question about the impact of fatigue on situational awareness. I promised in that episode that I would dedicate more time to this topic in an upcoming episode. So I want to explore the issue of fatigue some more.

I get asked often about the role of fatigue in situational awareness. Sometimes the question is based on general curiosity. Sometimes the inquiry is a result of someone seeking support for (or against) an extended work schedule. I sure don’t want to get caught in the middle of that debate but the question is a good one. Does fatigue impact situational awareness?

I don’t know of any specific studies that link situational awareness to levels of fatigue. However, there is a lot of research that links fatigue to lower levels of physical and mental performance. That’s what I want to talk about here.

Research on Fatigue

Research has shown that fatigue can impact mental performance and thus it could be a reasonae conclusion that fatigue would also impact situational awareness. The basic findings of numerous research studies concludes the tired brain does not think or perform as well as the rested brain. This includes measured performance on aptitude exams, recall exams and physical performance exams. Essentially, fatigue slows a person’s ability to figure things out and then to perform things once they do have it figured out.

How Much Sleep

How much sleep does a person need to overcome the effects of fatigue. Unfortunately, the amount of sleep a person needs varies so much from person to person that it is extremely difficult to quantify the answer. There are both quantity and quality of sleep issues to be considered as well. Uninterrupted sleep, allowing the brain to maneuver through different stages of the sleep cycles seems to be an important component of the equation. This may have ramifications for first responders whose sleep-wake-sleep cycles are interrupted.

Stress is a Factor

A responder who is awakened from sleep to respond to a stressful call may not be able to return to restful sleep following the call because of the chemical and hormonal changes that result from a stress reaction. Science suggests that if the responder is required to perform strenuous activities during the call (e.g., a working structure fire) the lingering effects of the chemical dump are far less impacting. In other words, physical activity allows a responder to work the chemicals out of the system.

A false alarm call may be another story however. When awakened from sleep for an emergency response, the body is going to react and chemicals are going to be released. If the call ends up being a minor emergency where the responder does not have to engage in physically demanding activities, some of the chemicals may linger in the system and make it harder to go back to sleep.

I’ve experienced this numerous times throughout my 30 years as a first responder, especially when being dispatched to a high-risk, high consequence emergency only to arrive at the scene to find a false alarm or an emergency of far less significance than I was physically and mentally prepared for. On those occasions I found it difficult to go back to sleep.

Conversely, after I performed physical tasks at emergency scenes I found it far easier to return to restful sleep. I used to think it simply meant I was just tired from the physical activities I performed. While this is, in part, true. I was also (unknowingly) working out stress induced chemicals and hormones.

The Safety Nap

Some responders believe taking a “safety nap” can help improve mental performance. In part, it does. Generally, any rest a responder gets is better than no rest at all. However, a nap may not resolve systemic fatigue. Sleep is a critical component to brain function and when there is not adequate rest or disrupted sleep, the impact can be real and measurable.

The Work Schedule

The schedule of some public safety providers may not be conducive to adequate rest. Twenty-four hour shifts in organizations who are busy service providers can present some real challenges to situational awareness, decision making and problem solving. I have talked to many providers who admit the quality of their care and decisions may not be as good at night as it is during the day.

Adding additional fatigue by having responders work forty-eight hour consecutive shifts (by design or by overtime) and the problem of fatigue impacted decision making and physical performance could be compounded.

Physical Rest is Not Mental Rest

Many people believe if they feel physically rested, they are mentally rested. In reality, when the physical body rests, the brain is not resting at all. In fact, the brain is surprisingly active while the body rests… suggesting the body rests so the brain may have access to more energy (glucose) to do it’s heavy lifting. And what is the brain doing while you sleep?

Laboratory research suggests the brain is sorting through all the data from your previous waking period, cataloging the events for future use. Hence, fatigue can not only impact your short-term performance and memory, it may also impact your long-term recall.

Chief Gasaway’s Advice

Responders who work long hours must be provided with opportunities to rest their brains. It’s not a matter of being lazy as bureaucrats would like to believe. It’s a matter of personal safety and ensuring your ability to provide high quality service to your customer. Physical activity is good for the brain. Be sure to get some exercise during your work day.

Research suggests aerobic exercise is best, about 30 minutes a day, 2-3 days a week. Exercise also causes the release of chemicals and hormones that aid in your ability to think and perform under stress. Think of it this way… exercise also creates stress on the body… but this stress is good stress.


  1. Describe a time when you think your situational awareness and/or decision quality was impacted by fatigue.
  1. Discuss ways to ensure responders can get adequate rest during extended work periods.
  1. Discuss strategies for ensuring you get enough rest when not on-duty.


This lesson comes to us from the Firefighter Near Miss Reporting System, where lessons learned become lessons applied.

Importance of a designated safety officer

May 26, 2014

event description

Our crew made an interior attack at a structure fire. The business was housed within a very small building, and it seemed as if there was nothing unusual during our offensive operations. The fire had vented itself through the roof, and it was confirmed there were no occupants inside. As the smoke cleared and we began overhaul, we could finally see daylight through a large hole in the roof. Sitting above us, leaning into the rafters and poised to fall, were two very large HVAC units. We were surprised that one had not already fallen, it seemed to be just teetering up there, barely braced against a deeply charred beam. We were also surprised to see such large units atop such a small building. If they had fallen, it would have hurt or killed someone. One extra person to act strictly as safety officer may have spotted these units from outside. The attack crews did everything correctly and safely, but this incident still could have ended in injury or fatality.

lessons learned

Never assume that the scene is “safe”. If the scene were safe, they would not have called 911 for help. Fires are six sided, dynamic puzzles that take an aggressive approach to safety to support the same level of aggressive attack. Get you safety officer in pace early and insure the safety of the firefighters working.

You can visit them at

If you have experienced or witnessed a near miss and would like to be interviewed on this show, visit my companion site: and click on the Contact Us link. Thank you, in advance, for sharing your lessons learned so others may live.


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