I recently read a post on social media where a firefighter said at an incident scene that he doesn’t worry about his situational awareness. That’s what he has an officer for. Further, he didn’t worry about having situational awareness about the larger incident scene, that’s what he has an incident commander for. I could not disagree more with this mindset. In fact, I would characterize this as a dangerous mindset and would like to defend why you would never want to relegate your situational awareness to anyone else.
Three Types of Awarenesses
As we discuss situational awareness, there are three types we need to develop.
First, is individual situational awareness – an awareness of our own knowledge, skills, abilities, fear, phobias, stamina, etc.
Second, is team situational awareness – an awareness of our team members’ knowledge, skills, abilities, etc.
Third is incident situational awareness – being vigilant to the fact that few things at an incident scene are done in isolation. What one crew is doing can have an impact on another crew and certainly (hopefully) a positive impact on the overall incident.
Situational awareness gone awry
Anyone can lose their situational awareness, at any time, for a wide variety of reasons – a point I speak to extensively in the Mental Management of Emergencies and the Flawed Situational Awareness programs I teach. In fact, I demonstrate for students just how fragile situational awareness can be by doing exercises that steal away their situational awareness. It works every time, even when I warn them I’m going to do it and tell them how NOT to let it happen. Suffice it to say, situational awareness can be a very fragile commodity and can be lost so quickly that you’ll never even know it’s happened.
Do you see what I see?
Two people can be looking at the same thing, at the same time, from the same angle and each of them see something completely different. This can happen at an incident scene as well. When this occurs, both members may believe they have strong situational awareness but one is suffering from a flawed perception of reality. Chances are, however, they won’t know it unless someone points it out to them.
The risk is too great
Many responders have admitted to me that if they saw an officer making a mistake or an commander making a mistake (in the context of this discussion, from flawed situational awareness) the responder would not speak up. They perceive doing so as too risky. They may get yelled at or they may into trouble for being insubordinate to the orders of a superior officer. Or the responder might fear being judged harshly by their peers if they speak up and express concerns. But what if there was a way… a method… a process… you could use to tell a superior you think they may be making a mistake?
You’re a firefighter assigned to a roof job. It’s a flat metal roof and there’s a lot of water on it. (Set aside for a moment all your judgement about why you’re on the roof in the first place). Your situational awareness is strong and you’re getting a gut felling that’s causing you concern for your safety. And… you can see the same concern in the eyes of your fellow firefighters. But no one’s speaking up. No one wants to be the “wuss” as it was described to me by the firefighter who reached out to me for advice. I understand this is a tough position to be in. Your gut (intuition) is telling you get off the roof, but your pride is telling you to stay and be brave. What do you do?
This may be the toughest position a firefighter can find him or herself in. Having a gut feeling that a situation is bad and not knowing how to express those concerns to ranking officers.
In this situation, the command officer is (hopefully) on the ground and unable to see the conditions on the roof. This puts the firefighter in a position of distinct advantage to be able to see things in a way the commander cannot. So how does the firefighter let the commander know he’s concerned for his wellbeing without sounding like, as he put it, “a wuss.”
A lesson from aviation
The answer to this question comes from a process used in aviation. It’s called the Five Step Assertive Statement Process. It came about because first officers were afraid to speak up to captains who, at the time, were known to have large egos and did not accept advice or criticism very well. Prior to the implementation of Cockpit Resource Management (the precursor to Crew Resource Management), the Captain was King. What the Captain said was the Gospel. No one ever dared disagree with the Captain or they would be reprimanded and admonished in front of everyone.
The only problem was, there were plenty of instances where the Captain was wrong. Captains were making mistakes and, in some instances, flying perfectly good airplanes into the ground and the first officers were saying nothing to stop it from happening. To help fix the problem, the aviation industry implemented Cockpit Resource Management as a way to get the flight crew to work better together. Know this – the Captains did not embrace the concept. Many dubbed it ‘Charm School’ and opposed the notion that a first officer could actually tell a Captain he or she was making a mistake.
The Five Step Assertive Statement Process
But, the program prevailed despite all the kicking and fussing from the Captains. One of the outcomes was the Five Step Assertive Statement Process. It’s a pre-established, well-communicated process for how concerns are supposed to be articulated in an aircraft. The steps include:
- Address the person by formal title
- State: “I have a concern.” (This is important and I’ll explain why in a moment).
- Provide details of the concern.
- State an alternate course of action.
- Seek the approval to implement the alternate course of action.
In action, it might sound something like this:
“Captain, I have a concern. This is a metal roof with metal trusses under it. There are thousands of pounds of water accumulating up here and this building is under stress. I would like to recommend we remove all personnel from the roof until we can find a way to relieve the water and reduce the weight. Are you ok with that?“‘
I have a concern
The statement – I have a concern – is not a casual statement. Rather, it is a ‘trigger statement.’ The use of those four words, by policy, requires that the captain acknowledge and consider the concerns of the crew member. In aviation, failure to do so may lead to the captain being relieved from commanding the the aircraft. This trigger statement is taught to all members of a flight crew and any member of the crew can express their concerns using it. Here’s the catch: They all know it in advance. Everyone’s been trained on it and they all know what it means and what they have to do when it is stated.
Rich Gasaway’s Advice
Every fire department should have in place a policy that establishes a Five Step Assertive Statement Process. Then, when anyone on an emergency scene says to someone in authority ‘I have a concern’ it is a trigger statement that requires the concern be given consideration.
Obviously, training on the process and training for how to make the statement and how to receive the statement is critical. Absent the training, a firefighter will not know how to state a concern and will be fearful if one is stated. Likewise, a commander is not likely to be accepting of a statement of concern unless the commander understands and accepts it as part of a formal process that is intended to look out for everyone’s safety. A commander who cannot accept the ‘I have a concern’ statement does not have a healthy ego and has a low self esteem and should not be in a position to lead firefighters into battle.
- Discuss at time when you’ve been in a position where you were concerned for your safety but did not speak up because you were afraid to or did not know how to.
- Discuss a time when you brought safety concerns to the attention of a supervisor at an emergency scene. How did they react? Where you praised for your actions or admonished for doing so?
- Discuss why a supervisor might not appreciate being told they are making a mistake.
- Discuss what process your department has (or could develop) that uses a ‘trigger statement‘ to a express safety concern.
If you are interested in taking your understanding of situational awareness and high-risk decision making to a higher level, check out the Situational Awareness Matters Online Academy.
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