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Expectations can Impact Situational Awareness

Towering Inferno… Backdraft… Ladder 49… Emergency… Adam 12… Dragnet… Rescue Me… Chicago Fire… Hawaii Five O … Love them or hate them, movies and television influence perceptions and create expectations three ways:

First, they influence citizen perceptions of emergency service providers and create certain performance expectations. Second, they influence first responders’ perceptions of themselves and create certain expectations of each other. Finally, they influence first responders’ perceptions of what first responders THINK citizens expect of them.

All of these expectations create stress, and that can lead to task fixation, contribute to tunnel vision and cause a host of situational awareness problems.

First responder self-expectations

Situational Awareness Matters!As first responders we hold certain expectations of ourselves and we hold certain expectations of others who serve as first responders. We can be the harshest critics and when other organizations don’t perform to our expectations the criticism can be brutal.

I got to witness this recently while observing a group of firefighters watching a video where responders were working on the scene of a 2-story commercial building in the downtown region of their town. The fire was through the roof and, for whatever reason, there did not appear to be much water being applied even though there were several aerial apparatus’ on the scene.

The responders watching the video were very uncomplimentary of what they were observing. One of them even texted another firefighter to tell him about the video.

We know we are subject to this harsh criticism by our peers. No matter who you are, it hurts to be chastised by fellow first responders. So we do everything we can to avoid it. This can include feeling pressured to take excessive risks because the consequence (ridicule, embarrassment and feeling like a failure) are very powerful fear-based motivators.

First responders perceptions of citizen expectations

Situational Awareness Matters!First responders also have a certain perception about what they THINK the citizens expect of them. In the eyes of many citizens, first responders are heroic problem solvers. First responders don’t shy away from danger. The perception of citizen expectations can lead responders to take excessive risks because they don’t want to let the citizens down. Disappointment is a very powerful (fear-based) motivator.



Citizen expectations of first responders

Situational Awareness Matters!The truth is, some citizens (and elected officials) hold very high (and in some cases, unrealistic) expectations of first responders. In their minds first responders should save every life (human and non-human) and save everyone’s property. There is no situation a responder should not be able to handle.

For some citizens and elected officials, bravery and exceptional heroism have become their standard expectation. When these expectations are not met, it can be met with harsh criticism and in some cases, consequences. If we aren’t strong enough, brave enough or fast enough, we can get criticized. This fear of criticism creates stress.

I witnessed (and shot a video) of how high citizen expectations can create stress on responders. I’ve included the video below. These citizens, little as they are, were belting out the very expectations we are likely to hear from citizens and elected officials in the midst of an emergency response.

The video is courtesy of the South Bend Fire Department and was taking during a fire prevention tour that was observing the recruit academy class during a timed gear-donning exercise.

The Stress-Situational Awareness Nexus

Stress changes us… biologically, emotionally, physically and psychologically. When the stress comes from pressure to perform, coupled with the fear of failure, embarrassment, ridicule and consequence, responders can find themselves overlooking the clues and cues that form situational awareness. Instead of maintaining a big picture view of the incident, responders become mission-focused and attention is narrowed to the task at hand. This may cause responders to overlook critical clues and cues. In fact, it can cause responders to IGNORE critical clues and cues. At this point, focus on the mission can override safety and best practices and desperate responders may perform desperate acts.

Dr. Gasaway’s Advice

One way to control your reaction to stress is to first understand what causes you to be stressed. There are the obvious stressors – physical demands of the work, time compression to make quick decisions, dangerous and unpredictable work. Then there are the less than obvious stressors – peer pressure and the fear that can result from not meeting citizen expectations and/or elected official expectations.

Public safety leaders can engage responders in discussing how expectations can impact performance. This includes expectations of supervisors because the fear of consequence can compel risky behavior. Responders should be encouraged to discuss their concerns about expectations openly. This can be difficult to do because first responders are often not keen on discussing their feelings and their fears. I have had numerous responders reveal their concerns about expectations to me. When I ask them if they’ve talked about these concerns with peers and/or supervisors, the answers is often (sadly) “no.”


Action Items

1. Engage in a discussion on how expectations can impact performance and how responders can, within their own minds, manage these expectations so they don’t find themselves taking excessive risks that can have catastrophic consequences.

2. Conduct surveys of citizens and elected officials to gain a realistic understanding of their expectations. This can be coupled with public education when expectations are unrealistic. For example, educating citizens about how fast fire grows and how smoke often kills people well before the fire does and how quick response times are critical to successful outcomes, can go a long way toward helping ground expectations in reality.

3. Discuss family expectations. Yes, as much as there are peers, citizens and elected officials who can become disappointed in our performance or who can criticize us when we don’t meet their expectations, there are others whose expectations are equally, and arguably more, important. Responders sometimes get caught up in the “save lives and property” expectations so narrowly that they lose sight of the fact that one of the lives to be saved… is their own. Don’t ever let yourself become so narrowly focused on your mission that you overlook the most important situational awareness lesson of all. Going home to your family is Expectation #1!


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.
CLICK HERE for details, enrollment options and pricing.


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.




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2 thoughts on “Expectations can Impact Situational Awareness”

  1. Thank you for writing such an informative post. We don’t realize that our expectations of first responders can cause stress on them as well. Also, we are definitely are harshest critics when it comes to what we expect of ourselves in stressful situations

  2. We had a situation which occurred a few years ago in our community. A man called our 911 Comm Center, under false pretenses, saying he had heart attack symptoms. When the crew arrived, they found the man in his bed surrounded by lots of guns. He stated “Now let me tell you the REAL reason you all are here.” His utilities and cell phone service had been cut off due to nonpayment. He was holding this group of firemedics hostage so they could facilitate getting these services turned back on. The LT was told to relay that information to dispatch, which he did. The standoff lasted several hours. During that time, the LT established a report with the bad guy (BG). For some reason, the BG allowed the crew to text on their cellphones. That’s ultimately what saved the crew lives. At one point, the LT joked with BG about how he should have at least made them coffee if he knew they were going to be there for a long time. The LT was allowed to go to the kitchen to make some. There he met up with a SWAT officer who gave him instructions on what to do if they had to breach the room. LT returned to the bedroom and texted the instructions to the crew. After several hours, even though his demands were being met, BG asked for sheets of wood so all of the windows could be boarded up. At this point, it was assumed he had no intentions of letting the crew go and planned to burn his house down. As SWAT breached through the bedroom wall, the crew hit the floor. The BG went out in a blaze of gunfire, actually shooting a SWAT officer in the arm. BG was DRT, hostages released, SWAT guy brought to hospital, and that was it. The LT (now retired) recently told me how members of his own fire department criticized him for how he handled things. Quite honestly, I was shocked! He should’ve done this, could’ve done that. “Why didn’t you just grab the gun?” is my personal favorite. Really people? This LT kept his cool for several very long hours, with a gun pointed straight at him. He did exactly what he knew he had to do to get his crew home. He read the situation, used his instincts, and his crew DID get to go home to their families! #1 How dare someone just assume this crew was psychologically OK enough to even casually chat about what they went through. #2 What he did worked! He and his crew are alive! None of the ID-10-Ts criticizing them were there. If the LT or a member of the crew tried to grab BG’s gun, they would’ve been right in this obviously whacked guy’s line of fire! Plus, he had several other guns within arms reach. All I could do was shake my head and reiterate to the LT how glad I am he handled things the way he did because he and his crew are alive to tell the story!

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