Close this search box.

Expectations and situational awareness

spinningThe ability to develop and maintain situational awareness is a far more complex process than most people realize. I’ve had many responders say to me that as long as they are “paying attention” or “keeping their head on a swivel” or “looking up, down and all around”, they will have strong situational awareness.

I truly wish it were that simple. If it were, flawed situational awareness would not be one of the leading contributors to first responder near-miss and casualty events. Because, all we’d have to do to fix the problem is… pay better attention… keep our heads on a swivel… and look up, down and all around.

In this article, we are going to explore the role of expectations on forming and maintaining situational awareness.

The complexity of situational awareness

mental managementSituational Awareness is developed, maintained and can be lost on three levels. The first level is developed by perceiving your environment. The second level is developed by understanding what you have perceived (this is not as easy as it sounds). The third, and perhaps most complex, level of situational awareness comes from being able to make realistic and accurate predictions of future events. These predictions are sometimes called “mental models.” Predicting the future facilitates your ability to see bad things coming… in time to prevent bad outcomes

Being able to see the bad things coming… in time to prevent bad outcomes… is the mission of this website and the motivation behind the Mental Management of Emergencies and Fifty Ways to Kill a First Responder programs. It is also the motivation behind the Situational Awareness for Industry programs we offer.


One of the best ways for you to “see the bad things coming” comes from forming expectations about the future outcomes – assessing what you know about the current situation and speculating about possible and probable outcomes. Anytime a crew is assigned a task, the issuer of the order should immediately form two expectations:

  1. What will the successful outcome look like as a result of expected performance?
  2. How long should it take for the assigned task to be accomplished?

Thinking in terms of a successful outcome will help you stay focused on the purpose of the assignment you have been given as it relates to the overall mission to be accomplished. Having a focus on outcomes also helps you to “visualize” the clues and indicators (in advance) that will become the observable benchmarks for success.

How long it should take for a task to be completed is based on many factors, including the quantity and quality of personnel assigned to the task, the resources available to assist in task accomplishment, the complexity of the task, impediments to task accomplishment, etc. It is important to place a deadline on the time expected to complete the task, especially when the conditions are fast-paced and deteriorating.

Rich Gasaway’s Advice

Part of your “size-up” of any situation should include pausing and thinking about the future. Not only what it will look like, but how much time it should take to look that way. If your expectation is that something positive should be accomplished within five minutes of starting the task, conduct an assessment at the five-minute mark to see if your expectations were met and the progress you anticipated is being made. Does the incident look like it should? If not, why? And more importantly, if not, what should be done about it that will ensure the safety of personnel operating in the high-risk environment.

Stated another way, ask yourself: Given the mission, what will progress look like? What will be the clues and indicators that we are making positive movement toward the expected outcome? What are the clues and indicators that would indicate that we are NOT making the intended progress toward the desired outcome? How much time should I allow personnel to operate in an environment where expectations are not being met?

Action items

  1. Discuss why, in the face of deteriorating conditions, would a supervisor continue to allow personnel to perform high-risk, high-consequence activities when the incident appears to be heading in the direction of a catastrophic outcome.
  2. Discuss why it might be difficult for emergency response personnel to change gears and go in a new direction once an aggressive action plan has been placed into motion.
  3. Discuss some best practices for how you might be able to compare your progress to your expectations.


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.




Phone: 612-548-4424

SAMatters Online Academy

Facebook Fan Page:

Twitter: @SAMatters

LinkedIn: Rich Gasaway

YouTube: SAMattersTV

iTunes: SAMatters Radio


Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.