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Frustration – A barrier to situational awareness

Have you ever found yourself so frustrated at an individual or a situation that you become fixated on that issue? When this happens, oftentimes, we become hyper focused on the individual or the situation and can lose awareness of the bigger picture. When this occurs, critical clues and cues, essential to the formation of situational awareness, may be missed.

Frustration can hijack your attention

Frustration is an emotional state that can evoke anger, disappointment and other responses that can capture and hold your attention. In fact, it can be difficult to let go of something that causes frustration, meaning it can be challenging to shift attention away from the frustrating situation and refocus on something else.

Thus, frustration can impact your ability to capture and comprehend the meaning of information that is essential to the formation of situational awareness because your brain is pre-occupied with frustration. Here’s an example.

hijackedYou find yourself in charge at an emergency scene and give an assignment to a crew to perform a critical task. Because you understand the importance of setting expectations as a component of situational awareness, you establish a time in your mind by which the crew should complete the task. Let’s assume that time-to-task-completion for this example is six minutes.

Eight minutes into the incident, the task is not complete. Ten minutes into the incident… still not complete. Twelve minutes in… nada. This may cause several situational awareness impacting responses. First, you may become confused as to why the assignment is not yet complete. This may cause you to inquire to the crew about what is taking so long.

If the response makes sense and is acceptable, you may ask the crew for an estimated time for task completion and adjust your expectations accordingly. If the response does not make sense and you find it unacceptable (perhaps because their delay in task completion is impacting your entire incident outcome expectations) this can lead to frustration. The frustration can, in turn, cause you to hyper focus on that crew or the task they have been assigned to complete.

Rich Gasaway’s Advice

It is easy to become frustrated, especially when someone is not meeting our expectations. At an incident scene, the expectation that tasks will be completed by a certain time is important to coordinating the entire incident. One crew falls short in their task completion and causes a delay, this can cause a lot of frustration.

It is relatively easy to get caught in the trap of setting unrealistic expectations for task completion, especially if you are under stress and operating in a dynamically changing, time compressed environment. Time can become distorted under stress and this can influence how much time you “think” is passing where, in reality, the crew is making reasonable progress, albeit, not to your expectations.

When gripped by frustration, it is important to realize you may become hyper focused. If this happens, pause and reassess your expectations. Give consideration to the complexity of the task and the quantity and quality of crew members assigned to complete the task. Perhaps your expectations were skewed.

If the incident is not progressing to your expectations, this can be a warning sign that you have a flawed understanding of the magnitude or complexity of tasks being assigned and it may warrant a re-assessment, on your part, about whether the personnel you have assembled are able to accomplish the task in time to change the outcome. If they are not, give strong consideration to pulling personnel back to a safe position and reassessing your strategy.

Action Items

1. Discuss a time when you set expectations and were frustrated when they were not met.
2. Discuss how frustration can impact your ability to pay attention to other things.
3. Discuss strategies for setting realistic expectations to avoid frustration.
4. Discuss strategies for how to reassess an incident scene and adjust expectations to reduce frustration.


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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