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How Could They Be So Stupid?

Situational Awareness Matters!Recently I was having a conversation with a fire commander who shared the following experience. He stopped by one of the stations for a visit and came upon a group of firefighters huddled around a computer screen watching videos. Relax. This is not a lecture on watching inappropriate videos on fire department computers. In fact, the videos were very appropriate. Rather, it’s a lesson in how to use video segments to improve situational awareness.

What was inappropriate was the firefighters’ reactions to the videos. They were watching emergency scenarios where actions demonstrating unsafe actions and practices were captured and posted for the world to see. As the firefighters watched, some laughed at the videos. Some retorted “How could they be so stupid?” Fortunately, this fire commander and I had spent some time talking recently and he knew just how to handle the situation. Here’s what he did…

Content and context

The first lesson he shared is things are not always as they appear. Good point. Most of the video clips where small segments of time captured and posted out of context to other things that were happening at the emergency scene. The viewers know little about how things unfolded, leading up to the apparent “stupid” things they were watching.

Self defense

Situational Awareness Matters!Don’t be so quick to judge. Another good point. Sometimes we are quick to pass judgment, oftentimes too quick. It seems to be a natural defense mechanism. It’s like we have a need to defend our honor and abilities by comparing ourselves, often in uncomplimentary ways, to what other people do. As I get the opportunity to be in the company of many emergencies throughout the year, I see this phenomenon play out often. They are so quick to judge other departments in their region. I’ve observed that it doesn’t even matter if they were at the call where things allegedly went wrong. They are quick to judge.

The million dollar question

The session this chief observed, couched as “Training” was not very productive. Entertaining perhaps. But not productive. The chief knew it so he changed the focus of the session with one question. As one of the video segments ended and the rants began the chief asked “Do you think they did that on purpose?” The room was stunned into silence. The question appeared to be rhetorical – so obvious that it required no answer at all. But the chief did not relent. He asked the question again, demanding someone answer. Finally, “No” came the answer. And at that point, the judging stopped and the learning began.

Judgement and learning are not compatible

You cannot learn while you are busy passing judgment. I know this all too well. I was one – a judge. Consequently, a whole lot of very important lessons passed me by because I didn’t take the time to learn – to understand on a deeper level how those bad things happen and, most disturbingly, how they can happen to ME as well. When I stopped judging and started learning, my mind opened up too.



Rich Gasaway’s Advice

My advice for this article is simply three things:

First, realize things are not always as they appear. Frame what you see and read in the context of the events and information that led to the actions (or inactions). Second, do not be quick to judge. And finally, always ask “Why did it make sense to do (or not do) something?”


Action Items

Watch a video or read a report where things go wrong and avoid judgment. Instead, ask yourself the following questions:

1. How did things look to them at the time it was happening?

2. How did things unfold (the timeline)?

3. Why did things make sense to them as the incident unfolded?

4. Could this happen in your organization?


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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8 thoughts on “How Could They Be So Stupid?”

  1. A good follow up question to “Did they do this on purpose?” would be Why was it a good idea at that time to take this action?

    1. Jerry,

      Great point. In the Fifty Ways to Kill a First Responder program I offer a list of questions to be asked, including:

      1. How did things look at the time they were happening?
      2. How did the events unfold around them?
      3. What were the clues and cues indicating things were going bad?
      3a. Did they see the clues and cues?
      3b. Did they understand what the clues and cues meant?
      3c. Did the clues and cues make sense?
      4. What goals were they trying to accomplish?
      5. What were they doing at the moment in time that things went bad?
      5a. Why did it make sense for them to be doing that?

      We’ll be discussing this in your program in Weirton on Sunday. I’m looking forward to it.


    1. Indeed! I talk extensively in my new book, Situational Awareness for Emergency Response. We (humans) have a tendency to apply hindsight bias to situations… seeing the flaws in other people’s decisions after the fact… in a way that makes their decisions look flawed. Then we judge and criticize… and in the process… learn nothing. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Whenever we read about an incident or see a video where firefighters are doing unsafe actions or getting hurt, I like to remind my firefighters that none of the individuals shown woke up that morning with the intention of getting injured. In fact, at one time or another those same firefighters probably sat around a screen chastising others for their actions. I remind them to not be so quick to pass judgement.

    1. Kevin,

      That’s a great point. It’s much easier to see the errors of judgment while sitting around a computer screen than when in the heat of battle. Thanks for sharing!


  3. Everything is easy in hindsight. We need to relate those lessons to our situations and adjust our operations to make sure we don’t make the same mistakes. We also have to turn around and look at ourselves. We should be learning not only from the mistakes of others but also from our own mistakes.

    1. Denis,

      Indeed, hindsight is always 20:20. Thanks for sharing your feedback and thank you for purchasing the On-Line Academy. Your books shipped out today.


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