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Situational Awareness and Decision Making Tips for Training

flashoverI recently received an email from a SAMatters community member asking for tips to improve size-up, situational awareness and decision making while training in a flashover simulator. It was a great question (thank you Captain Scott Byers from the Tracy Fire Department)! I offered Scott a number of ideas and thought it would be good to share them with others who may be teaching in a flashover simulator.

Residential Dwelling Fire Killers

building collapseTwo of the leading causes of firefighters getting hurt and killed in dwelling fires are flashover and building collapse. So it’s important to ensure that firefighters are able to identify the signs of both and know what to do if they are encountering an impending flashover or collapse.


It all starts with size-up – gathering the information that forms situational awareness. The stronger the situational awareness, the better the decision making potential. There are, however, two inherent problems with training firefighters on how to conduct size-ups when using a flashover simulation trailer.

Problem #1: It is difficult (if not impossible) to get the smoke – which is the indicator of impending flashover – to display the qualities of a pre-flashover (think: color, volume, velocity and density). The hydrocarbon-rich environment of a real fire simply cannot be replicated burning Class-A materials. So, the firefighter conducting the 360-degree size-up will not be able to “read” the smoke and see a pre-flashover condition (an indicator that entry should not be made).

Problem #2: Firefighters making entry into a flashover trailer have little-to-no concern about building collapse. The container is made of steel as it is designed not to collapse. Thus, firefighters can make repeated entries with no concern of collapse. This robs the firefighter of the critical skill of assessing building construction and decomposition prior to making entry.

Both of these conditions leave firefighters unable to conduct a proper size-up of conditions while using flashover simulation props.

Trick the brain

As I discuss in the Training for Failure program, it is possible to “trick” your brain into learning. One way to do this is to use videos or simulations to help firefighters complete size-ups and to help them make quality decisions about go or no-go.

I use an inexpensive software package called SimsUShare to make the simulations I use in my classes. I like it because it’s inexpensive (under $50 and it’s easy to use). The training officer can shoot pictures of buildings in their town on mobile devices and then impose various moving smoke and fire conditions.


This allows the training officer to simulate various smoke conditions, including pre-flashover. There are numerous choices for smoke and fire conditions, even explosions and victims if you want to get creative.

Why Simulate?

There is not much benefit to having crews size up the smoke coming from the simulator (as it relates to seeing pending signs of a flashover). Primarily for two reasons: First, the smoke will not contain the rich hydrocarbon products that will be present in real fires (thick, black, angry smoke/fuel). Second, the smoke NEVER changes colors like it does during real fires.

simulatorThe smoke color, volume, velocity and density is the closest thing we have to a crystal ball on the fireground. It tells you what’s burning, where it’s burning, how deep it’s burning, how hot it’s burning and where the fire is going next. It also shows you the signs of impending flashover.

Using simulations with pictures from your town will also allow students to assess building construction. Be sure to build in discussions how buildings are constructed and how they decompose while under the stress of fire.

Simulations – versus static photographs – show motion. Thus, the student is able to determine the speed of the smoke and fire movement and make better decisions about rapidly changing conditions (like pending flashover and collapse).

The mother of all decisions

Take pictures of all four sides of a structure. As your students walk around the burn trailer, have them look at all four sides of your simulation. Then… coach them on how to make the first, and most critical decision they will ever have to make… go… or no-go… based on the conditions they view on the simulation.

No-go means NO-GO!

nogoIt’s CRITICAL that some of the simulations show the officer making the size-up of what no-go conditions look like. This gives the officer an opportunity to make a no-go decision. Don’t skip or gloss over this step. It is really important.

Spend some time talking about how difficult it can be to make the no-go decision. Teach and demonstrate how to communicate no-go decisions to crew members. This will be one of the hardest (and arguably most important) decisions an officer will ever make. Make sure the officer’s practice making these decisions in real-time. Demonstrate to the crews how to accept the no-go decision. This is hard, too. Firefighters want to go! So make sure the crews practice accepting the no-go decision. Once told no-go, have the crews perform the physical tasks they would do after the no-go decision is made. This will ensure their sense of duty-to-act is fulfilled and they are still making contributions to change (improve) the outcome of the incident. If the officer says “no-go” and the crews are not given subsequent assignments, it’s the equivalent of saying “You’re not worthy to enter this one… go sit on the bench.”

Dr. Gasaway’s advice

Many instructors spend nearly all their time teaching firefighters how to play offense and little to no time teaching them how to play defense.  Being offensive (in the case of this discussion – on the interior) can be a great strategy. But it’s not ALWAYS the best strategy. Sometimes defensive (in the case of this discussion – from the exterior) is the better strategy.

If you spend all your training time on the cognitive and muscle memory lessons of aggressive-interior firefights and only “talk” about being defensive-exterior firefighter, you are robbing your firefighters of the ability to see they have options. Without options, there are no decisions to be made. And for many firefighters, the decision to GO is one that has been programmed into them in training.

Action items

Read a casualty report involving a firefighter injury death that occurred within 2-minutes of making entry. Discuss the potential of the outcome from being a flawed “go” strategy to what should have been a “no-go” strategy.

  1. Discuss how to incorporate the process of “size-up” into training using simulation or videos.
  2. Discuss how to improve go and no-go decision making.
  3. Discuss (and practice) making no-go decisions (in advance of ever needing to).


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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1 thought on “Situational Awareness and Decision Making Tips for Training”

  1. It’s good to learn that you should go through simulations when training to be a firefighter. My brother is wanting to become a firefighter and he was wondering what he should do to prepare for any situations he might be in. I’ll be sure to tell him that he should go through simulations of fires before becoming a firefighter.

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