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Teaching Situational Awareness and Decision Making

teachlearnSituational awareness is the foundation for good decision making. Situational awareness is formed by observing… and understanding what is happening in your environment, in the context of how time is passing. That “understanding” is then used to make predictions of future events. For those who have attended my full-day situational awareness classes you know this is a simplified explanation but it will due for the discussion we are about to have on teaching situational awareness and decision making.


decision makingWhat is a Decision? When a person is confronted with having to make a choice between two or more alternatives, they must make a decision. If there is only one option, there is no decision to be made. For example, if you are driving down the road, for so long as there are no intersections, you do not have to make a decision to turn left or right. It is only when you come to an intersection that a decision must be made as to which way to turn. Thus, for the need to make a decision to exist, there must be choice between alternatives.


Training It has been my observation that we are not training first responders and, in many cases, commanding officers on how to make critical decisions. I don’t think instructors are doing it on purpose, but I know for a fact it’s happening – a lot. How do I know?  I’ve been conducting polls during my “Training for Failure” programs to see how many participants are being cheated out of having to make critical decisions. While I am deeply disappointed in the results, I am not surprised by them. Because I was among the instructors who did not teach my students how to make decisions. I’m not proud of myself for making that confession, but it’s true.

An example: When firefighters and/or first responders arrive at the scene of a structure fire, among the most critical decisions they are going to make is the “go” or “no go” decision – make an interior entry into the structure or not. Fundamentally, there may be no single decision that will have more impact on the outcome of the incident (regardless of whether the decision is “go” or “no go”). Yet we don’t do a very good job of teaching firefighters and/or their officers how to make these critical decisions.

When I was a live burn instructor, we would prepare the structure, secure our water supply, assemble the students, ensure we were following the burn standard and prepare for the evolution. The interior “burn team” instructor would light the fire and once it build up sufficient heat and smoke, the exterior instructor would tell the entry team to go. In fact, it often wasn’t an order to go. It was more like this: “GO! GO! GO! GO! GO! GO!” And away the students would go, on the mission of searching for victims and extinguishing the fire.

Tragic isn’t it. That every time I did that to a group of students, I (the instructor) was making the “go” or “no go” decision on behalf the students. They were never given the opportunity to form their own situational awareness that would have helped them make their own informed “go” or “no go” decision. In fact, the decision was NEVER “no go.” They ALWAYS went interior. And because the decision was ALWAYS go… there was – by the definition of a decision offered previously – no decision to be made at all.

Rich Gasaway’s Advice

A good decision is made after an assessment of facts that form situational awareness. At a structure fire, those facts are gathered during size-up. Size-up is physical process of gathering information. The information is then assessed and compared to past experiences to help make an informed decision (in this case, “go” or “no go”). But denying firefighters the opportunity to complete a size-up and simply ordering them to “go” (every time), they were never given a second option (“no go”) which means they were never taught how to make a decision. There are a variety of factors in making the “go” or “no go” decision and they are all rooted in performing a proper size up. As I teach rapid decision making in dynamic environments, I encourage students to gather only a very small number of the most critical pieces of information (because of limitations in the capacity of short term memory). Staying true to those teachings, here are four things to consider when teaching a firefighter or officer how to make a quality “go” or “no go” decision.

  1. Smoke and fire conditions: Specifically (with credit to Dave Dodson and his Art of Reading Smoke class), the color, volume, velocity and density of the smoke and fire as predictors of flashover – one of the leading contributors in firefighter fatalities at structure fires.
  2. Building construction and decomposition: Specifically, what is the building make out of and where is it in the process of falling down. (Hint: Every building on fire is in the process of falling down because heat is weakening the structure and eventually the force of gravity will overwhelm the structural components and the building will fall down. Collapse – another leading contributing factor in firefighter fatalities at structure fires.
  3. Speed of the incident: Specifically, how fast are conditions changing? Every fire has a speed. And situational awareness is formed by understanding what is happening in the context of how time is passing. In other words, how fast is the fire consuming the structure and can the resources you have assembled at this moment in time outrun or out maneuver the fire?
  4. Victim Survivability profile: Specifically, there is a window of opportunity for civilians to be saved at a structure fire. Not everyone is savable, as much some would like to think they are. When conducting a quality assessment of the previous three factors, it should become apparent when the window of survivability is closed or is closing so rapidly that an interior rescue attempt would prove futile.

From now on, when conducting live fire training, have crews assess these four criteria and let the company officer (or senior firefighter in the absence of an officer) make an informed “go” or “no go” decision that is rooted in situational awareness. In an upcoming article I will share how we can trick the brain when teaching how to conduct a size-up and make a quality “go” or “no go” decision.

Action items

  1. Discuss what criteria you use when making your “go” or “no go” decisions.
  2. Discuss opportunities for building decision making criteria into your training so company officers are taught how to make quality “go” or “no go” decisions.
  3. Discuss a time when you may have been part of a crew where the decision should have been “no go” but the crew went in anyhow.

[Listen to SAMatters Radio Episode #18 titled “What I learned in two minutes” and hear from a close call survivor who was confronted with a “no go” scenario at a residential dwelling fire and despite high heat and zero visibility conditions still made entry. Within two minutes he was caught in a flashover and suffered second and third degree burns.] Click on the SAMatters Radio tab at the top of the home page or subscribe to SAMatters Radio on iTunes. The podcast is dedicated to improving situational awareness and I interview close calls survivors willing to share their stories so others can learn and live.


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 “Teaching Situational Awareness and Decision Making”

  1. Gary Watlington

    This article is dead on Rich! A lot of Firefighters AND Officers today are more concentrated on being aggressive and getting interior to fight the fire rather than taking the time for a 360 to see what type of conditions they are dealing with or ARE going to deal with. With the type of fuel loads, lightweight construction, and hazards that are present in todays fires, as Officers and Firefighters, we MUST take the time to understand situational awareness and the importance of making the right life saving decisions. My opinion is that decision making and situational awareness should be taught in EVERY recruit class and also discussed frequently as continuing education for newer firefighters and veterans both.

  2. Good Morning Rich,
    I am a Watch Commander in the Northern Territory Fire & Rescue Service here in Australia. I am in operations / emergency response and as such I respond to and take operational command of large incidents. I am keen on training and up-skilling myself and my whole Dept in Critical Decision Making for Fire / First Responders to critical incidents. I am wondering if you might know of a good scenario based IT program that we can use for scenarios and training in a classroom that is both challenging and engaging for participants. Our new and emerging leaders are not being taught how to use critical thinking and critical decision making skills at incidents and it is my intention to develop a suite of workshops and short courses to address this. Essentially theory and practice.
    I look forward to hearing from you. Many thanks in advance for your valuable time.
    Kind regards, Nick Bell
    Private Email –

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