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The Rational Brain and Situational Awareness

Situational Awareness Matters

Oftentimes during situational awareness programs, participants will share stories of incidents they have responded to, or incidents they have read about, or videos of incidents they have watched where the incident ended in a significant near-miss or a casualty.


This happened recently during a program where a firefighter with 20+ years of experience showed me a video clip on break and then asked me: “How could they be so stupid? Everyone knows you don’t do that!”

Rational Brain

Such statements are made by individuals who are using their rational brain in a low stress, no consequence (classroom) environment. Under these conditions it is easy to see behavior that appears to be foolish or in contempt of good safety practices. It is also easy to criticize the performance of others when we are not there to understand the context of their decision-making.

I encouraged this gentleman, and all of my program participants, to stop judging the performance of others and start being a student of human behavior. As you begin to understand how vulnerable the rational human brain is toward making bad decisions under stress, and more importantly the reason behind these seemingly poor decisions, your entire perspective may begin to change.

Brain Chemistry



Changes that can occur in brain function as a result of stress include:




1. Release of enzymes, hormones, and neurotransmitters that can alter brain function.

2. Chemical/stress-induced hereditary instincts that may trigger fight, flight, or freeze responses.

3. Impairment of rational thought processes.

4. Narrowing of attention.

5. Struggles with processing and understanding complex, detailed, or volumes of information.

6. Triggered, automatic responses based on past training, experiences, and habits (good or bad).

Invest time toward understanding the “how and why” of decision-making under stress, and you will see that you may be vulnerable to making the same (seemingly) bad decisions as the people you are watching in videos or reading about in case studies.

Thanks to the student for asking the question that set up a great discussion on how our brains make decisions under stress.


The mission of Situational Awareness Matters is simple: Help first responders see the bad things coming… in time to change the outcome.

Safety begins with SA! 


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 “The Rational Brain and Situational Awareness”

  1. Mike Connelly

    There must be a version of tachypsychia that affects my decision making process as fire chief!

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