You may recall from earlier discussions that situational awareness is formed by gathering information about what is happening in the environment around you. Then, your brain takes that information and attempts to form an understanding of what it all means. Finally, after understanding what it means, you make predictions of future events.
This is a high-level, simplistic overview of how situational awareness is formed. I encourage you to read some of the past articles where I go in more depth. But for the sake of this discussion, I don’t want to get into too much detail on how situational awareness is formed.
This article is dedicated to discussing how weather can impact situational awareness.
For this discussion, weather is all conditions atmospheric that you can experience while operating at an incident. This would include heat, cold, wind, snow, rain, and ice. Your optimal mental performance occurs under what would be considered “normal” operating conditions, or in this case, normal weather conditions. Normal is a relative term, of course. Normal in Arizona is far different than normal in Alaska. Humans tend to adjust to the climate of the region they live in.
Distractions are anything that draws a person’s attention away from what they are trying to concentrate on. For example, as I type this article (sitting in a cafeteria on the campus of a college where I am giving a presentation tonight), there is a fly that keeps buzzing around my table… landing on my screen… landing on my hands… and one time even hitting me in the face. This is distracting. Not only is this stupid fly drawing my attention off the task of writing, it also has me concentrating on what methods I can deploy to dispatch it. If I were not keenly aware of the impact it were having on me, I might find myself losing my situational awareness.
Weather as a distractor
Weather, like the fly, can be distracting. However, the weather may not be as overtly distracting as this pesky fly is. When our body gets too hot, too cold or too wet, it impacts our comfort. Your sensory organs (nerves) are always capturing information and sending that information into central command (your brain) for processing. Most of the sensory input from weather conditions is processed without much conscious awareness.
In other words, when the weather is favorable, your skin is assessing the temperature and moisture contents and sending that information into your brain. So long as conditions are good, your brain simply ignores the input because no action is required.
However, let that input change (e.g., the messages from the sensory organs informs the brain that the body is experiencing uncomfortable levels of hot or cold or any other weather-related variations) and that information can quickly take center-stage and you become VERY aware that you are experiencing a physical (and sometimes mental) detriment because of weather conditions.
For as long as you continue to feel uncomfortable in the weather, the sensory input keeps up its assault on your ability to pay attention and you may find your situational awareness impacted because you may not be able to process information as well as you would if your brain wasn’t so concerned about your physical well-being.
Commanding in the weather
Front line crews sometimes criticize supervisors for sitting in climate-controlled vehicles while commanding incidents. The criticism is often framed as the supervisor gets to sit in a nice, comfortable vehicle while the front line worker has to be out in the _________ (insert any excessive weather condition). Some supervisors, caving under the stress of such criticism, will stand out in the excessive weather just to show they are suffering as much as the front line workers are.
The supervisor who subjects him or herself to excessive weather needlessly is risking an impact on their situational awareness. Commanding a team requires all the mental capacity on the task of commanding. There is no room to share that space with nagging clues coming from sensory inputs that are screaming “I’m too hot” or “I’m too cold” or I’m too… (whatever, related to weather).
I’m a strong advocate of commanding from a position of comfort. This is both personal comfort and confidence comfort. Command from a vehicle if that’s where you are most comfortable. Command from outside a vehicle if that is where you are most comfortable (just stay back far enough to see the big picture and don’t be hands-on). However, do everything you can to control your exposure to the weather that can impact your situational awareness.
For the front line workers, this advice obviously isn’t going to work. In your case, frequent breaks during excessive weather can help the body recover and keep your brain from obsessing about your exposure to extreme conditions.
Dr. Gasaway’s Advice
Command from a position of comfort. Understand that exposure to excessive weather causes the parts of your brain that process incoming information to compete with the incoming weather reports. This may happen in a subtle, covert way or it can happen in a very obvious way (it depends on how severe the weather is).
Be aware that your ability to perceive your surroundings (Level 1 situational awareness) and your ability to comprehend the meaning of critical clues and cues (Level 2 situational awareness) are both at risk of being impacted by weather.
1. Discuss a time when severe or excessive weather impacted your situational awareness.
2. Discuss the potential consequences of flawed situational awareness while operating in severe weather conditions.
3. Discuss pre-emptive measures you can take to reduce the impact of weather on your situational awareness.
4. Discuss where supervisors should be located during an emergency (this may be set by department policy already). Discuss the advantages and disadvantages of the supervisor being shielded from extreme conditions.
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.
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