Every crew that arrives on the scene of an incident needs to conduct a size-up. It's an essential component to ensuring strategic and tactical success as well as improving firefighter safety. The focus of this discussion is on situation awareness on the emergency scene. Probably the simplest definition of situation awareness I've heard someone use is it means paying attention. While I cannot argue with the concept that in order to have good situation awareness you have to pay attention, it's not as simple as that.
If it were that simple there would be a national campaign (that would probably include some lapel pins and helmet stickers) with the slogan pay attention. Developing and maintaining strong situation awareness is actually a three-step process. However, this process must be repeated over and over again throughout the incident. This may be one of the greatest challenges for company officers and commanders. Early in your training you were taught that upon arrival you conduct a size-up of the situation. Clearly this makes sense. If you don't look around and see what you have, how can you possibly know what is the right thing to do?
Three Phases of Situation Awareness
As I stated previously, the process of developing and maintaining situation awareness is a three-step process. This concept was uncovered by research conducted by Dr. Mica Endsley, of SATechnologies, as she set out to explain how situation awareness is used in decision making.
At the first level of situation awareness, the company officer or commander gathers all the cues and clues needed to figure out what is going on. Cues and clues are anything your senses can capture. It is important to know that as you conduct your size-up and you are taking in all the cues and clues, your brain is taking the information and processing it at both a conscious and a subconscious level.
In other words, as you arrive there are certain things you are consciously looking for (like building construction, smoke and fire conditions, signs of occupants or rescue, ingress and egress). However, as you scan the environment, your brain will be processing cues and clues that you may not have intentionally set out to capture. For example, your brain might see and process a darkened window, a toy in the yard, several newspapers on the front porch, the absence of window coverings (curtains or blinds). All of these cues and clues are captured during the first stage of situation awareness development. This is why it is so important to not rush the process but to take a moment to concentrate on the task of size-up (not just glance at the structure and assume you know the cues and clues). Endsley calls this first step the perception phase of situation awareness. This is where paying attention is so important.
The second phase in the development of your situation awareness is where you take all those cues and clues you captured in your size-up and make sense out of what it all means. Endsley calls this the comprehension phase of situation awareness. As in the perception phase, your brain comprehends meaning at both a conscious and a subconscious level. This is a good thing because you do not have enough capacity in your short-term (working) memory to recall into consciousness all the knowledge you have acquired over your lifetime that will help you understand what is going on. You'll be able to recall some things, but not everything.
Your brain takes the cues and clues gathered in step one and searches through your memory stores for similar experiences. The more training and experience you have, obviously, the easier it is going to be for your brain to cull the information that will help you figure out what is going on. This helps you decide your strategy and tactics.