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Situation Awareness During Size-Up

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.

The third and perhaps most challenging stage of situation awareness is being able to predict what is going to happen in the future. This stage of situation awareness development is what Endsley termed the projection phase. Predicting the future isn't easy, but on the emergency scene it is essential. Company officers and commanders must be able to not only figure out what is happening right now, but what is going to happen next. This realistic anticipation of future events is what's going to help improve your safety. As you read near-miss reports or line-of-duty death reports you may find yourself asking "how did they not see this coming?" I'll caution you from passing judgment on Monday morning because the reports you read contain, for the most part, 100 percent complete and accurate factual information--something that was not available at the time the near-miss or the catastrophic event was unfolding.

Nonetheless, the ability to get out ahead of the current moment and envision how the incident is going to unfold, based on what you have, what has been done, and what yet needs to be done, is critical. An accurate prediction of future events is the best way to avoid trouble. For example, if you're driving your car at night and you have your high beams on and you're not traveling too fast for the visibility conditions, if there is a large rock in the road ahead and you are looking out ahead of your vehicle far enough, (anticipating what is ahead) you'll see the rock. The sooner you see it coming, the better your chances of being able to maneuver around it safely. On the contrary, if you're not looking ahead (anticipating), you may not see the rock until it's too late and then you're going to either have a collision or have to perform and evasive (and possibly dangerous) maneuver to avoid a crash.


The challenging part of developing and maintaining situation awareness is the process is on-going. You must continually be gathering cues and clues (perception). Those cues and clues must then be continually processed into meaning about the current situation (comprehension). Finally, the company officer or commander must continually make predictions about where the incident is heading (projection). Each person who arrives, regardless of rank or experience, needs to conduct some form of size-up to understand what is going on and where the incident may be headed. This is why there are windows in the passenger compartment of commercial airliners; people what to be able to see what is going on and where they are headed.

Remember, situation awareness is more than just paying attention.

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RICHARD B. GASAWAY PhD, a Contributing Editor, joined the fire service in 1979 and has served six emergency services departments in West Virginia, Ohio, and Minnesota. He holds bachelors, masters, and doctoral degrees in finance, economics, business administration and leadership. Chief Gasaway has written over 80 books, book chapters and journal articles on the topic of leadership and emergency operations. He has also presented on these topics at more than 500 regional, national, and international conferences. He is the host of the Leader's Toolbox Podcast on To read Richard's complete biography and view his archived articles, click here. You can reach Rich on the web at: