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...

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.

Related Links

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: