Developing and Maintaining Fireground Command Situation Awareness - Part 1

Richard B. Gasaway begins a two-part series discussing how situation awareness affects your decision making.Part 1 - Understanding Situation Awareness & How It Affects Your Decision Making


Richard B. Gasaway begins a two-part series discussing how situation awareness affects your decision making. Part 1 - Understanding Situation Awareness & How It Affects Your Decision Making In 2007, the National Firefighter Near-Miss Reporting System annual report identified situation awareness...


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Richard B. Gasaway begins a two-part series discussing how situation awareness affects your decision making.Part 1 - Understanding Situation Awareness & How It Affects Your Decision Making

In 2007, the National Firefighter Near-Miss Reporting System annual report identified situation awareness (SA) as the leading factor in firefighter near-miss events. In studying National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) line-of-duty death reports, it becomes apparent that issues with situation awareness are contributing to firefighter casualties as well.

For the years 2001 through 2005, I found 26 residential dwelling fire fatality incidents where human error related to situation awareness was a contributing factor to the firefighter casualty. The situation awareness-related issues cited in these reports included inadequate initial and ongoing size-ups, failure to continuously evaluate the risk versus benefits during the entire operation, ineffective communication of fireground conditions and failure to recognize hazards. Much has been written about issues with situation awareness on the fireground. Yet, when asked, many fireground commanders struggle to explain what it means to have situation awareness. Even worse, commanders struggle to explain how situation awareness is lost and what things can be done to keep it intact. In general, there is a lack of awareness...about awareness. How ironic.

Let's start by getting a good handle on what situation awareness means. After that, you'll be in a better position to understand how situation awareness can be established, maintained, impacted, lost and regained. I have heard several people offer simplistic definitions of situation awareness that, in some ways, capture the essence of the concept, yet do not do it justice. For example, I have heard it described as "paying attention" or "where perception and reality meet." Can't argue with that, but what does that really mean?

To help you understand situation awareness in a meaningful way, I turn to the work of Dr. Mica Endsley, founder and President of SA Technologies. Endsley has written over 200 scientific articles and several books on issues related to situation awareness in dynamic high stress environments. In a 1988 paper titled Design and Evaluation for Situation Awareness Enhancement, Endsley defined situation awareness as a perception of elements in the environment within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning and the projection of their status in the near future.

Stated another way, situation awareness is your ability to capture cues and clues from what is happening around you...then being able to put those together to mean something...then being able to predict future events as a result of what you have captured and the meaning you gave to it. Endsley's research discovered there are three levels of situation awareness:

  • Level 1 is the perception phase (this is where you capture the cues and clues).
  • Level 2 is the comprehension phase (this is where you put those cues and clues together to mean something).
  • Level 3 is the projection phase (this where you predict future events based on Levels 1 and 2).

This is important to understand because if, for some reason, you are not able to capture the right cues and clues, it will impact your ability to understand what is happening. This, in turn, will impact your ability to predict what is going to happen next. Chances are pretty good that you have read an after-action report or watched a fire scene video where something went wrong and said to yourself "How could they not see this coming?" or "That could never happen to me."

First of all, it is easy to read these reports or watch these videos and become angry because what you see coming is SO obvious. Well, it wasn't obvious to the incident commander. They didn't respond to that call thinking to themselves, "I'm going to lose my situation awareness on this call...make some bad decisions...and jeopardize the safety of my firefighters." Yet it happens.

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