Using the Situtational Awareness Cycle to See the Big Picture

Lt. Robert Brown illustrates the need to create a situational awareness cycle from the time a fire call comes in until the incident is over.


"Everybody goes! Phone alarm, first-due engine and first-due truck for fire in a commercial building at 1655 Pitkin Avenue. The fire is reported on the first floor. Critical information dispatch system (CIDS) is available from the dispatcher."

As we hear the house watchman read the ticket, we start our size-up. You are thinking about that building and trying to anticipate what it looks like and what the most common problems may be. The evaluation starts with that ticket and never ends. Using any/all information you can get to start your plan of attack. Critical information must be given to all units responding as soon as it becomes available. This ensures that each responding unit has the ability start a plan of attack for the fire or emergency being presented.

"Brooklyn to Ladder 120, we also had a second call on this reporting smoke from the store."

"Ladder 120 to Brooklyn, go with the CIDS over the air."

When available and there is a higher probability you have a job, it is important for you to have the CIDS read over the air. This allows members getting ready in the back and on all other responding apparatus to hear what the fireground might look like before we arrive on scene. This allows all members responding to begin a "situational awareness (SA) analysis" using all information provided to formulate a plan of attack, anticipate problems and variables that might affect the operation and the safety of all on the fireground. The "SA analysis" is a tool to allow firefighters the ability to continually evaluate their situation/objective by following a narrower focus of the 13-point size-up. This SA checklist must be constantly evaluated throughout the job.

Each radio transmission you hear gives you the ability to know what is going on in other sectors of the fire to allow you to alter your situation/objective (when necessary). Most fires will not require you to drastically alter your plan of attack. But as you will see, fires change very fast today, our ability to react after the fact is diminished to a level that is not safe. We must learn to be flexible and adaptable on the fireground. We must now learn to anticipate problems before they happen and have an alternative plan ready to implement to keep everyone safe.

"Ladder 120 to Brooklyn 10-75 the box! Fire appears to be on the first floor of a two-story commercial building 80-by-100."

When you arrive at the scene of a commercial fire in the middle of the night, your first thoughts should be that we are the only life hazard. When we do this, it allows the operation to take a more cautious plan of attack. It is not to say that we cannot go into the building and put out the fire in most situations. It merely lowers the reward of our #1 objective, which is life. Objective #2 is property. This objective is very important, it is not however, more important than a firefighter's life. When we become the only life hazard we have to tip the scale of risk versus reward toward the risk side, with not much reward. A third objective we need to have at every fire is safety. By adding this objective, we broaden the focus to saving civilians and protecting firefighters from injury and death, especially when there is an extremely low probability of trapped civilians.

"Ladder 120 to Battalion 44, we have gained entry to the building…looks like we have a fire in the rear of the store. Low to moderate heat and no fire above us, we are working off the search line to find the fire."

"Ladder 120OV (outside vent) to Ladder 120, I am in the rear and we have fire blowing out the window from the basement…you have fire below you."

As the officer, when you hear that report from your outside vent person, what do you do? Does this change your objective and situation? What are your immediate concerns? These are all questions we should have been asking ourselves before the report was even given. Plan B should already be in place, if you were constantly going through your "SA cycle." You would have been anticipating possible fire in the basement due to the construction and conditions of fire upon arrival. It is now, without hesitation, you immediately exit the area and implement a defensive strategy. To stay in that position knowing you have fire below you is reckless not aggressive.

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