Zanshin or Situational Awareness...What is your level?

     I would like to wecome ouse of training Blog guest writer Captain Brian Giles of the Lincoln, Nebrska fire Department.  This article corresponds with a Training and Tactics pod cast.  
     After 26 years of martial arts training and 21 years of public safety service, I have come to the realization that most lessons within the dojo translate to the fire service. I often find myself comparing and analyzing these seemingly unrelated disciplines. Many of the basic concepts and practices of one can be utilized or adapted to numerous situations of the other. The focus of this article is on one aspect of traditional Karate training and how it applies to the fire service and fire fighter safety. Future articles will build on this initial concept and its practical application illustrating how martial arts training has impacted and enhanced my daily life and fire service career.
     In Karate training we talk about and practice the theory of Zanshin. Zanshin has a very direct effect on fire fighter safety and survival. Zanshin is a Japanese term, which loosely translates to “a state of total awareness; preparedness for danger; readiness for action.” At its most basic level it requires awareness of your surroundings and enemies, as well as preparation to react to them. Does this ring any bells for you as something we also do in the fire service? It should. On the fire ground we apply Zanshin practice in many ways – situational awareness, size-up, dynamic risk assessment, as well as an ongoing assessment of a building, its conditions, and fire involvement just to name a few applications. Why do we do this? Simple. We do these things on the fire ground because the building is our enemy and we want to maintain “a state of total awareness, preparedness for danger, and readiness for action!”
    Situational awareness has been hammered home for years in the fire service in the context of fire ground activities. The application of Zanshin, particularly in situational awareness, does not only occur on the fire ground. Instead, we will consider Zanshin and situational awareness and how it applies to our craft on those calls away from the fire ground. These are calls where we may tend to forget this practice and potentially suffer extreme consequences.
    A good example of this would be medical emergencies and the unknown risks we face each time we encounter patients or the public. Do you maintain situational awareness, or Zanshin, on your third chest pain call of the day? What about the numerous runs for a “man down/nature unknown”, which more often than not turn out to be a sleeping or intoxicated party? It is these calls where you will see fire fighters relaxing, or not maintaining good Zanshin practice. It is easy to fall into a comfort zone on a medical run and become a creature of habit, following your routine and protocols for that particular type of call. Zanshin practice is lowered as no “real” threats are perceived as being present; i.e. no building on fire which you are preparing to run into. When you arrive at a residence on an average medical call, with no known exigent circumstances, do you take the time to look at the location like you would if it were on fire? You should, as Zanshin practice teaches you to take note of several important elements that can prove vital to the safety of you and your crew.
    Where are the primary and secondary means of access and egress to the building? Look at the windows. Is anyone watching your approach from inside the residence? Are the windows fortified with burglar bars? Are there any signs of large or potentially dangerous dogs on scene? There are a myriad of potential threats to the safety and well-being of you and your crew each and every time you arrive at the scene of a call for service. The question is, are you staying sharp and focused, utilizing Zanshin practice to ensure your safety and the safety of your crew?
    Once you are inside a residence with a patient are you maintaining Zanshin, in other words, sizing up the surroundings and identifying any potential threats? Applying Zanshin entails identifying any danger signs and taking the steps necessary to eliminate any threats to fire fighter safety. For example, a patient seated next to an edged/pointed weapon, such as a pair of scissors, a knife, letter opener, screwdriver, sharp pencil, etc. Secure any of these items and move them away from the patient and other civilians who may be present. Are you familiar with the minimum reactionary gap/distance to keep between you and someone brandishing an edged weapon? The answer will most likely surprise you! Anything less than 21 feet and your odds of getting cut or stabbed are increased dramatically. To be prepared, always adhere to the principle that action is faster than reaction. Don’t get caught off guard with your hands in your pockets, back on your heels, oblivious to the clues of potential impending harm to you or your crew. Maintain Zanshin practice until you and your crew are safe in the apparatus and clear from the scene.
     By introducing Zanshin practice as a related concept of situational awareness in the fire service world, it is my hope that fire fighters will take a moment to re-evaluate their own approach to fire fighter safety. Remember to employ Zanshin practice and always be thinking one step ahead in all situations. We’ve been taught to do just that on the fire ground, referring to this practice as forecasting – i.e. where is the fire in the building now and where will it most likely be in five minutes? Zanshin practice should at least begin with the information you are provided at dispatch. While en route to the dispatched location use this information to develop your state of awareness and plan for the potential problems that you forecast to encounter at the scene. Implementing Zanshin at the time of dispatch “prepares you for danger and allows readiness for action.”    
     For the advanced martial artist, Zanshin practice is an overarching goal one strives to achieve through rigorous training. Reactions to threats become automatic and come without thought. Over time these develop into wholly instinctual behaviors based on motor responses drilled into the body through years of intense, repetitive training. The same is true of fire fighter behavior on the fire ground. Many years of on-the-job experience develop into the ability to recognize various strategic cues and implement the necessary tactics to address them, based on repeated fire ground experiences. Just like the fire service, in Karate we expand and enrich our real-world experiences with practical, meaningful and effective training. In 26 years of training and competing I have found there are many frauds or imposters in the martial arts world. These types spend all their time talking about themselves and inflating their credentials and egos, but they don’t spend much time actually out on the dojo floor sweating and looking for the answers found in training. How many names in your own department just came to mind from this martial arts example of those who lack focused training but not inflated self-worth? My Karate teacher has been training in the martial arts for over 55 years and has a saying he always uses to address these very types of individuals, easily applicable to both the martial arts and the fire service. His motto is simple: ”Damatte Keiko!” or basically “Shut up and train!”

What are you waiting for? Stay sharp!