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It is not possible to multitask the act of paying attention. This can present real challenges for responders working in environments where rapidly changing conditions may require performing multiple concurrent tasks.

The Deadly Dozen: Twelve barriers that can impact situational awareness – Part 3

Flawed situational awareness is one of the leading contributing factors in first responder near-miss and casualty events. Over the past ten years I have uncovered and researched over one hundred barriers that can flaw first responder awareness and, perhaps more importantly, have developed best practices for how to develop and maintain situational awareness while working in high-risk, high-consequence, time-compressed environments with changing conditions.

In the previous two segments, I provided a working definition for situational awareness and discussed eight barriers that can impact first responder situational awareness including: pre-arrival lens, confirmation bias, task fixation, mission myopia, auditory exclusion, sensory domination, confabulation and flawed perceptions of reality. In this final segment, we will look at four more barriers: multitasking, short-term memory overload, overconfidence and complacency. The series concludes with a five-step process to assess if your organization may be heading toward a catastrophic outcome.

But before we dig into the final four barriers, let’s once again review the definition of situational awareness:

Situational awareness is a first responder’s ability to capture information – cues and clues (perception), then being able to put those clues and cues together to mean something (understanding) and then being able to anticipate future events (prediction) hopefully in time to avoid a bad outcome.

Multitasking and short term memory overload

Emergency scenes are complex. There are many priorities to be completed and staffing, especially during the initial operations, can be scant. This results in crews multitasking, or attempting to complete multiple concurrent priorities simultaneously.

There’s just one problem with this. The conscious brain cannot multitask the act of paying attention (the foundational component to developing and maintaining situational awareness). Is this a fact or just conjecture? It’s a fact. Thanks to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) it is possible to observe the function of the human brain non-evasively. Neuro-researchers have, through multiple studies, demonstrated conclusively the conscious brain cannot focus attention on two concurrent tasks.

Rather, what the brain does is focus on one task, and then the second task, then back to the first and so on. The brain switches attention between the two tasks. This switching of attention is known as interleaving. The brain can switch attention very quickly from task to task but the process can cause a person to forget where they left off and can delay the refocusing of attention when switching back to the first task. It’s likely that most everyone has fallen victim to memory loss while multitasking and forgot to do something or forgot where something was placed or in some cases even momentarily forgot what they were doing or where they were at. These slips in attention are consequences of multitasking. It is important to realize that in a multitasking environment you are vulnerable to forgetting and subject to confusion.

As you are able, consider prioritizing your task assignments and focus on completing one before moving on to this next. I realize this is not always possible. If you do find yourself multitasking, remember your vulnerabilities due to how your conscious brain focuses attention on one task at a time.

Short-term memory has severe limitations, especially under stress. Strive to keep your focus on a small number (7 or less) of the most important pieces of information essential to your safety.

Short-term memory has severe limitations, especially under stress. Strive to keep your focus on a small number (7 or less) of the most important pieces of information essential to your safety.

As you are able, consider delegating task assignments to others and spreading out the cognitive load. Again, this is not always possible. If you are unable delegate, revert to the previous advice and prioritize task assignments.

Contributing to the challenges you will face while attempting to multitask is your brain’s limited capacity to capture, hold and recall information in its short-term memory buffer. The average person’s short-term memory capacity is roughly seven pieces of unrelated information (give or take two). After that, you are subject to forgetting. When you think about how many pieces of information there is to capture and hold during a rapidly changing incident, it seems predictable the short-term memory is going to get overloaded quickly. And it often does.

To help manage the issues created by short-term memory limits, try focusing on a small number of the most important pieces of information essential to good decision making. You can also “chunk” information, which means you can combine information that have compatible (or related) characteristics. In short-term memory, chunked items are processed together because they are related. For example, when evaluating a fire, you would assess the smoke and fire conditions. Because those two observable characteristics are so tightly related (i.e., it’s hard to have one without the other), the brain can package those together as one item to be stored in short-term memory.

Here is an example of prioritizing information, with respect to short-term memory limitations, and the use of chunking can assist in managing information. Let’s assume the emergency is a fire in a single-family detached dwelling with no exposures. The priority information needed to make critical decisions (like go or no-go) might include.

Commanders should consider using memory aids (like worksheets and checklists) to help manage information that can be quickly forgotten once a mayday is called.

Commanders should consider using memory aids (like worksheets and checklists) to help manage information that can be quickly forgotten once a mayday is called.

  • Smoke and fire conditions: These two characteristics go together and they serve as the indicators of what is burning, where it’s burning, how hot it’s burning and where it’s headed.
  • Building construction and decomposition: These two characteristics also go together. What is the building made out of? How is the building decomposing under the stress of the fire? Ironically, it is the first items on this list (smoke and fire) that help you answer the second question.
  • Speed of change: How fast are conditions changing? How much time do we have until there is a flashover or collapse? How fast is the window of opportunity (to do interior work) closing? Do we have the right resources? The answers to these questions are contained in the assessment of the first two items on this list.
  • Victim survivability profile: Is there a savable life in a savable space? Are we able to reach them? Do we have enough time? How fast is the window of opportunity closing for the victim? How fast is our window of opportunity closing (so we don’t become victims)? Can we operate fast enough to get the rescue completed before the window closes? The answers to these questions are contained in the assessment of the first three items on this list.

You can see how these four pieces of information are chunked and flow in a very logical sequence to guide strategic and tactical priorities. Also take note you are assessing four pieces of information, not dozens. This makes the task manageable.

Consider using memory aids to help you manage the volumes of information you may be required to capture and retain. If you are in a command role, consider using worksheets and checklists. At an emergency scene there are two types of memory to manage. The first is retrospective memory. This is the memory of everything that has already been done. Worksheets play a critical role in helping to manage retrospective memory. Write down company/crew sizes, location, tasks assigned and conditions/progress reports. It may seem easy (and tempting) to simply commit this information to memory on a smaller incident.

But if something goes wrong – and a mayday is called – the spike in stress (and the release of stress-induced hormones and chemicals) may wipe your short-term memory buffer clean. This may happen because your brain, essentially, assumes that everything up to this point is now a distant priority. Clear the slate so the mayday can be managed. I have interviewed many incident commanders who have admitted to me that the instant a mayday was called, all their cognitive resources immediately shifted to managing the mayday and they couldn’t even remember what resources they had at the scene, let alone company numbers, crew sizes, locations or tasks being performed. Writing it down prepares you for a sudden and unexpected dump of your short-term memory stores.

The second memory to be managed is your prospective memory. This is the memory of everything you need to do but have not done yet. Checklists play a critical role in helping to manage prospective memory. Think about how many different strategic and tactical priorities there are to be completed at an emergency incident. If you were to write them all down (depending on the type of incident you choose) there might be 20+ items on your list. If that’s the case, I can assure you that during a high-stress, high-consequence incident with changing conditions and time compression it is going to be extremely difficult to recall all 20+ items from memory.

This is where a checklist can help “jog” your memory of what you need to be doing (that you may have overlooked). Create various checklists (in advance) for each type of high-risk, high-stress incident your department may experience. Keep the checklists and worksheets handy and use them often even at smaller incidents. The habits you develop at smaller incidents will pay off during your larger, more complex, and far less frequent incidents.

It is not possible to multitask the act of paying attention. This can present real challenges for responders working in environments where rapidly changing conditions may require performing multiple concurrent tasks.

It is not possible to multitask the act of paying attention. This can present real challenges for responders working in environments where rapidly changing conditions may require performing multiple concurrent tasks.

Over confidence and complacency

Every new responder (hopefully) starts out under confident. They don’t have enough training or experience yet to be confident. Over time, confidence will rise as the new responder continues to train and obtain experience and one day he or she will become a confident – and competent – responder.

However, some responders drift from the confident to over confident. What causes this to happen? My explanation is based on my observations and interviews with hundreds of responders. When a responder performs an action that entails doing something that is less than best practice (i.e., taking a shortcut) and they get away with it.

The brain remembers the pathway to success. When you perform an act or action that results in success it feels good and your brain rewards you with a release of Dopamine. The Dopamine helps your successful actions get stored into memory along with the notion: Remember this! It works! Then, the next time you are faced with the same situation and you’re wondering what you should do, your brain will retrieve the shortcut and remember… it works! And for so long as your continue to find success in performing the shortcut, your brain will continue to repeat the Dopamine release – remember this! – It works! – storage and recall process.

There’s just one problem. The success is coming not from skill, but from luck. However, the brain does not store the fact that the outcome was based on luck. It simply stores the steps of the process to be completed. Eventually, however, luck will run out and a responder may suffer a near-miss or a casualty as a result of the bad habits they have developed over time.

When these bad habits become institutionalized in an organization, the undesirable behaviors can become the standard actions of all members. This leads to a condition known as the normalization of deviance. The deviant (undesirable) behavior has become the norm (standard). And the entire organization can become blinded to the fact they have drifted away from best practices.

Chances are that in an organization where deviant behaviors (shortcuts) have become the norm, there will be warning signs in the form of near-miss events. A near-miss is a precursor to an impending casualty. But it will only be a warning to an organization that realizes the event was a near-miss and then takes a proactive approach to identifying the root causes of the near-miss and take steps to change the performance to comply with best practices.

The problem is that once individuals (or the entire organization) have become complacent, they let down their collective guard and they are no longer paying attention to the near-miss events. They’re dismissed as one-off occurrences. This may be due to indifference, ignorance or arrogance. If you want to know if your organization is headed in the direction of a bad outcome event, simply evaluate if you are following the recipe:

Incompetent behavior (performing an act and actions that are not best practices) + No consequence (the members are rewarded with successful outcomes) + Over Confidence (member start to believe they have uncovered a new best practice – a shortcut to success) + Arrogance (members believing they are better, smarter, more talented than all others because of their past successes (which are rooted in luck, not skills) = A catastrophe waiting for it’s place and time to happen (and sadly, they’ll never see it coming).

Flawed situational awareness is one of the leading contributing factors in first responder near-miss and casualty events. This challenge is complicated by the fact that so many first responders know so little about what situational awareness is, how it is developed, how it can be impacted and how to regain it once it has been impacted. I am hopeful this series has opened some minds and will open some dialog among your members and instructors and inspire your organization to provide training on this critically important topic for every member.

For more information, go to www.SAMatters.com

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Dr. Richard B. Gasaway joined the fire service in 1979 and has worked for six emergency services agencies including serving as a career fire chief for 20 years. Chief Gasaway’s doctoral research is focused on the neuroscience of decision making under stress and the barriers that impact situational awareness. He has delivered more than 2,000 presentations on safety and leadership topics throughout the United States, Canada, England, Hong Kong and Australia.