In the previous issue we discussed the definition for situational awareness and shared some examples for how situational awareness can be impacted. In this installment you will be provided with ten situational awareness best practices.
This list was developed based on research I conducted with expert-level fireground commanders. This list is not a prescription for success. Rather, the recommendations are designed to help you over come some of the more pervasive situational awareness barriers.
Responders Must Capture and Process Critical Cues and Clues to Project Future Events
As a responder conducts a size-up(e.g., at a residential dwelling fire) there are dozens, perhaps hundreds, of cues and clues that can indicate what is happening and can help responders make accurate predictions about future events. Based on the findings in the literature and the input from experts who participated in my research, the most pertinent cues and clues at a residential dwelling fire may include:
- An evaluation of smoke and fire conditions
- Consideration for the construction and level of decomposition of the structure
- The speed the incident is moving; and,
- A realistic assessment of savable lives in the IDLH environment.
Responders Should Set the Strategy and Tactics Based on Available Resources
Staffing issues were significant factors that cause responders concern and can impacted their SA. The expert responders I interviewed recommended conducting continual assessments of the scene until sufficient staffing (e.g., based on quantity, quality, training and experience) arrives on the scene. The experts cautioned against setting a strategy and committing to tactics until the proper quantity and quality of personnel are present to accomplish the tasks.
Responders Should Develop and Maintain a Big-Picture Focus of the Incident Scene
Repeatedly, the expert responders I interviewed noted they were impacted when their attention was narrowed because they focused their attention to one area of an incident scene or to one task being formed. The experts recommended developing and maintaining a big-picture focus of the incident by developing meta-awareness, a conscious awareness of the larger incident scene and purposeful avoidance of narrowing attention to one task or one area of the scene.
The person in-charge(i.e., The Incident Commander) Should Not Perform Hands-on Duties
The expert incident commanders I interviewed frequently noted that among the most insidious ways their awareness is impacted is when they performed hands-on fireground duties and consequently this caused them to overlook critical cues and clues and it caused them to lose track of the speed at which the incident was changing. Expert commanders recommended displaying self-restraint by avoiding the temptation to be drawn into performing non-command tasks (i.e., pulling/advancing hose lines, setting fans or ladders, connecting hose to a fire hydrant, or serving as the pump operator).
Responders Cannot Listen to and Comprehend Multiple Conversations Simultaneously
The responders I interviewed described multiple scenarios where their SA had been impacted because they missed important radio messages from commanders or other responders operating on the emergency scene. This was especially problematic when the radio messages were transmitted from crews operating in hazardous environments. Responders noted it was nearly impossible to listen to and comprehend simultaneous messages, be they from multiple radio channels or during face-to-face communications. The experts recommended giving priority attention to the radio messages of responders operating in hazardous environments. This may be facilitated by operating on a single operational channel or by assigning someone to monitor radio traffic of crews operating in hazardous environments.
The Incident Commander Should be Far Enough Back From The Incident to See the Big Picture
The expert commanders I interviewed were split in their opinions on the best place to run command. Some noted they preferred to be outside a vehicle, in the front yard or standing on the street where they noted they benefited from being able to use all of their senses to capture cues and clues on the scene. Other incident commanders noted they preferred to be located in a vehicle where they described the environment as calm and free of distractions and interruptions. The one universal recommendation from
all the commanders, regardless of where their command location started, was when the incident became complex or they were being overwhelmed they preferred to be remotely located. Every commander interviewed noted they had retreated to the sanctity of a vehicle under extremely stressful conditions. The commanders also stressed the importance of completing a thorough size-up including a three-sixty walk-around prior to assuming a position that is physically out of the action.
Responders Should Take Steps to Control Distractions and Interruptions
Responders spoke frequently about how distractions and interruptions impact their SA. Commanders of residential dwelling fires noted that police officers, occupants, neighbors, bystanders, utility company workers and other firefighters offering unsolicited advice were among the culprits that distracted their attention away from the big picture incident. The experts recommend a degree of self-discipline to stay on-task, a willingness to tell those wishing to speak face-to-face to refrain from interrupting the responder who is listening to radio traffic from personnel who may be operating in high hazard environments. For incident commanders, the experts recommended being located out of visible sight of the persons who might distract their attention.
Responders (Including Commanders) Should Manage Their Span of Control
The experts noted it was easy to get overwhelmed if they had to perform too many command roles, had to process too much information, had to listen to multiple radio channels, and/or had to complete a size-up while focusing on the safety of the personnel deploying in the firefight. The experts note that assigning subordinate command duties (e.g., safety, staging, and operations) was essential to keep the incident commander from being overloaded. The experts spoke favorable of assigning a person to serve as an aide, noting the aide can free the incident commander’s mental capacity to concentrate on the most important aspects of the fireground operations. The presence of a senior advisor to help the incident commander with the delegation of duties was also very beneficial. The use of a unified command, where ranking officers from all agencies involved are physically located together, facilitated an efficient distribution of duties and a sharing of knowledge that enhances commander SA.
The Incident Commander Must Establish and Maintain a Strong Command Presence
The experts noted it was important to establish a strong command presence by displaying confidence and focused leadership at the incident scene. The experts noted that in order to accomplish this, it was essential to display emotional self-control especially during the most stressful periods of an incident. They noted their behavior and demeanor often sets up the incident for success or failure because crews react based on the behavior and demeanor of the commander.
The experts also noted it was very important to control the action of crews, ensuring personnel do not engage in independent goal setting (freelancing) and that commanders know where personnel are operating and what they are doing at all times. The experts noted it is also very important to be clear, concise, articulate and confident when giving orders. They were also strong advocates for the need to be consciously aware of the passage of time, noting the commander may be the only one with access to a watch or clock to mark and keep track of the passage of time.
Responders Should Accelerate Their Expertise
The experts spoke openly about a general reduction in the number of residential dwelling fires over the past twenty years. The reduction in actual fires impacts the ability of responders to develop and maintain skills. The experts noted this is why it is so important to conduct realistic training, noting that challenging real-life training scenarios help to develop responder skills and enhance a responder’s ability to make good decisions under stress. The experts also strongly recommended the use of simulations, as well as using case studies and watching video clips of fire incidents. The experts were also strong advocates for using near-miss reports to accelerate learning based on the mistakes of others. They also spoke favorably of the valuable lessons that can be learned from line-of-duty death investigation reports. Performing post-incident evaluations after each emergency was another way the experts recommended for identifying potential issues and to reinforce the application of best practices. Finally, the experts recommended that developing supervisors and incident commanders be paired with a mentor who can provide coaching and feedback so the novice supervisor/commander can learn from mistakes, even if the outcome of the error was not a near-miss or casualty incident.
In high stress emergency settings, failing to capture critical incident cues and clues, failing to comprehend those cues and clues in to something meaningful, and failing to use that meaning to project future events is the recipe for near-miss and catastrophic events on the fireground. The foundation to good decision making lies in the ability to develop and maintain strong situational awareness… so you can see the bad things coming in time to change the outcome.
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