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Leading the Team
by Linda Willing

Why firefighters must avoid 'small vision' culture

Getting in the habit of missing what's happening due to smartphone tunnel vision has negative carryover to the fireground

By Linda Willing

As you drive into Denver International Airport, you suddenly see a 32-foot-tall blue horse rearing on its hind legs in the middle of the highway. The horse statue has neon red eyes that flash almost demonically as you pass by. The effect is weird and interesting, and also a little creepy, but always worth a look as I head to the airport to catch my flight.

The other day as my shuttle bus passed the blue mustang (also known locally as "Blucifer"), I not only noticed the horse, but I also realized that I was the only one on the bus who was noticing the horse. The other 10 passengers were all intensely focused on the space immediately in front of them — the smartphones they held in their hands. This was true regardless of age — 9-year-olds and 70-year-olds were similarly transfixed.

OK, maybe they had seen the blue horse before. So had I, many times. But how often do you get to see a giant blue horse with flashing red eyes that local legend says is cursed? Isn't it at least worth a passing glance?

I see this phenomenon everywhere. There has been a decline of the habit or will to look up, to look around, to notice where you are. Instead, people are addicted to the virtual feedback they get from their electronic devices, to the exclusion of almost everything else.

One of the saddest things I have seen in recent memory was a family sitting across from us in a restaurant — father, mother and little boy around 4 years old. The child was so excited to be out to dinner, but his parents spent the entire meal separately focused on their phones, basically ignoring the child entirely.

Shift to small vision
This smallness of focus is not just bad for family relations. It can cause physical harm. In major cities, injuries and deaths of pedestrians have risen in recent years, largely due to the fact that people are walking and texting/web surfing/watching videos, and as a result not looking where they are going. They end up walking right out in front of cars.

This societal shift to small vision could be a real problem for the emergency services. One quality all successful emergency responders have is situational awareness, the ability to see the big picture and consider contingencies to the current event. Situational awareness is not a trait being demonstrated when someone is texting and subsequently walks into a light pole.

Many people like to say that this shift in situational awareness is a generational problem — that young people are clueless and older people are tuned in. That has not been my personal observation. I see older people just as fixated on technology and just as blinded to their surroundings as a result.

However, growing up with electronic devices does make them completely normal and younger people are overall more comfortable and more open to technology in all aspects of their lives. This is necessary and good in some ways, but in others, not so much.

Bad situational awareness
Every firefighter understands the importance of situational awareness on emergency scenes. You need to assess hazards, determine how long a fire has been burning, prioritize exposures, and create a search-and-rescue plan. You won't see too many firefighters focused on their smartphones when in the middle of fire response.

But the rest of the time, when firefighters are not actively responding to emergency calls, can be another story. Everywhere I go, I hear complaints that firefighters just go to their separate corners of the station and text, watch movies, play games, or surf the web in their down time.

We don't talk to each other anymore, firefighters tell me. I feel like I hardly know the people I work with.

This is a bad situation. When members of a team hold their coworkers' lives in their hands (as all firefighters do) you want to know something about those people. You want to be able to predict what they might do in different situations. You want communication with them to be effortless and clear. You want to care about them beyond professional obligation.

And if something changes, you want to notice. Is someone going through a bad divorce? Is a new baby at home causing severe sleep deprivation? Is someone suddenly drinking excessively off duty and coming to work hung over? Is a formerly friendly person now surly and uncommunicative?

The company officer
All of these situations can indicate potentially serious problems, not only for the individual but also for the crew. But you can't help people if you don't even notice what is going on with them.

Situational awareness is important for every emergency responder, but it starts with the company officer. Officers must not only set the example by putting down their own electronic devices and engaging with others, but they must also make the effort to create ways for crews to interact and connect with one another.

This can (and should) be fun: coin spin games, incident debriefs, popcorn in the evenings and friendly competitions. Make the effort, be inclusive, and you will find that people of all ages are hungry for real human interaction.

Developing genuine connections among your crew will make work more fun, more productive, and much safer.

It all comes down to enhancing situational awareness at all times. Lives depend on it.

About the author

Linda F. Willing worked for more than 20 years in the emergency services, including 18 as a career firefighter and fire officer. For more than 15 years, she has provided support for fire and emergency services and other organizations through her company, RealWorld Training and Consulting. Linda's work focuses on developing customized solutions in the areas of leadership development, conflict resolution, diversity management, team building, communications and decision making. She is the author of "On the Line: Women Firefighters Tell Their Stories." Linda is also an adjunct instructor and curriculum advisor for the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program. She has a B.A. in American Studies from the University of Pennsylvania, an M.S. from Regis University in Denver in Organization Development, and is a certified mediator. To contact Linda, e-mail

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Robert Avsec Robert Avsec Friday, September 05, 2014 1:25:39 PM Another great piece, Linda Willing, and you've "hit the nail on the head" once again with your prose. You are not alone in your observations of people and their "electronic leashes". I really like your connection between their "disconnection" and situational awareness. Company officers have an obligation to lead, guide, direct, and develop their personnel and none of those things are possible if the officer's got their nose in their phone. Hard to believe, I know, but when I worked 24-hour shifts me and the Missus spoke on the telephone once per tour of duty: at 9:00 p.m. when my day was almost done and she was getting ready for sleep time. I always told my folks, "If you answer the station phone and it's Mrs. Avsec you find me at all costs because something is seriously wrong somewhere." Another thing I've never understood is "down time". What is this "down time"? Do firefighters and officers know their job functions, their response district, the fire risks in that district, etc., so well that there is no need for training, drilling, touring, pre-planning, etc.? It was always my experience as a company officer that busy firefighters--busy at meaningful things like training, drilling, touring and pre-planning--were happy firefighters. Unless the weather was uncooperative, once we checked out our rigs and our equipment to ensure it was ready for response I usually had my company out on the road doing one or more of those four activities. I was a young officer and I had young and eager firefighters working with me so it didn't take any "prodding" on my part. But over the years I learned something as I progressed up the ranks. Even "old & grizzled" veteran firefighters like to go out and "play" when the play is meaningful and job related and not designed to show "what they don't know". Case in point. One month I was working with the companies in my battalion on offensive and defensive use of large caliber fire streams. We worked with advancing 2 1/2" lines (not commonly used in our department where the 1 3/4" pre-connect was the line of choice regardless of the fireflow requirements), and deploying portable master stream devices. A couple of weeks later, our battalion caught a structure fire at a BFH (big f*&king house). The main house was every bit of 5000 square feet and the attached garage was almost its equal. The fire was "rocking and rolling" in the garage, no doubt fueled by the three fully involved autos inside. The first arriving company officer and firefighter took a 2 1/2" to the garage while the driver operator advanced an 1 3/4" line (dry) to the front door for the next company to take in. The 2 1/2" flowing 325 gpm had the fire in the garage knocked down in less than a minute. When the 2nd due company got their charged 1 3/4" hose in the front door and to the kitchen door that connected to the garage, all they found was a badly burned door on the garage side. Afterwards, the officer and firefighter on that 2 1/2" line were talking to me and both admitted that until our recent training and drilling with the 2 1/2" it had been a long time since they'd handled that sized line in fire combat. Both equally agreed that had it been an 1 3/4" line instead that they might still be fighting that fire.

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