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FRI 2017 Quick Take: Why firefighters must always maintain situational awareness

Firefighters must remain mentally engaged in assessing the conditions to determine when positive outcomes can be safely achieved


By Kerri Hatt, FireRescue1 Senior Editor

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — In an officer-development program session sponsored by American Military University at IAFC’s Annual Conference and Expo, retired Chief Dr. Richard B. Gasaway presented what he dubbed the lighting round on firefighter situational awareness.

Chief Richard B. Gasaway stressed the importance of mental engagement in his session on flawed situational awareness at FRI. (Photo/Bart van Leeuwen via Twitter)
Chief Richard B. Gasaway stressed the importance of mental engagement in his session on flawed situational awareness at FRI. (Photo/Bart van Leeuwen via Twitter)

Most first responders understand, at the fundamental level, that it is important to develop and maintain situational awareness at emergency scenes. Following near-miss and casualty events, responders and investigators often cite flawed situational awareness as a contributing factor, Dr. Gasaway noted.

Yet most first responders lack a basic understanding of how situational awareness is developed and maintained. Even worse, very few understand what causes the loss of situational awareness.

Memorable quotes

Dr. Gasaway walked the audience through how perceptions and situational awareness are influenced and crafted during a response:

  • “You have a pre-arrival lense: The dispatcher tells you what to expect. Sometimes dispatchers get it wrong. It isn’t the dispatcher’s fault. The dispatcher also has situational awareness from the caller. Good dispatchers can be like Picassos, crafting perfect pictures. Bad dispatchers are like abstract art.”
  • “It’s so important when we’re doing our initial size-up to gather facts to moor our thinking to allow us to call up the facts to assess that situation.”
  • “Intuition is your single most powerful red flag warning system with the potential to alert you to danger.”
  • “Begin operations with the end result in mind. How do we get from here to there successfully? Start with that benchmark or goal.”
  • “When you show up at a fire, I want this question in your mind, ‘Where is this event headed if we don’t do anything but watch?’ This is not a strategy, it’s a mindset.”
  • “Every event unfolds at a certain pace. Pay attention to how fast the speed of change is happening. Tracking the passage of time is so critical. If you lose track of the passage of time, your awareness will be impacted.”
  • “Not all firefighters have the same knowledge, skills, abilities, fitness, phobias – part of that size-up needs to be a size-up of our resources.”
  • “Fear is a barrier. Sometimes the fear of consequence and retribution is the barrier.”
  • “Mind drift means physically you are present, mentally you are absent. You’re thinking about how to get the puzzle pieces to fit together, but you’re not concentrating on the high-risk activity you’re engaged in. How many people have gotten into their vehicle and arrived somewhere without knowing how they got there? Almost everyone.”
  • “The faster the conditions are changing, the greater the sensation of urgency. Urgency causes us to shortcut our best practices. One of the consequences is interrupting the process of developing our situational awareness by conducting a proper size-up.”
  • “Learn from the near misses of others. Near misses are the shot across the bow.”

Here are three takeaways from Dr. Gasaway’s presentation on situational awareness:

1. A fire size-up does not equate to situational awareness

Situational awareness is not achieved simply because a first responder says:

  • I pay attention
  • I keep my head on a swivel
  • I look up, down, and all around
  • I actively listen
  • I complete a size-up

You can be looking right at something and not see what’s right in front of you. “Because you keep your head on a swivel does not mean you understand what’s going on around you,” Dr. Gasaway noted. “We have certain expectations that impact our size-up.”

Sometimes expectations can be helpful in formulating situational awareness, but sometimes they can be harmful. If you see something you don’t expect to see, your brain can filter it out of your awareness.

2. Learn from what is not evident at a fire, not just what you see

There are two kinds of informational puzzle pieces, Dr. Gasaway explained:

  • Positive information is that which you can see or hear
  • Negative information is that which you cannot see/hear

Dr. Gasaway asked the audience to consider a novice and an expert firefighter. Asking novices what’s going on in a situation will often prompt them to base their explanation on what they see and hear. The experts will see and hear the same things, but will also recognize what they don’t see and hear, and can make sense of the negative information – comprehending the meaning of the missing evidence.

3. Avoid outcomes you cannot change

“Dead firefighters talk to me,” Dr. Gasaway said. “When I look at a line-of-duty death, I ask myself, what would that fallen firefighter want you to know if they could say something to you – what would they say?” He added, you can extract one resounding lesson: don’t get in the way of outcomes you cannot change. “Their heart was in the right place, they were trying to do the right thing,” he said, “but the window of opportunity changed and they became a victim of the outcome.”

He cautioned attendees to assess the conditions. “If the conditions are right, engage,” he advised. “If the conditions aren’t right, try to improve the conditions (e.g., knock down the fire from the outside to prevent a flashover)."

In the act of firefighting at residential dwellings, the top two killers of firefighters are flashover and collapse, he noted, and the average time from entry to flashover is just three minutes.

“If we show up at every fire thinking we can change every outcome, we may find ourselves in a bad spot,” Dr. Gasaway related. He said while firefighters can’t change every outcome, there are windows of opportunity that they can hope to arrive in and to save lives and property in. The first is civilian survivability. The second, and longer window – due to thermal imaging, turnout gear and other advantages – is the firefighter window of survivability.

Situational awareness resources

Explore these articles for more information on the importance of situational awareness in firefighter safety.

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