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How the human brain works against firefighter safety

Situational awareness is key to being safe and effective on the fireground, but the brain acts in ways seemingly against its own best interest


Magnetic Resonance Imaging of a human head is displayed with an exhibit on the history of imaging of the brain at the Museum of Neuroanatomy at the University at Buffalo, in Buffalo, N.Y. Sometimes the brain works against firefighter safety, according to fire service educator Richard Gasaway, speaking at FRI 2013.

AP Photo/David Duprey, 2003

CHICAGO — The mind can do some amazing things; getting you or your crew killed or injured on the fireground is one such fascinating and scary brain function.

Retired fire chief and fire service educator Richard Gasaway brought a condensed version of his situational awareness training to Fire-Rescue International. The key to staying safe on the fireground is understanding what situational awareness is, why it breaks down and how it can be used to predict and prevent future events.

Gasaway also studied neuroscience and applied it to firefighter behavior, which informs his approach to situational awareness.

Situational awareness, Gasaway said, has been the number-one cited reason for incidents in the Near-Miss Reporting System since the program’s inception. Gasaway admits that once he began researching how the brain works and how that applies to firefighting he realized that he had been a lucky fireground commander for 25 years rather than a good one.

Part of the problem with situational awareness is that it is not taught at either recruit academies or to instructors. Another big problem is that the brain can be an unreliable narrator, going as far as to actually deceive us and altering what we think is fireground reality.

For example, he said, the eyes have blind spots where not all things can be seen. The brain compensates for this by filling in an image of what it believes should be there — whether it is or not. In other instances, it will mask or hide what really is before our eyes.

“There’s a lot we don’t know about how our brains work under stress,” Gasaway said.

The brain has what Gasaway calls four primal trip wires that are holdovers from our ancient ancestors. These trip wires — something loud, something bright, something moving and something moving into proximity — are seen as threats and divert our attention.

That means, he said, a typical fireground with flashing apparatus lights, loud radios and firefighters walking up to the commanding officer all undermine the officer’s situational awareness. And because it’s primal, there’s not much the officer can do to change that.

Other limiting factors include a moving eye cannot focus on a stationary object. That may seem counter-intuitive, but Gasaway says the brain captures numerous still images of a moving object and strings them together.

Slow, gradual change is difficult to perceive. To illustrate both of these points, he showed a slow moving video of a landscape where one item slowly faded from view. About 1 percent of those in the class saw it the first time — many more still couldn’t see it when Gasaway showed them where to watch.

Add to this, he said, the short-term memory can only hold about seven pieces of unrelated information. When more information is brought in, the brain sheds other information to maintain its seven-piece level.

Worse yet, the brain does not assign priorities to these bits of information in the short-term memory. This makes it more difficult to hold on to critical fireground information and dispel the less important stuff.

One step to improving situational awareness comes from examining after-the-fact reports on incidents. Here, it is important to stop assigning blame.

“Stop being a judge and start being a student,” Gasaway said.