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

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.

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