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Ending auto-pilot mode: A key step in eliminating emergency response casualties

We must slow down during the transition from ‘automatic’ to ‘effortful’ in our responses


“If you become a victim because of your actions and decisions en route to an emergency call, you are only adding to the problem, not mitigating it,” writes Willing.

Photo/City of Beaufort/Town of Port Royal Fire Department

I read yet another article in the last few days about the death of a firefighter who was en route to an emergency call. These events are far too common. Motor vehicle accidents are one of the leading causes of deaths and injuries among firefighters. They should be almost completely preventable.

Two factors contribute to these incidents: People are in a hurry, and they have tunnel vision. Both conditions greatly elevate risk when operating any kind of vehicle. But these are also two things that can be managed and controlled by individuals and organizations.

Being in too much of a hurry is the reason why drivers exceed safe speeds for existing conditions, travel recklessly through stop signs and red lights, and fail to safely secure all gear in the rig. It is also the most common excuse people use for failing to use seatbelts. (“Wasting time putting on your gear when arriving at a structure fire may cost someone their life!” one person commented in a survey on the topic.)

Tunnel vision is the complete focus on where you are going versus where you are. It’s natural that this happens – you get a call for an explosion, fire, multiple structures involved, people trapped and that’s going to be the main thing on your mind as you prepare and go to the incident. But it can’t be the only thing on your mind as you maneuver with a vehicle of any size, but especially a large truck, through traffic, crowded pedestrian areas and variable road and weather conditions.

Of course, you want to get to an emergency scene as quickly as possible. But getting there must be your first priority. If you don’t make it there because of an accident or incident en route, it doesn’t matter how well prepared you were for addressing the actual emergency.

When time is of the essence, the first and most important thing to do is slow down. It sounds counterintuitive, but it is critical for every safe and successful emergency response. Yes, you want to be efficient in your response, but this means not wasting a moment on false starts or mistakes that come with excessive haste.

Surgeons have long recognized this imperative. They describe slowing down when necessary as the transition from “automatic” to “effortful” functioning in critical settings. Another way of putting this is to be constantly mindful of your surroundings and actions, and not put the driving response on auto-pilot while you think ahead to what actions you will take when you arrive.

These things are not mutually exclusive. Naturally you need to think ahead to what you will do upon arrival, but those thoughts cannot overcome your immediate sense of situational awareness.

This kind of mindfulness must be cultivated in the team mentality long before it is needed. Training can reinforce safe, thoughtful, deliberate actions and not reward those who are the fastest at any cost. Fostering confidence in members’ basic skills and team process is a good way to increase response efficiency while maintaining safety.

Sometimes culture must be addressed at an organizational level. On some departments there is a competitive edge to response – who can get there first, pull the first line, log in the quickest response time. Those in leadership positions must recognize these trends and address them, both through corrective action and perhaps most importantly through positive example.

The concept of including a tactical pause in emergency operations is a critical aspect of managing a safe, effective emergency incident. But this mindful approach to response must begin long before the crew arrives at the scene. It must begin before each member steps in a vehicle to respond to the event.

Bottom line: If you become a victim because of your actions and decisions en route to an emergency call, you are only adding to the problem, not mitigating it. This violates one of the most basic rules of emergency response: Safety first, and never make it worse than it already is.

Take your department in the direction you want. Get expert advice on how to effectively lead your fire department. 20-year veteran Linda Willing writes “Leading the Team,” a FireRescue1 column about fire department leadership.