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Situational awareness must be taught and practiced

Live action training and incident debriefings are key to empowering firefighters to be active participants and contributors to a safe emergency response


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In cities across the United States and around the world, warning signs have been installed at intersections telling pedestrians to Look Up! as they approach the street. The reason for this is that increasingly, pedestrians are being injured and killed as they walk into traffic while focused on their phones or other electronic devices. In the United States, pedestrian fatalities from all causes have risen 46 percent since 2009.

Without a doubt, the overall level of situational awareness in the general population has dropped in recent years. People are self-absorbed and busy, and electronic media just feeds this trend. And this is bad news for emergency services, where situational awareness is a key ability for safety and effectiveness.

This is not just a problem with younger people, who tend to do a bit better with multitasking when using electronic devices than their older counterparts who did not grow up with them. But the fact that young people do grow up with this technology means that they experience the world in a different way, and this fact must be considered when preparing those people for positions in the emergency services.

The key to situational awareness is being fully where you are – engaging with others on the crew, on the emergency scene and in the community generally. (Photo/Pixabay)
The key to situational awareness is being fully where you are – engaging with others on the crew, on the emergency scene and in the community generally. (Photo/Pixabay)

Fortunately, situational awareness is something that can be practiced and learned, and specific attention to it should be included in all emergency services training programs.

Live action training enforces situational awareness

There are several ways that situational awareness can be taught and supported within the fire department. Scenario training is often the best way to address this issue, either with tabletop discussion-based scenarios or live action training events. The latter form of training is more logistically challenging and time-consuming, but is often more engaging and effective.

Look for ways to involve other agencies when designing live action training. Cooperating with law enforcement, EMS, social services or the school system can result in training with different focus and new challenges, always a good thing when teaching people to pay attention and not make assumptions. Training scenarios should be designed to be realistic but also necessitate seeing the big picture to be successful.

Performing incident debriefs is another way to improve situational awareness, but these must be done right to be useful. First, all incident debriefs should have an experienced facilitator, one who is committed to having the experience be a valuable and positive educational opportunity for everyone involved. Sometimes incident debriefs, especially of incidents that might not have played out perfectly, turn into blame sessions rather then learning opportunities. Situational awareness will not be enhanced when the approach is “How could you have missed that?!” If accusation is the frame, people will only be defensive rather than open to improvement.

Develop a systems of emergency scene communications

It is also important to empower everyone on the crew to be active participants and contributors to every emergency response. The idea that new firefighters should simply follow orders and keep their mouths shut means that officers are willfully ignoring information and perspective that could make the difference between success and failure, or even life and death. Develop systems of communication early so that all members of the crew are able to observe, report and be heard during all incidents.

Likewise, continue to encourage communication after routine incidents. Talk about what you just did in an informal way. Ask each member: What did you see when we first rolled up? What was your first impression of what needed to be done? Did you notice anything unusual that in retrospect might have been important?

Perhaps most importantly, be an example toward changing attitudes of self-absorption and distraction in the fire station. Put down your phone and take out your earbuds. Give others your full attention when they talk to you and ask for their full attention in return.

Notice subtle cues among your crew that might indicate developing issues or problems. Is there tension between two members that did not previously exist? Is someone withdrawn who is normally gregarious? Did someone make a mistake that is out of character? Noticing such changes among your crew is another critical aspect of situational awareness that is part of your responsibility as an officer.

Ultimately, the key to situational awareness is being fully where you are – engaging with others on the crew, on the emergency scene and in the community generally. As an officer, you must take the lead with this. Commit to having the conversation. Take the time to walk around. Look up.

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