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Situational awareness during acts of violence: Vigilance is key

Preplan your escape routes, and consider your options to flee, hide or fight back


Sometimes responders will be the target of the violence, and sometimes responders will be caught in the middle of a violent act intended to harm someone else.

Photo/Atlanta Fire Rescue

The 2022 Firefighter Safety Stand Down, taking place June 19-25, focuses on the importance of situational awareness to help firefighters solve problems, prevent bad outcomes, and make better decisions in high-stress environments. This series covers how to apply situational awareness to five incident types to be covered in daily focus activities: structure fires, EMS, wildland incidents, roadway response and acts of violence.

Developing and maintaining situational awareness is a three-step process that includes:

  1. Perception: Gathering information about what is happening around you
  2. Understanding: Making sense of the information you gather
  3. Prediction: Anticipating future events to prevent bad outcomes

Responders use perception to gather critical clues and cues about the emergency. Some of the information is shared with responders over the radio, some of the information may come from preplans, and some of the information is gathered during the size-up. Think of the information gathered as pieces to a puzzle that responders must assemble. The assembled puzzle pieces form a “picture of understanding” that allows responders to make sense of what is happening.

The responder’s understanding drives the decision-making process. If responders shortcut this process, they may find themselves making decisions before they understand the problem that needs solving. As you can imagine, this can lead to errors in decision-making, flawed tactics and tragic outcomes.

Acts of violence

There are three types of incidents responders may encounter involving acts of violence:

  1. Incidents where responders are arriving after the act of violence has occurred;
  2. Incidents where the act of violence is occurring as responders are arriving on scene; and
  3. Incidents where the act of violence develops while responders are already on scene.

Responders arrive after the violence: In this scenario, responders may or may not know the scene was violent prior to arrival. Emergency communications center personnel may, in some cases, be able to obtain information about the nature of the emergency response and alert responders to the potential instability of the scene. Callers may not be forthcoming with information alerting communications center personnel that an act of violence has occurred.

Because the vast majority of calls we respond to will not involve acts of violence, we can find ourselves with lowered expectations for encountering acts of violence on scenes of emergencies. If a responder becomes complacent about the potential for encountering an act of violence, they may unexpectedly walk into the middle of a violent or potentially violent scene.

Responders arrive during violence: In this scenario, the nature of the call to which you are responding can be quite different, often with no pre-arrival indicators an act of violence is unfolding. Take, for example, the act of violence that unfolded for the Eugene-Springfield (Oregon) Fire Department in 2018. During my interview with Battalion Chief Chris Paskett (Situational Awareness Matters Show Episode 384 and Episode 385), we learn that the department was dispatched to a reported residential dwelling fire. There were multiple callers reporting the fire. As the firefighters arrived on scene and were advancing their hoseline toward the house, a gunman opened fire, striking the apparatus and several firefighters.

Violence unfolds with responders on scene: In an interesting interview with Darin Wall, a heavy metal rock band base guitarist, we learn the importance of vigilance and how gathering soft clue and cues can help develop a heightened awareness and warn us danger is looming. Specifically, Wall shares how his situational awareness and intuition alerted him to impending danger and helped him prevent a mass shooting event at a music venue.

What to do when faced with violence

There are multiple reasons (motives) why someone might commit an act of violence toward others – hatred, anger, jealousy, revenge, notoriety and mental illness are just a few. Individuals with violence on their mind have little regard for human life, including their own, as noted by the number of incidents that end in suicide. Sometimes responders will be the target of the violence, and sometimes responders will be caught in the middle of a violent act intended to harm someone else.

In his article Active Shooter: Advice for Fire and EMS, Drew Moldenhauer – a police officer and Situational Awareness Matters-certified master instructor – reminds us of the importance of preplanning what we should do if caught in an act of violence. Moldenhauer noted that once things turn violent, responders have little time to think about an escape route, so it’s critical to predict, in advance, your way out of a situation. He cautions us that by our very nature, responders don’t typically run away from danger, but during acts of violence, running away gives us our best chance of survival.

When we are not able to run, Moldenhauer says the next best thing is to barricade ourselves from the individual and/or hide behind something that provides substantial protection from bullets. As a last resort, he recommends being prepared to fight, using anything in our reach as an improvised weapon (e.g., oxygen tank, fire extinguisher, scissors, chair). In this scenario, you will be in a fight for your life, and your goal is to slow or stun the individual long enough for you to make your escape.

The key to surviving acts of violence is to be perceptive of your surroundings on every call and be vigilant for clues and cues of impending violence. Once you understand the unfolding situation, predicting the outcomes of your decision options and taking quick action can be lifesaving.

learn more about situational awareness

Safety Stand Down resources for each incident type, as well as general situational awareness information, are available at the Safety Stand Down resources center.


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Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, CSP, is a trusted authority on human factors, situational awareness and the decision-making processes used in high-stress, high-consequence work environments. Gasaway served 33 years on the front lines as a firefighter, EMT-paramedic, company officer, training officer, fire chief and emergency incident commander. His doctoral research included the study of cognitive neuroscience to understand how human factors flaw situational awareness and impact high-risk decision-making. Gasaway is the founder and CEO for Situational Awareness Matters, a teaching and consulting organization located in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He can be reached at