How to beat tunnel vision

It can reduce your effectiveness and put yours and other firefighters' lives in danger, but there are ways to beat tunnel vision

Editor's note: We're very pleased to welcome Jim Spell to our stable of expert columnists. Each month, Jim will be addressing tactical firefighting topics to help you be safer and more effective on the fireground. As you'll see from his bio below, Jim is supremely qualified as both a firefighter and instructor. Feel free to drop Jim a note to tell him what you think of his column and suggest future topics.

There is no greater challenge for a firefighter than overcoming tunnel vision. Unlike much of what we outgrow in our firefighting careers — like wasting adrenaline or misreading tool requirements — tunnel vision can get the better of us at any time. 

Although glimpses of tunnel vision are experienced in academy, most occurrences only happen during an actual alarm situation. Training, absent any real call-stress or a really good academy burn building, rarely manifests tunnel vision. 

So what is tunnel vision really?

Imagine yourself in an emergency room lying in a bed with the curtains pulled all around you. You are aware of the bed, a table and may recognize some items on the table. Occasionally someone pops in through the curtains and surprises you. 

You are very aware of what is inside the curtains, but have little idea of what is going on outside. Doors, windows and the hospital are beyond your purview. Hospital operations are happening, in and out of the building, but your only concern is why you are in bed. The closed curtains and limited view are of little concern.

Narrow field of vision
Incidents on the fireground are much like this hospital image. You have been assigned a task and while you may not completely understand the overall strategy surrounding your deployment, you know such an assignment is important to the team and the overall tactics of the fireground.  

As the incident unfolds, stress is increased along with the unrelenting need to accomplish the work to be done. Much like the curtained bed, as the door handle to a room involved in fire comes into focus, the surrounding environment begins to dim; this is tunnel vision.

So how do you reduce or eliminate tunnel vision?

You begin by listening to dispatch information. In the rush to bunk up and belt in, you take for granted that you may miss some of the radio chatter. Unfortunately, all facts and figures coming from dispatch updates can expand your view of the scene. 

Take as an example an apartment fire. The information cascading into your headset covers the size of the building, number of floors, location and color of smoke, weather updates, road conditions and other responding companies. This vital information can throw back the curtain and increase your perception of the incident.

Your brother's keeper
Another way to reduce tunnel vision is to focus your protective instincts on another firefighter. Having a teammate and shielding his back is a great way to widen your perspective. 

Things like open wiring, a spongy floor and the beginnings of rollover take on a particular clarity when tasked with keeping your fellow firefighter safe from harm. We learn this in academy but rarely get past the emotional commitment.

Most important is to not let your environment dictate your vision. When it is dark, smoky, and you are crawling with your face covered in Nomex and SCBA, stop breathing for a moment and listen and feel for the outside. 

Are ceilings creaking? Is there heat coming from down the right hallway and not the left? Did you pass any doors without searching?  

As your visual environment diminishes, your field of possibilities must expand in your thinking. Try to understand what is not immediately evident and anticipate what hasn’t happened yet. 

As difficult as this may sound, such self-control expands your mental picture of what is occurring by considering what could occur — therefore widening your perspective on the situation. Tunnel vision in its most fundamental environment like a smoke-filled hallway will eventually lose its grip on you and your perception.  

Maintaining focus
Finally, do not mistake tunnel vision for your ability to minimize distractions. There is a fine line between critical data and the noise of chaos. Do not let tunnel vision be your answer to interference and disruption. 

This is where training, education and experience actually come into play, as you learn to catalogue what works and what does not. Discard what you know to be false. Learn to identify what is significant and expand upon it. 

Gain momentum from what moves you forward toward a panorama of performance possibilities while forsaking the knowingly irrelevant. Become a competent filter. 

Tunnel vision is experienced by all firefighters at some time. It comes with the various mechanisms of doing our job. There is always a bed and a curtain to be dealt with.

But whether it is pulled all around you or pushed up against the wall, this is a choice you have control over. By using restraint, discipline and a conscious reminder at critical moments, you can truly expand your view — even if you can’t see past your gloves.

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