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Selective attention is real: 5 tips to increase situational awareness on scene

Emergency response requires increased focus; this is a balancing act when approaching a scene with numerous factors in play

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A fire service friend recently asked if I could select one training priority for the new year, what would it be?

I didn’t hesitate with my answer: “Situational awareness.”

‘Attention is limited’

Good situational awareness has been a casualty of our modern times. You see it everywhere – people stepping into traffic while focused on their phones, drivers drifting through stop signs as they look at something in their vehicles. It’s become such a public safety issue that some cities have put up signs telling people to look up when they are walking along busy streets; there was even an app developed to remind people.

It’s easy to blame this phenomenon on young people who are glued to their phones much of their waking lives. But people of every age have lost situational awareness in recent years, and older people may be worse in some ways since they did not grow up with the technology and may be more distracted by it. And although technology may encourage and exacerbate the problem, it extends far beyond the use of devices. A lack of situational awareness has become a constant and pervasive condition – a serious issue for society but especially for emergency services.

Attention is limited. We all know this on some level, but often continue to act as if we can do innumerable things all at once. Spoiler alert: We can’t.

Shine a ‘spotlight’

Situational awareness requires increased focus. This is a balancing act when approaching an emergency scene with numerous factors in play.

Instead of multi-tasking and trying to see everything all at once, good situational awareness requires focusing your attention like a spotlight on each individual aspect of the scene, taking the time to really look before moving on. With practice, this can be accomplished quickly and is more effective than trying to multi-task.

Additionally, when done well, your mind will constantly be processing questions as you absorb the scene: What’s happening on the roof? Is there another access point not visible from here? Are there victims we are not seeing? What happened just before we responded to this emergency call? This further increases situational awareness as you naturally explore the potential advantages and pitfalls from your initial assessment.

5 training tips

Situational awareness is critical for safe and effective emergency response, not to mention a key aspect of good leadership in non-emergency interactions with the crew and the public. Here’s how you can train crews to be vigilant and more observant on scene.

1. Show how difficult multi-tasking can really be. The first step in training responders to be more situationally aware is to convey how selective their attention can be when focused on a task. Demonstrating with simple exercises can make them more open to improving their own situational awareness, like the famous basketball/gorilla experiment on selective attention by Daniel Simons, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois.

2. Provide interesting training opportunities. Active training for situational awareness can take different forms. It may include fun exercises, like having people spend five minutes in the kitchen and write down three things they never noticed there before. It doesn’t really matter what people come up with in this exercise; the point is to have them spend time looking closely at an area they otherwise take for granted and realize what they have previously missed.

Scenario training is also important. For example, you might do a standard hose drill with stated objectives (how fast can you advance a handline to the second story of the drill tower), but plant something unexpected along the way, such as an injured rescue dummy or a hazardous material risk, and see how responders react. Do they even notice it? If so, do they report it, move it, or remain focused on the stated objective of the drill?

3. Make a checklist for providers to use. Checklists can also be helpful and have been shown to reduce errors in medical procedures. However, to be effective, responders must fully attend to checklist items, not just go through the motions.

4. Encourage scene feedback from crews. One individual will never see or know everything in any given situation, so it’s important to encourage and train all members of the crew to pay attention and have the confidence and safety to report what they see. Good leaders will ask for this kind of input from their crews.

5. Don’t go too fast. Slowing down in an emergency may seem counterintuitive, but even the smallest adjustment in this area can make a big difference. Just a few seconds of allowing things to process, of really seeing what you are looking at can sometimes be the difference between life and death.

Make awareness a habit

It’s human nature to crave predictability and to want to be right, but these tendencies will reduce situational awareness rather than increase it. It’s important for leaders to value and encourage their crewmembers to attend to everything at a scene and to speak up when something seems unusual.

And, even though phones and other devices are not the only reason for our diminishing situational awareness, they are a major contributing factor. So, whenever situational awareness is critical, put those devices away! Pay attention. Make eye contact with the people you are talking to. Ask follow-up questions. Really look around and absorb what you’re looking at. Make this a habit, not only in emergency response, but in your everyday life.

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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.