The root cause of firefighter maydays

A fireground call for help nearly always has its roots in the observation and orientation skills of those making decisions


Mayday. Mayday.

When heard on the fireground, these two words bring a rapid response. The post-rescue question is how did they tread so far into the situation that they became part of the problem?

Firefighters in the heat of the battle often get feelings of superiority, believing that things are not that bad and the gear, training and experience will keep them out of trouble. The reality is that mayday situations arise because of a lack of situational awareness and over confidence.

Situational awareness is simply the ability to observe the surroundings and make a detailed assessment of the situation. For optimum safety, firefighters and incident commanders must use observation and assessment to engage their brains before engaging their feet.

Firefighters are often in a hurry when first arriving on the scene. Yet those first few minutes on a scene is the best opportunity to make rational, not emotional, decisions. What would be the difference in the outcome if we took an extra 15 seconds to observe, assess, plan and deploy?

Taking an extra 15 seconds during the size-up phase may make a huge difference in the outcome. Because officers have a more complete picture of the situation before deploying firefighters into a hostile environment, lives will not be risked as haphazardly.

Situational awareness — knowing what's going on around you — sounds easy in principle, but requires a conscious effort and practice. It's the skill of observation, assessment, plan and deployment and is enhanced through training, experience and practice.

The fireground is always a dangerous place and we should never forget there is a risk associated with fire-suppression operations. In a dangerous situation being aware of a potential threat even seconds before everyone else can keep you and others safe.

OODA loop
What helped me finally understand situational awareness was framing it within the OODA loop. The OODA loop is a learning system and decision-making process first laid out by Air Force fighter pilot and military strategist John Boyd; it has four steps: Observe, Orient, Decide and Act.

The observe step is what many people associate with situational awareness. But it's the second step – orient — that actually involves developing situational awareness.

Orientation tells us what to look for when we're observing, and then puts those observations into context so we know what to do with the information. So observe plus orient equals situational awareness.

But how can we become better observers to improve our situational awareness? And how should we orient ourselves so that we observe the right things and understand the context for what we're seeing?

During the initial decisions-making process, our senses are severely heightened. It is important to stay relaxed and keep emotions under control. And by remaining calm, you will help others remain calm.

We've all likely heard this over the radio. An initial-arriving company officer giving the size up begins to raise his voice and the next arriving company officer also begins to raise her voice. The next thing you know, everyone is yelling on the radio.

I have heard the opposite as well and seen the significant difference in the tone and actions of those operating on the scene that is emotionally under control. Remember, yelling at the problem does not make the problem go away.

Tunnel widening
Staying relaxed ensures that you maintain an open focus, which allows you to take in more information about what's going on around you.

Research shows that when we get nervous or stressed, our attention narrows, causing us to concentrate on just a few things at a time. It's something we commonly call tunnel vision.

Tunnel vision increases the risk to firefighters because we fail to see the big picture, those important details outside the narrow field of attention. There are at least six sides to every fire; each side has information to observe, assess, evaluate and determine appropriate actions.

It is tempting to associate situational awareness with only what can be seen. But you can also learn a lot about a particular scenario from the sounds (or lack thereof) and smells in the environment.

To achieve effective situational awareness from a tactical standpoint, be able to observe as much of your surroundings as possible. Positioning yourself in obstructed spots will inhibit the information coming in. For example, something might be in your way that prevents you from seeing changes in fire dynamics.

Being more observant isn't enough to master situational awareness. You have to know what you're looking for, and then put that information into context so it has meaning and becomes actionable.

Three orientations
That brings us back to the orientation phase. The orient phase provides three things to help achieve situational awareness: specific environment, response capabilities and plans of action.

When assessing the specific environment, firefighters and officers need to know what is normal for a given situation. That means knowing the rescue needs, building condition and the fire size and location.

It also means knowing what is going on in that environment. Consider what can go wrong and what anomalies may present themselves. Have solutions ready before these happen.

Response capabilities include knowing the staffing levels, training and experience. It also includes knowing the tools and apparatus available as well as how much water is needed and where it will come from.  

The plan of action is informed by observations and must consider if a primary search should be conducted based on a survivability profile. It must also include how to get the right volume of water to the fire from the safest vantage point and how to manipulate the air's flow paths to control the fire's growth.

Yet, our inability to pay attention to everything all at once makes it impossible to obtain complete situational awareness. The human mind can only handle so much information at a given time.

We need to focus attention on a few things at a time that provide the most return — the critical issues. Becoming distracted by small items that don't have a significant return can increase risk to firefighters.

Brain training
Situational awareness is a mindset that you have to purposefully cultivate. You want to get to the point that it's just something you do without having to think about it. Like physical skills, to get to that point, you have to practice it regularly.

Developing a consistent decision-making model you are comfortable with, train with and use repeatedly will improve your decision-making process and outcomes. You don't always have an adequate amount of time to formulate a well-thought-out plan. But with a sound decision-making process, the outcome will improve when you have to make quick decisions.

What's more, the stress of the event will muddle your thinking and decision-making. A situational mindset, or good decision-making habits, will mitigate the muddle.

In short, situational awareness comes down to understanding current conditions, looking for changing conditions and maintaining the plan based upon those conditions.

Mayday events are failures in the situational awareness phase of deploying firefighters into an immediately dangerous to life and health environment. The failure comes from not having an adequate initial and continuous evaluation of the dynamic conditions.

But conducing a continuous evaluation may require significant change in strategy, a redeployment of resources or both. Situational awareness is the mental tool for making decisions based on current and changing conditions.

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