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Video: Crews rescue driver moments before train slams into vehicle

A dramatic rescue in Michigan highlights the importance of honing situational awareness and avoiding tunnel vision

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When a multi-vehicle crash left a man in an overturned Jeep stuck on train tracks with an engine barreling down, Michigan fire crews had little time to think – only act. With a mere 20 seconds to spare, firefighters were able to free the man and pull him to safety. The accompanying video shows how this scene unfolds.

This incident had two possible outcomes – one a harrowing rescue, the other being a tragedy. Fortunately, this was a successful outcome, with crews doing a great job to save the driver’s life.

To affect a rescue like this, crews must be confident and competent with their skill level and abilities. This requires consistent training and practice on a variety of skills, perhaps none more important than situational awareness – maintaining an accurate perception of your environment. Situationally aware firefighters are focused on the big picture in front of them and less likely to experience tunnel vision, which can cause members to hyper-focus on just one aspect of the incident and miss crucial details. Note: The expert on this topic is Dr. Richard Gasaway, founder of Situational Awareness Matters. I encourage you to research his training materials and FireRescue1 articles to increase your knowledge and skill base related to all things situational awareness.

Further, a “good job” acknowledgment is certainly warranted to the team that affected this rescue. They were perceptive of their environment, recognizing the immediate need to pull the driver from the vehicle before it was struck by a train.

3 obstacles to accurate scene perception

No one is able to remain situationally aware all the time. It is important to know the three factors that can influence our situational awareness:

  1. Increased heart rate. The higher the heart rate, the quicker firefighters will find themselves in a tunnel vision situation, as well as losing certain abilities like gross motor skills, hearing and cognitive functions. Try to maintain a moderate heart rate around 100 to 110/bpm. This will require training in high-stress situations to acclimate the body.
  2. Fatigue. Crews that are tired or become fatigued during the response are at risk of losing accurate scene perception. Fatigue will affect decision-making skills and processing abilities.
  3. Insufficient communication. If no one is talking to each other, then no one knows what’s going on currently or what’s ahead. Communication is a key factor in being aware of your surroundings because an individual cannot capture every detail – it takes a team. Effectively communicating scene details with each other helps the team and individual firefighters maintain an accurate perception of the environment.

Training time

After watching this video and reading this news story with your company, department leaders should:

  1. Discuss what situational awareness means and ways to hone this level of incident awareness.
  2. Discuss the safety hazards associated with this type of situation, and identify the control mechanisms that can be put in place.
  3. Review/attain the contact numbers for the local rail service in your area to set up training on rail incidents and to become familiar with how to deal with railway interactions.

Mark van der Feyst has been in the fire service since 1998, currently serving as a firefighter with the Fort Gratiot Fire Department in Michigan. He is an international instructor teaching in Canada, the United States and India. He graduated from Seneca College of Applied and Technologies as a fire protection engineering technologist, and received his bachelor’s degree in fire and life safety studies from the Justice Institute of British Columbia and his master’s degree in safety, security and emergency management from Eastern Kentucky University. van der Feyst is the lead author of the book “Residential Fire Rescue” and “The Tactical Firefighter.” Connect with van der Feyst via email.