Fireground Situation Awareness at FDIC 2011

In reviewing a video or reading an investigation case study of a catastrophic fire that resulted in firefighter injury or death, the question often arises, “How could they not see this coming?” said Richard B. Gasaway, Ph.D. However, we cannot be too judgmental in our critique, because unlike those involved in the operation, we already know how the event concluded, and what let up to it.

After such an incident, those involved often say the event came as a complete surprise or happened suddenly without warning. Further investigation may reveal that the situation had been building for a long time.

Near-misses are not only those events that result in firefighter injury. They also consist of bad habits that are reinforced because there is no negative result. For example, if members operating on the fireground have to call the incident commander three times before the IC responds, that’s a near-miss as well. “What was the IC doing that he missed the first two calls?” Gasaway asked. Someone should have been assigned to monitor the radio constantly so as not to miss message. If this habit is not corrected, it may ultimate result in a missed Mayday call, with deadly consequences

If a fireground safety principles are repeatedly violated (e.g., following SOPs/SOGs, wearing full personal protective gear) without any negative effects , they become habits which are reinforced because they resulted in no negative effects. Until, of course, there is a firefighter near-miss or a line of duty death. “Incompetence without consequence builds confidence,” Gasaway observed. 

Among the challenges of developing and maintaining situation awareness in dynamic, high-stress, high-consequence environments is our natural “fight or flight” response. In a high-stress situation, this response causes in increase in heart, breathing, and blood pressure rates, and focuses one’s senses. This can lead to tunnel vision in which one focuses on the situation at hand to the exclusion of all else.

Students participated in an exercise in which they were instructed to focus on a certain activity going on in a short video. In the analysis afterward, Gasaway noted that most had missed an obvious element in the video, because they were so focused on one activity.

Situational awareness has three levels. Perception is awareness what’s happening in your environment. Comprehension is understanding  what it means. Projection is looking ahead to predict that, given this data, what will happen in the future? Gasaway said all three levels of situational awareness are essential to controlling what happens on the fireground. Fully developing one’s situational awareness will result in safer fireground, so everyone goes home.

Dr. Richard B. Gasaway has been a student of the fire service for 32 years serving in the positions of firefighter, paramedic, company officer, training officer and department chief. He attended his first FDIC in 1980 in Memphis, Tennessee, and has presented at the FDIC since 2006. He is the executive director for the Center for the Advancement of Situation Awareness and Decision

Making, and is dedicated to improving firefighter safety by helping the fire service deepen its knowledge of situation awareness and decision making.

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