Why Couldn’t They See It? Fireground Situational Awareness

Click to EnlargeChief Rich Gasaway of the Roseville (MN) Fire Department addressed the critical need for cultivating situational awareness on the fireground in his Monday FDIC 2010 workshop, “Fireground Situational Awareness.” Often used in the context of military operations, situational awareness refers to the understanding events as they unfold in time and projecting the consequence of those events in the near future–a necessary skill for understanding what is happening during any fire or rescue incident.

“The fire service has made great strides with improving apparatus, personal protective equipment and incident management training,” Gasaway said. “However, the number of firefighters being injured and killed while working at incident scenes is staggering. I believe, with all my heart, that part of the solution to reducing casualties is to improve each responder’s situation awareness and decision making under stress.”

Chief Gasaway’s workshop focused specifically on developing situational awareness in fire officers making crucial fireground decisions while under stress. He dealt with the issue of gathering information on the fireground and why it often difficult to process this information to make coherent projections of future events, especially at complex incidents.

Gasaway described his passion for firefighter safety and his frustration in reading firefighter line-of-duty death and near-miss reports. He stated that he often wondered why firefighters were unable to see what was unfolding during these tragic incidents, but realized that ultimately he wasn’t fair–he knew the outcome, while firefighters operating at the scene did not.

Click to EnlargeStill, these indicators are present at every deadly incident. Gasaway played audio and video from a near-miss at a working house fire in Loudon County, Virginia. In this event, firefighters made entry and found zero visibility on the interior of the structure, while crews reported significant fire showing from the attic. The result? Firefighters became trapped and called a Mayday. Luckily, no one died that day. However, events such as these can prove instrumental in understanding how things go wrong on the fireground.

“There are lots of classes dedicated to rapid intervention, firefighter extrication drills, flashover survival, being ready for Maydays and such,” Gasaway said. “I think these are essential programs for firefighters. My program however, while not nearly as sexy as those cool hands-on classes, focuses on the mental management of emergencies and how to avoid being in a situation where you need to be rescued.”

Gasaway described the body’s physiological reactions to stress and how that affects our decision making process, including some situations in which crews and officers operating on the fireground were unable to process Mayday calls by trapped firefighters. He stressed that understanding the science behind decision making can affect our ability to focus in high-stress situations.

Gasaway continued, “I realize there times when things happen we cannot anticipate and firefighters will need those skills. However, if you are an avid reader of the near-miss and line-of-duty casualty reports, you will see there are way too many times where there were ample signs the incident was headed toward disaster.”

Chief Gasaway is a regular contributor to many fire service periodicals, a blogger, and recently wrote an article for Fire Engineering on the Charleston Super Sofa Store fire that killed nine firefighters.

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