Situation Awareness

BY ALAN BRUNACINI

As an old guy living in a brave (and nutty) new world, I struggle every day to somehow understand the never-ending parade of hot management topics as they go by. The current flavor of the month is SITUATION AWARENESS. As I read and hear about and then ponder the mysteries of situation awareness, I wonder, What am I supposed to be aware of? And (as usual) how does this awareness relate to firefighting situations? Thinking about and connecting my two questions quickly produces a no-brainer answer.

Understanding the current status of fireground conditions (where/how big) along with knowing how those conditions and operational action (also where/how big) are impacting each other is absolutely critical—and, it seems to me, all this quickly becomes a big part of what fireground situational awareness is all about. Establishing and maintaining this fireground awareness is easy to say but hard to do, because effective rescue and fire attack involves teams of firefighters performing a full range of assigned tasks, many times all at once in a lot of different places. This sequential, simultaneous, decentralized work must occur very fast and must be effectively coordinated, because operational action in one place must hook up to (i.e., integrate) and support what is going on in other related places.

Together, all the tasks must be assigned, accounted for, and managed by the incident commander (IC), so they (collectively) complete the basic tactical objectives: rescue/fire control/property conservation. Most of the time, one operating position cannot see the other, so we must depend on standard operating procedures (SOPs), portable radios, command support, experience, and intuition. Mutual trust drives the system and holds it together. “I’ve got your back” is not just a cutesy slogan to us. It means (as an example) that Engine 1 is stretching a line to the interior, and Engine 15 is bringing in a backup line to cover them. Everybody had better be situationally (and mutually) aware of how linear backup operations occur and how our survival depends on them.

It is a challenge to maintain an ongoing awareness of a lot of fast and dirty work going on in a lot of fast and dirty places. It is also difficult to apply that same operational awareness level to a set of very dangerous conditions that are intensely connected and changing very quickly. Our recent Tactics Coloring Book columns provide some support to this awareness challenge (and help answer the question “What am I supposed to be aware of?”). The colors support a mental understanding (and awareness) of what actual tactical conditions look like, where the problem is now, how those conditions behave, and the way the fire typically spreads inside and outside the fire area. This awareness supports how the IC is able to (mentally) superimpose rescue and firefighting operations on top of incident conditions and to assign and manage the action that effectively and safely finds, cuts off, and controls what is burning and protects what is left.

Coloring the involved (red), the exposed (yellow), and the uninvolved (green) inside the fire area represents the basic tactical components that show the geometry (shape) and the geography (location) of the current fire location, travel paths, and ultimate size of the fire if not controlled. This becomes the inside awareness area. We must also consider how this area is located in relation to the immediate neighborhood (access, arrangement, exposures, separation, and hydrants, for example), and this outside exposed area requires an extended level of awareness and protection. Sometimes the fire gets out of the original (inside) fire area and begins to visit the exposures. If the “visit” extends to a significant number of exposed structures, we must then attempt to confine the fire to the neighborhood of origin.

We also use gray circles to describe current smoke location and to predict future smoke migration inside and outside the original fire area (big gray circles = light smoke; smaller gray circles = more dense smoke; gray dots = fire gases). Blue is used to mark our basic weapon H2O by showing supply and attack lines and water application. Purple shows support activities like forcible entry, ventilation, providing access, searching for fire/victims (each searched area is marked by a lowercase “s”). I couldn’t think of a color that shows what truckies do (absolutely essential), so I picked purple, which is “special” (like them).

The colors become the basis of what we must be aware of and respond to on the fireground. They create a very practical awareness system that quickly shows the problem (red/yellow/green/gray) and the solution (blue/purple). The point of all this coloring stuff is not to create awareness for awareness sake but for us to show up on the fireground with an effective level of “preloaded” mental concentration, consciousness, and focus so that we can overcome the fire problem with a firefighting solution. The capability of our using force (blue) to overpower energy (red) becomes the foundation of being able to create effective and safe operational action.

In our business, there is no way we could survive by ourselves. Simply, typical incident conditions exceed any single person’s attention (i.e., awareness) span. Our response to this reality is that in the fire service, from our first day to our last, we will be part of a team—we do not do anything by ourselves. In fact, on the fireground, if you are all by yourself in the hazard zone, you are in the front end of requiring a lot of desperate Mayday attention if anything goes wrong, and a lot can go wrong!

Retired Chief ALAN BRUNACINI is a fire service author and speaker. He and his sons own the fire service Web site bshifter.com.

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