Situational Awareness: Key to Emergency Response


Situational awareness is the understanding of objects, events, people, system states, interactions, environmental conditions, and other situation-specific factors affecting human performance in complex and dynamic tasks. Situational awareness is simply “knowing what is going on so you can figure out what to do.”1 It is also “what you need to know not to be surprised.”2 Intuitively, it is how you answer the following questions: What is happening? Why is it happening? What will happen next? What can I do about it?

Situational awareness is a key concept in emergency response, human factors research, aviation, and command and control—any domain where the ever-increasing technological and situational complexity affects the human decision maker. Complete, accurate, and up-to-the-minute situational awareness is essential for emergency responders and others who are responsible for controlling complex, dynamic systems and high-risk situations. Inadequate or completely absent situational awareness is cited as one of the primary factors in accidents attributed to human error.

Emergency service providers must continually develop and hone their situational awareness so they are always fully aware of their environment. It is among the most important training you will ever receive in preparing for a mission or a career.

Many emergency service personnel can suffer from tunnel vision, the focus on one particular objective to the exclusion of the overall goal, how that objective fits into the goal, and other factors. It is situational awareness’s archenemy. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to recognize tunnel vision; it is equally difficult to know whether a person is fully aware of the conditions of the environment he is entering.

For example, a firefighter exits the apparatus, fully focused on fire venting through a second-story window but totally oblivious to the exterior environment, possible fireground hazards, the type of occupancy, and its construction. All of these factors will affect how the firefighter addresses fire issues.

In the emergency services, you must be aware of your surroundings and fully prepared to handle situations that may arise that jeopardize your or your team’s safety or effective mission completion. Without this awareness, you will most likely lose control of the incident and compromise scene safety. In the fire service’s ongoing effort to minimize firefighter injuries and fatalities, you must educate those for whom you are responsible about situational awareness, its meaning, and the serious impact it has on them as emergency service providers.


Loss of situational awareness is a significant factor in firefighter near-miss events, unintentional unsafe occurrences that could have resulted in an injury, a fatality, or property damage. Data in Figure 1 are taken from the 2008 National Fire Fighter Near-Miss Annual Report.3 Figure 1 shows the contributing factors involved in a near-miss event, clearly indicating that a loss of situational awareness dramatically affects all emergency service providers’ safety. The 2008 report also identifies the need for crew resource management and discusses the subject in depth.

Figure 1. Near-Miss Event Contributing Factors
Source: 2008 National Fire Fighter Near-Miss Annual Report. Used with permission.

Appreciating the benefits of situational awareness and the consequences of its loss is essential for all emergency service personnel. Effective team performance depends on team situational awareness. Team members must develop accurate expectations for team performance by drawing on a common knowledge base to anticipate the needs of other members, the need for additional resources, and the ability to adapt efficiently to task demands. All personnel must share their knowledge of their individual tasks as it relates to team member roles and responsibilities and to the team’s goals.


When situational awareness is compromised, the potential for human error increases. As seen in Figure 1, loss of situational awareness was responsible for the majority of all reported mishaps in 2008. This loss usually occurs over a period of time and leaves a trail of clues.

Confusion. The sense of disorder or a “gut feeling” that things are just not right is one of the most reliable clues to the loss of situational awareness. Your body detects stimuli long before you have consciously put it all together. Trust your feelings; trust your gut!

No safety officer. If there is no designated safety officer, there is no one looking for hazards. It is imperative that for every incident you encounter, no matter how complex, there be a designated safety officer.

Procedural violations. Disregarding established procedures and regulations puts everyone in a gray area where no one may be able to predict the outcome with any certainty. The consequences of your actions cannot be predicted with any assurance of the outcome. Recognize and report any deviation from standard procedures. Personnel should immediately comment in specific, assertive terms on such omissions.

Unmet goals. If planned fireground goals are not met, you must question why and systematically begin to evaluate your situation.

Unresolved discrepancies. Ambiguity occurs when two or more pieces of information conflict. You must search for that missing information until the discrepancy is resolved. When you receive confusing or unclear information, you must clarify it or fill in the missing pieces before proceeding. Identify potential or existing challenges before they affect mission accomplishment. If you have information critical to team performance, don’t wait to be asked—speak up!

Fixation/tunnel vision. This occurs when a member fixates on one task or becomes preoccupied with work or personal matters such that he is unable to notice other important information. Detecting fixation and preoccupation early is essential to safe operations. The best way to identify these clues is to monitor your personnel’s behavior and be alert to subtle declines in performance, possibly resulting from work overload, stress, errors, and so forth.

The aviation industry has used Two-Challenge Rule effectively to detect fixation in a team member. If a team member fails to adequately respond to two or more challenges regarding omissions or questionable actions, the individual is assumed to have lost situational awareness, and some action is required. Apply this rule in daily operations.

Excessive motivation imposes unrealistic expectations and filters that affect our ability to fully assess the situation and evaluate any safety risks. It may include an overriding sense of mission importance, such that risks may be overlooked or ignored.

Overload. Distraction, fixation, increased errors, and high stress result when one is overburdened. Prioritizing and delegating tasks and minimizing job distractions can improve safety if you are overloaded.

Faulty perception. Perception is our mental picture of reality, based on the information received and how we process it. The amount and quality of information available limit all pictures of your current operational state. Insufficient information makes it difficult to ensure that your mental picture is always aligned with reality. Past experiences and expectations affect your mental picture.

Complacency. Assuming everything is under control affects your vigilance when things are slow and tasks are routine. Challenging yourself and your workforce to be prepared for contingencies through planning or training can deter complacency.

Fatigue. This significantly affects vigilance. Proper diet, exercise, and work ethic will help to deter the effects of fatigue.


Clear communication. Effective communication may be the most important factor in achieving and maintaining situational awareness. Clearly communicate a course of action to follow as needed, clearly verbalizing any intended action. Understand that the proper situational awareness achieved depends on the level and quality of communication among all personnel. Clarifying the expectations of all personnel eliminates doubt. Understand that clear expectations that create a shared understanding of the situation ensure personnel will have high levels of situational awareness.

Task performance awareness. Awareness of how your job and the jobs of other team members contribute to the overall mission is essential. Although it may not be necessary to know the technical aspects of other team members’ jobs, you must be aware of what actions, information, and so forth you can provide to them so they can do their jobs effectively, and what would happen if you did not.

Status awareness. Ensure that your performance reflects an understanding and awareness of the mission or task performed. Effective leaders plan ahead and communicate the plan to all personnel. This ensures that everyone is aware of the plan and fosters a clear understanding of the established goals.

Continual reassessment. Assess and reassess the incident’s progress in relation to established goals to determine if the team is on track to safely and effectively accomplish the mission goals.


Good judgment is the ability to perceive a situation and make a thoughtful, considered decision. A judgment’s quality affects the decision’s quality. Judgment determines the actions taken in a given situation and depends on information that personnel have about themselves and the environment. The large amount of information that teams process and the many necessary interactions within and among teams provide the opportunity for human error. Chains of human error are normal and should be expected. In mission performance, personnel make many judgments, a series of which is called a “judgment chain.”

Applying erroneous information or using an ineffective decision strategy may result in poor judgment. When you unknowingly exercise poor judgment, you are lulled into a misconception of reality. This creates false information, which may be perpetuated when used to make future judgments, which will also be flawed.

A structured decision-making approach that includes an evaluation of judgments is important to prevent the formation and growth of poor judgment chains. To break a poor judgment chain, you must recognize that you are human, be open to the possibility that you can make poor judgments, and be willing to admit and correct errors.


Situational awareness is dynamic, hard to maintain, and easy to lose. Knowing what is going on all the time is very difficult for any one person, especially during complex high-stress incidents. Therefore, it is important that you know what behavior is effective in keeping yourself situationally aware. Ensure that all personnel share expectations for complete situational awareness by everyone.

Author’s note: The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of the Defense Logistics Agency or the United States government, as set forth in 5 CFR 2635(b)(2).


1. Adam, E. C. (1993). “Fighter cockpits of the future.” Proceedings of 12th IEEE/AIAA Digital Avionics Systems Conference (DASC), 318-323.

2. Jeannot, E., C. Kelly, and D. Thompson. (2003). “The development of situation awareness measures in ATM systems.” European Organisation for the Safety of Air Navigation (Eurocontrol),

3. National Fire Fighter Near-Miss Reporting System, 2008 National Fire Fighter Near-Miss Annual Report,

SCOTT REICHENBACH is an assistant chief with the New Cumberland Federal Fire Department in Pennsylvania. He has been active in the fire service in volunteer and career departments for more than 35 years.

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