Photo by Tony Greco.
By Thomas N. Warren
Situational awareness is a relatively new concept for firefighters, but it is not something they haven’t been practicing for many years. It is a close relative and extension of the skill of size-up. We have been teaching and executing size-up for many years to prepare our firefighting forces for what to expect on the fireground. This concept has evolved into a very successful strategy for firefighting operations and, most importantly, for keeping our firefighters safe.
Situational awareness can have different definitions depending on its application to a specific discipline. For the fire service, we can define situational awareness as the continual observation of your specific environment and how any change in that environment affects your mission and safety. These continual environmental observations will become part of the overall strategy developed by an incident commander (IC).
We think about and plan for what we expect to encounter at fires and emergencies. With situational awareness, we extend the size-up concept to continually reading our environment—looking for changes that could affect the firefighting operation or our safety.
Situational awareness has its roots in the military. Aircraft pilots (particularly those engaged in dogfights) found that it was easy to become disoriented with the actions of their aircraft, the opponent’s aircraft, and the numerous gauges they need to monitor during combat flights. This concept of maintaining a vigilance of your surroundings and acting on the changing environment has extended to the other branches of the military.
For instance, the Coast Guard has a very detailed training program that explains how important situational awareness is when piloting Coast Guard vessels during their missions. The fire service has a long history of adopting concepts, strategies, and terminology from the military, so it is not surprising that the fire service has embraced this concept.
Now that we understand how situational awareness came to be and what it is, the question naturally becomes, Who is responsible for situational awareness on the fireground? The answer is: everyone on the fireground. Every firefighter operating on the fireground is responsible for developing a situational awareness in his environment; every fire officer is responsible for developing a situational awareness of his company’s operations, evaluating how changes can affect the mission and firefighter safety; and the IC is responsible for developing an overall situational awareness of the entire firefighting operation.
To blend every firefighters’, officers’, and ICs responsibility for effective situational awareness into a comprehensive and effective firefighting operation, we should look more closely at what it is exactly each person on the fireground is evaluating in his environment.
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When we refer to firefighters, we are referring to members of a firefighting force below the rank of lieutenant. Firefighters do not have any supervisory responsibility, and their work consists mainly of performing physical activities to combat the fire. Firefighters are the people on the firegound who perform tasks such as operating pumping apparatus and aerial devices, advancing hoses, raising ground ladders, searching buildings, ventilation activities, forcible entry, and other hands-on activities.
In most cases, firefighters operate under the supervision of a company officer. However, in many cases, firefighters operate remotely from their officer such as pump operators or a hydrant firefighter. Regardless of whether the officer is there or not, firefighters are still responsible to maintain awareness of their environment. Firefighters who are pumping to an engine company must maintain a situational awareness of their water supply and the mechanical conditions of their apparatus. When a condition develops that affects the continual flow of water to the pump or if the residual pressure drops, the results could be catastrophic. The pump operator must maintain awareness of the engine temperature and oil pressure to keep the water flow uninterrupted.
The environment for the pump operator is the area around the engine truck, the mechanical operation of the truck, and the flow of water to and from the truck. Any changes in this environment must be reported to the IC. Similarly, the operator of the ladder company must maintain a situational awareness of the mechanical operation of the truck and the movement of the aerial device. Overhead obstructions as well as advancing fire conditions will affect the operation and effectiveness of the aerial device. A firefighter positioned at the controls on the turntable must maintain an awareness of the operations occurring at the tip of the aerial device. Like the pump operator, the environment for the ladder operator is the mechanical operation of the truck, the movement of the aerial device, and the integrity of the stabilizers. Again, any changes in this environment must be reported to the IC.
Firefighters engaged in fire suppression, ventilation, and search operations under the supervision of a company officer are not exempt from developing a situational awareness of their environment. Picking up on changes in burning buildings like interior doors that will not close, gaps where the walls meet the floor, or smoke emitting through brick walls can signal an imminent building collapse. Firefighters fully engaged in situational awareness will notice these changes in their environment and report them to their company officer. Firefighters operating on the outside of a burning building who see changes in their environment such as electrical service drops exposed to fire, changes in smoke color/pressure, fire venting below firefighter positions or exposure buildings becoming threatened by intensifying fire conditions will report these conditions observed in their environment to their officer to be relayed to the incident commander. Firefighters operating on the fireground may be the first people to notice subtle changes in their environment that can be signals of events yet to come. Situational awareness is essentially being a “heads up” firefighter.
The very nature of a fire officer’s responsibilities is to direct and supervise the operations of their fire company. Company officers are always looking at the environment in which their firefighters are working in. This very responsibility means that they must have a strong sense of situational awareness. Fire officers will measure their company’s success by accomplishing their assigned task with the least amount of risk. To achieve operational success at the company level, a fire officer must maintain a keen sense of situational awareness for both the safety of his company and the success of its mission. Fire officers will constantly observe their firefighters and the environment in which they are operating. They will be looking for any conditions that will have an influence on their firefighter’s safety like fire spread, heat conditions, building integrity, or smoke conditions. Fire officers will listen to all fireground communications for signs of worsening conditions. For fire officers, their environment for maintaining situational awareness is somewhat larger in scope than that of the firefighters. However, it is vital that the fire officer’s analysis of his environment is accurately interpreted and reported to the IC.
IC operating at the scene of a building fire are, in a sense, the repository of all the information observed and transmitted. Fireground operations will depend largely on the reporting of the company officers and on the change in conditions observed by the IC, who cannot see inside the building and therefore cannot notice if the walls are parting from the floor. The IC will have to depend on the situational awareness of his company officers for this kind of information. His situational awareness is on a larger scope. From the command post, the IC will observe the fireground environment, looking for dangers like smoke color and pressure, visible fire, obstacles to line advancement, possible victims, age and condition of the building, and company operations. The IC will measure the operation against established standard operating procedures (SOPs) and ensure all components of the SOPs are met. The IC’s situational awareness will lead to a processing of all the information reported and observed, understanding the meaning of these reports, and adjusting the incident action plan accordingly. The IC must maintain this continuous situational awareness and avoid the trappings of tunnel vision; his observations are usually a good indicator of the progress being made and the success of the outcome. The IC can never become complacent even when the fire is extinguished.
A keen sense of situational awareness must always be present even when the fire is out; some of the most tragic firefighter deaths and injuries occur after the fire is out. One of the most famous incidents was the Hotel Vendome fire in Boston, Massachusetts, on June 17, 1972, when nine firefighters were killed in a building collapse during overhaul. This incident demonstrated how important it is for the IC to maintain a strong situational awareness throughout the course of an incident.
As we can see, every person operating on the fireground has a situational awareness responsibility to varying levels. It is important for everyone to understand how important it is to constantly observe your environment and report your observations. The IC must continually evaluate and interpret these observational reports; these reports can be a strong indicator of events to come.
The Department of Homeland Security’s motto, “If you see something, say something,” is a good relation to the importance of situation awareness for firefighters.
Thomas N. Warren has more than 40 years of experience in the fire service in both career and volunteer departments. He retired as assistant chief of department of the Providence (RI) Fire Department after 33 years of service. Presently he is a faculty member at Bristol Community College in the Fire Science Technology Program teaching a variety of subjects in the fire science discipline. He holds a Bachelor’s Degree in fire science from Providence College, an Associate’s Degree in business administration from the Community College of Rhode Island and a Certificate in Occupational Safety and Health from Roger Williams University.
More Thomas N. Warren
- The Firefighter: A Different Kind of Person
- Command Presence: What Is It, and How Do You Develop It?
- Standard Operating Procedures: The First Step to a Safer Fireground
- How Do You Prepare Yourself for Duty?
- The Dangers of Fire Escapes
- Fire and EMS Responses to Violent Incidents: Tactical Considerations
- It Wasn’t Always This Way: Remembering Chief Bennett