Remember when three-dimensional vision was the most futuristic concept you had heard of? How cool it would be sitting in front of a screen and experiencing your own reality! Now, virtual reality simulators immerse you in visual, aural, and even tactile stimuli. Such systems are out of the average person`s price range but now are available in your desktop computer. A 3-D video card allows you to view computer graphics in virtual reality. Who could have imagined it even 20 years ago?

What`s an equivalent futuristic concept in the fire service? Some say the personal protection envelope, haz-mat response, infrared search cameras, or firefighting robots. While equipment improvements and inventions will continue to fascinate us, the next trend of the fire service could be the fourth dimension, human factors.

Beginning about 25 years ago, the commercial aviation industry identified a majority of aircraft incidents and accidents as “human-caused.” That means that a living breathing organism caused or significantly contributed to the events that led to the violation of regulations and SOPs, property damage, and loss of life. Since then the aviation industry has committed vast resources to the issues regarding humans in airplanes. This may also be applied to the fire service.


Human factors covers a wide spectrum–operations, equipment, and the interaction of these and humans–and is usually called “crew resource management” (CRM). John K. Lauber, psychologist with the National Transportation Safety Board, defines CRM as: “Using all available resources–information, equipment, and people–to achieve safe and efficient flight operations.”1 CRM in the fire service includes anything that could, should, and must be dealt with before, during, and after an incident. These include fire dispatchers, preincident planning worksheets, crew members (inside and outside your immediate company), computers, and equipment.

CRM influences our total operations. Situational awareness (SA), a subdivision of CRM, is the ability to maintain awareness of surroundings, the current location, events, the environment, crew members, assessments of psychosocial conditions affecting the operation, and more.

To be an effective and efficient member of the fire service, you must develop SA as part of your leadership profile. Some people have an excellent SA that seems inherent, whereas others have very little SA and occasionally demonstrate that lack.

The first and most important concept in SA is communication. I realize that this has been a buzzword for everyone who wants to ensure a lucrative consulting contract, but hear me out. Before continuing, we must first agree on some issues.

To apply any of the concepts of the CRM, you must first have the necessary technical skills and abilities to perform your specific job function. Example: A firefighter can have excellent SA but not understand the seriousness of fire behavior, which could lead to a significant emotional event for the firefighter and his crew.

Properly functioning feedback loops are necessary to keep firefighters safe and accomplish incident goals. A feedback loop consists of the event, discussion, decision, action, and review. All these elements must be present in a feedback loop.

Organizational support helps in implementing CRM, but the firefighters must make it work. Front-line personnel must buy stock in this to make it effective and efficient.

Self-assessment begins before a call. Mental, physical, and emotional readiness long before a call is the motivation behind self-assessment. Consider physical health, mental health, diet, drug and alcohol consumption, and other factors. If you are not ready for the incident, you create many problems beyond your personal safety, including inability to communicate or to be communicated with, poor physical performance, lack of SA, and lack of resolve.

The best incident commanders are those who think beyond the current situation, who have more than one plan–a backup if the first one doesn`t work. Those firefighters who stay ahead of the current situation tend to migrate toward the top, unfortunately, sometimes due to grim circumstances. One of the cues that you are losing your SA is being overloaded with duties–task saturation. You have probably had an experience that caused you to become overloaded in an instant, such as a “firefighter down” call. What happens to your strategy and SA as an incident commander? What happens to your firefighers` SA? Who`s watching the fire? The keys to avoiding task saturation are planning and communication.


These tips were developed for the aviation industry, and I have adapted them for the fire service.

1. Predetermine crew roles for high-workload phases of the operation, such as RITs or rescue.

2. Develop a plan, and assign responsibilities for handling problems and distractions, such as occupant/owner and logistical support.

3. Solicit input from all crew members and other resources, such as dispatchers and owners.

4. Rotate attention from incident to plan to people–don`t fixate on just one aspect.

5. Monitor and evaluate current status relative to your plan: “How`re we doing?”

6. Project ahead, and consider contingencies–the “what ifs.”

7. Focus on the details, but scan the big picture.

8. Create visual and aural reminders of interrupted tasks.

9. Watch for signs of degraded SA.

10. Speak up when you see SA breaking down.

If you have ever been involved in an accident study, you know that it usually isn`t one isolated event that caused an injury or death. Many mistakes and miscalculations probably occurred prior to the actual accident. This assumption of multiple problems is called an “error chain.” For example, a firefighter with smoke inhalation may look simple enough to deal with on the surface, but what were the factors that led to the exposure? Was adequate equipment on the scene? Was there a sudden need for assistance–rescue of victims or firefighters–that precipitated his actions? Did the equipment malfunction? Was there miscommunication regarding safe areas? One of the keys to safety is immediately recognizing problems. You must recognize, arrest, resolve, and monitor to prevent error chains.


Douglas Schwartz of Flight Safety International developed this list for the aviation industry, and I have adapted it for the fire service.

1. Ambiguity–information from two or more sources doesn`t agree.

2. Fixation–focusing on any one thing to the exclusion of everything else.

3. Confusion–uncertainty or bafflement about a situation, often accompanied by anxiety or psychological discomfort.

4. Distraction–Focusing on nonincident activities (firefighter down, for example).

5. Narrowed focus–a “heads down, complete this task” attitude that does not see a wider, overall view of incident.

6. Incident milestones unmet–for example, the fire not darkening when expected.

7. SOPs overlooked or ignored.

8. Regulations overlooked or ignored (e.g., personnel must work in teams).

9. Failure to resolve conflicting information or personnel.

10. Vague, ineffective, or incomplete communication.

Situational awareness is not something you either have or don`t have; you can acquire it or do something to improve it. Personally, I have trouble switching between winter structural fires and summer wildland fires. Since I spend too much time indoors in winter, I tend to lose touch with my environment. Every summer I have to reacquaint myself with wildland SA. I accomplish this through aural reminders, written notes, visual cues, and communication. Situational awareness is vital to everyone`s safety on the fireground. n


1. Weiner, E.L., B.G. Kanki, and R.L. Helmreich, eds. Cockpit Resource Management. San Diego, Calif.: Academic Press, 1993, 4.

n RANDY OKRAY is a training officer and an 11-year veteran with the Campbell County Fire Department in Gillette, Wyoming. He is a state-certified Firefighter III and has a wildland firefighting Red Card.

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