By Richard B. Gasaway
I joined the fire service in 1979. I had just graduated from high school; it was an exciting time for me. I joined my hometown volunteer fire department, which provided amazing opportunities to learn and have fun. There were great officers and talented instructors. I didn’t have to worry about my safety. I knew these capable leaders would watch out for me and keep me safe. Then, just two years into my service, something unexpected (and life changing) happened. I never saw it coming: It was an event that clearly illustrated flawed situational awareness.
I got promoted to lieutenant, and was nominated and elected to my first leadership position at a meet at which I was not present and, therefore, could not decline the position. I wasn’t ready for leadership, and I knew it. There’s a huge difference between being competent and being popular. I was popular. But I was not competent. I was also scared to death. In fact, I was gripped with fear. I didn’t want to ever be the person to look a firefighter’s family member in the eye and have to tell him, “Your loved one isn’t here any more because I screwed up and made a bad decision.” The thought of having this happen haunted me and caused me nightmares.
I knew I would have to get busy learning how to make better decisions – to learn what I did not know. That started a 30-year journey of learning how to make good decisions under stress. The efforts paid off. I finished my active-duty career of 30 years with never having a firefighter seriously hurt or killed under my command. I had become a competent commander–or so I thought.
Introduction to Situational Awareness
In 2004, I went back to school and for the next five years conducted extensive research on how first responders make decisions under stress. There, for the first time in my fire service career, I got introduced to situational awareness. I remember the first research study I evaluated about the importance of situational awareness in the decision-making process. I was stunned. I was frustrated. I was angry! How could I have studied so much on fireground decision making, taken so many incident command classes, learned so much about strategy and tactics, and yet never have been taught about situational awareness?
At that moment, I realized I was not a competent incident commander. I was a lucky incident commander. The research I was conducting and would later conduct as part of the requirements to earn my doctor of philosophy degree were life changing for me. I created a program to share some of my findings and presented it at the Fire Department Instructor’s Conference in 2008. The feedback from the participants aligned with the feelings I had after I was first exposed to the research. They were stunned, frustrated, and angry!
I have uncovered and written about more than 100 barriers to situational awareness, sharing the neuroscience of how we make decisions under stress and how our decision making can be impacted when we lose our situational awareness. It is no coincidence that flawed situational awareness is the leading contributing factor to firefighter near-miss events and an often-cited factor in line-of-duty death incidents. Yet, most firefighters still know very little about what situational awareness is, how to develop it, how it can erode, or how to strengthen it again once it has eroded.
To make matters worse, many of the barriers that can destroy situational awareness occur with little or no conscious awareness that it is happening. This is what compelled me to develop a program that termed flawed situational awareness the “stealth killer of first responders.”
What Is Situational Awareness?
To understand how situational awareness impacts decision making, it is first essential to understand what situational awareness is.
Situational awareness is your ability to perceive and understand what is happening in your environment (in the context of how time is passing) and then, in turn, to accurately predict future events in time to avoid bad outcomes.
I have heard others define situational awareness as the point where perception and reality meet. I believe this is a rudimentary (and incomplete) explanation of situational awareness. If fact, it could just as easily be stated that flawed situational awareness is the moment where perception is rudely interrupted by reality. When this rude interruption results in a near-miss or a casualty, flawed situational awareness is implicated as a contributing factor, and those reading the report after the fact are able to vividly see that perception and reality did not align.
Our goal should be to see an accurate reality. To do so, we need to understand how perception is formed and how our perceptions of reality can be fooled. This is where neuroscience steps in. We know more now than at any time in history about how the brain works, and it seems that new findings in neuroscience are being announced almost daily. From Alzheimer’s to autism to stroke recovery, the body of knowledge is expanding rapidly. Some of the findings of this cutting-edge research directly benefit first responders. However, many first responders do not have access to or the time or desire to read the scientific journals that reveals these lessons.
From the neurological perspective, developing situational awareness begins with perception. For those who may be familiar with Boyd’s “OODA Loop” (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act), this would be the observe component–being perceptive of what is happing in your environment. But, situational awareness requires more than observation.
Perception is a multifaceted process of integrating the input from all five senses. The layperson’s term for perception may be “paying attention.” But situational awareness is far more complex than paying attention. However, being alert (or vigilant) to what is happening in your surroundings is certainly a critical component in the formation of situational awareness. It is difficult to develop and maintain situational awareness if you are not paying attention to your environment.
As input enters the brain via sensory organs (eyes, ears, skin, nose and mouth), the information is turned into electrical impulses and sent to various parts of the brain for interpretation. Each part of the brain makes its own assessment of the input and cross-references to the other sensory inputs as well.
The integration of all the input develops understanding–the second component of the situational awareness continuum. If the inputs from all the senses are in alignment (i.e., in agreement), you may have a strong and accurate awareness of what is happening because the senses are triangulating (i.e., verifying from multiple sources) the accuracy of the inputs.
But what happens when the senses do not agree? “Sensory integration” is the term used in neuroscience to explain the process of multiple senses comparing and contrasting inputs and deriving understanding from their findings. If there is sensory conflict, the brain can become confusing during the process of integration, and confusion flaws understanding. And flawed understanding can wreak havoc on decision making. If we don’t understand, we become disoriented and confused. Disorientation and confusion are among the many barriers that erode situational awareness.
In one study, the researchers hypothesized that what the brain perceives as flavor is based more on the sensory input of vision and less on the sensory input of taste.1 In other words, we taste with our eyes. Could that even be possible? This is what the researchers wanted to find out.
They enlisted the assistance of 50 wine-tasting experts. In the wine-tasting world, the experts take their jobs very seriously. They use a specific list of terms to describe the taste of red wines and a very different and specific list of terms to describe to taste of white wines. The professional knows those two sets of terms are never to cross.
The devious researchers dropped colorless, odorless red food coloring into glasses of white wines to see if changing the color of the wine could fool the palates of the experts. And, in fact, it did. In every case, the experts employed the terms used to describe red wines while actually tasting white wines. Their senses of smell and taste were fooled by the color of the wine. The wine tasters were confused and disoriented by the sensory conflict. Their situational awareness was impacted, and not one of them knew it.
Of course, there’s no significant consequence if a wine taster uses the terminology for a red wine while tasting a white wine. But the consequence can be catastrophic when a first responder suffers from conflicting sensory input. Knowing which of the senses will win the battle is very unpredictable, although the odds are in favor of vision because the visual cortex is the largest sensory region in the brain.
Sometimes when confused or if there is an absence of complete information, the brain can start making up its own explanations. When a person makes up a story with motive, the layperson’s term for it is “lying.” When the brain makes up a story without a motive (unintentionally), the neuroscience community calls it “confabulation.” Call it whatever you wish. Just know this: In the absence of complete and accurate information, your brain can start making up its own perception of reality that does not exactly match the input from any of the senses. For example, if the eyes see “A” and the ears hear “B,” either sense could win the battle and the brain will perceive reality as “A” or “B.”
Sometimes the brain doesn’t know what it thinks. The disorientation caused from the eyes seeing “A” and the ears hearing “B” causes the brain to consolidate the two inputs and construct its own reality; call that “C.” In this case, “C” (the made-up reality) can lead to an erosion of situational awareness because it is entirely untrue. There is nothing about “C” that is accurate. The brain made up a new reality by melding together what it knew about “A” and what it knew about “B” (assisted by expectations based on the individual’s past experiences).
This article is a very brief introduction to the barriers that can impact situational awareness in stealth ways. Remember, situational awareness is much more than paying attention.
Richard B. Gasaway, Ph.D., has extensively researched how first responders make decisions under stress using situational awareness. Prior to completing his doctoral research on the neuroscience of decision making and situational awareness, he had served 30-plus years as a first responder in six emergency services agencies. He has written more than 450 journal and Web site articles and has authored five books on situational awareness and high-risk decision making. He has developed more than 2,000 programs for public safety, business, and industrial professionals in the United States, Canada, England, Hong Kong, and Australia.
1. G. Morrot, G; Brochet, G; and Dubourdieu, D. In “The Color of Odors.” (2001) Brain and Language: 79, 309-320.