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 me with 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 that I never saw coming—it was an event that was clearly an example of flawed situational awareness.
I got promoted to lieutenant. Some of you may relate to how such a travesty of justice could occur. I missed a meeting. Since I was not present to decline the nomination, I was nominated and elected to my first leadership position. I wasn’t ready, 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 who looked a family member of a firefighter in the eye and say, “Your loved one isn’t here anymore because I made a bad decision.” The thought of having this happen haunted me and caused me nightmares.
To overcome my fear, 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 without ever having a firefighter seriously hurt or killed under my command. I had become a competent commander–or so I thought.
Introduced 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 NEVER HAVE anyone teach me about situational awareness?
At that moment, I realized I was not a competent incident commander (IC). I was a LUCKY IC. The research I was reading and the research I would later conduct as part of the requirements to earn my doctor of philosophy degree would be life-changing for me. I created a program to share some of my findings and presented it at Fire Department Instructors Conference 2008. The feedback from the participants revealed the same sentiments I experienced 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 is lost, or how to regain it once it is lost.
To make matters worse, many of the barriers that destroy situational awareness occur with little or no conscious awareness that it’s happening. This compelled me to call 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 it 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, be able 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. This is a rudimentary (and very incomplete) explanation of situational awareness. It could just as easily be said 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 match.
Our goal should be to see an accurate reality. To do so, we need to understand how perception is formed and how our perception of reality can mislead us. This is where neuroscience steps in. We know more now than anytime in history about how the brain works, and it seems as if new findings in brain science 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 and the desire to read the scientific journals that reveal these lessons.
From the neurological perspective, it all begins with perception. For those familiar with Boyd’s “OODA Loop” (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act), this would be the observe component of the loop–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 forming situational awareness. It certainly is difficult to develop and maintain situational awareness if you are not paying attention to your environment.
As input comes into the brain through the 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 makes cross-references to the other sensory inputs as well.
The integration of all of the input develops understanding, the second component of situational awareness. If the input from all the senses are in alignment (i.e., 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. The brain can become confused during the process of integration, and confusion flaws perception, and flawed perceptions wreak havoc on understanding. When we don’t understand, we become disoriented, and disorientation is one of the many barriers that can cause you to lose situational awareness.
In “The Color of Odors,” researcher G. Morrot and associates 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
The researchers 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 the taste of white wines. The professional knows those two sets of terms are never to cross.
The devious researchers dropped colorless, odorless red coloring into glasses of white wines to see if the experts’ palates could be fooled simply by changing the color of the wine. In fact, they were. In every case, the experts employed the terms used to describe red wines while actually tasting a white wine. Their senses of smell and taste were fooled by the color of the wine. The wine tasters were confused and disoriented. Their situational awareness was flawed, 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 the brain is mixed up, it can start making up explanations. When a person makes up a story, we call it lying. When the brain makes up a story, the neuroscience community calls it confabulation. Call it whatever you wish. Just know this: When your brain is confused and disoriented, it 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 as “B.”
Sometimes the brain doesn’t know what they think. 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” leads to completely flawed 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.”
This article serves as a very brief introduction to the barriers that can steal away your situational awareness in stealth ways.
1. Morrot, G, Brochet, F, and Dubourdieu, D. “The Color of Odors.” 2001. Brain and Language; 2001:79, 309-320.
Richard B. Gasaway, Ph.D., is a leading authority on first responder decision making and situational awareness under stress. Prior to completing his doctoral research on the neuroscience of decision making and situational awareness, he served 30 years as a first responder in six emergency services agencies. He has authored more than 450 books, book chapters, and articles on first responder safety and has delivered live programs to more than 44,000 first responders at programs hosted in the United States, Canada, England, Hong Kong, and Australia.