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Coffee Break Bulletin

Situational Awareness Basics — Look and Listen
Part 1
Physical Environment

Posted: Nov. 5, 2020

Firefighters are completely exposed in the dangerous environments where they work. Awareness of time, space and physics all play a part in firefighter safety and survival.

This is the first bulletin in a two-part series on situational awareness for the physical and mental environments. In Part 2: Mental Environment, you will learn how to increase psychological situational awareness for your own and your crews' well-being.

How perceptive are you when it comes to what is going on in your environment? Are you sure? Here is a quick video to test your powers of perception.

We may start out gathering general perceptions as we move into an area or situation. But as we narrow our focus to a specific task or input, we become increasingly unaware of things going on around us.

Often there is so much happening in our immediate environment, or you become so absorbed in your own thoughts, that you fail to spot those things that could pose a serious threat to your health and safety. Sometimes complacency and routine clouds our perception of real-world events. For example, have you ever found yourself driving down a familiar road and cannot seem to remember the last few minutes of your trip?

It is important that everyone is looking out for their own safety as well as their teammates'. Even the most experienced people can lack situational awareness, especially when doing tasks that have become routine.

Improving your situational awareness

Get in the habit of regularly making a conscious and quick mental assessment of your environment. Just as pilots develop a system to look at their flight instruments in a repeatable pattern at specific times during a flight, firefighters should assess their situation in a predictable pattern every few minutes during an incident.

Consider these questions

  • Is there anything around you that poses a threat to your (or your crew’s) health and safety, and if so, to what extent?
  • Is the threat big enough that you should stop working?
  • What is the worst-case scenario?
  • Is there anything you can do to safely reduce that threat?
  • Is it time to regroup and attack the problem from a safer angle?

Take these steps

  • Get in the habit of stopping for a moment to assess your environment.
  • Stop what you are doing.
  • Use all your available senses to test the environment.
  • Anticipate as many possibilities as you may envision.
  • If you detect a possible hazard (physical or operational), consider stopping your work and notify your team leader or Incident Commander.

Situational awareness is a mental state of alertness that involves perceiving, processing and predicting the event to prevent an unexpected incident from happening. Remember: It is always better to err on the side of safety than to let a bad situation grow worse.

More information about situational awareness

Situational awareness is not enough. Bennett, G. (2018, January). Firehouse Blog.

Importance of situational awareness process for firefighters. Friese, G. (2017, February). Firerescue1 Blog.

Situational Awareness Matters. Tips for reducing human error, enhancing situational awareness and improving high-risk decision making.

Our thanks to Dr. Richard B. Gasaway, CSP, fire chief (ret.), for his contribution to this Coffee Break Bulletin.

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