Scopes of Situational Awareness

Brian Brush with two items you probably didn’t know that limit your fireground awareness.

There is no shortage of discussion on the topic of situational awareness and rightfully so. If we can find ways to train firefighters to evaluate and process more information about what is happening around their task or operation the safer they will be. Unfortunately, there are a couple factors which seriously limit the scope of situational awareness that we can expect from those operating on the fire ground. The first is the role and responsibility of the person and the second is their commitment to seeing the mission through.

Firefighters, despite being organized and assigned as a company unit, operate at task level with an individual mindset. From the moment riding assignments are made, the firefighter is focusing on “me.”

The rank and file firefighter is a task oriented worker. The firefighter will be the one stretching the line, operating a saw, nozzle or pulling ceiling. It is unpractical to expect these guys to provide a global view while they are performing tasks. It is difficult even to expect these guys to be aware the situation that surrounds their operation if they are not competent and confident in the duty they are performing. It is only when the one action is second nature that you can really process anything outside of it. For example let’s take firefighter X. He is on a roof about to cut a vent hole, he has not rehearsed his cut order, is uncomfortable operating a chainsaw or even a little afraid of heights. All of these anxieties have him so focused on the task at hand there is no way we could expect him to look away from the saw on occasion and check roof conditions. Improving situational awareness for the firefighter begins with drilling and training to ensure tasks are performed in a competent, confident manner. The end goal would be seeing fundamental tasks become second nature. A reasonable expectation of the scope of situational awareness for the firefighter level would be the conditions surrounding his task. Footing and overhead when pulling ceiling, building layout and smoke conditions when conducting a search.

Firefighters and companies operate at task-specific levels where the mental periphery is narrow. The company officer has to have the mental aptitude to see the scene larger than the firefighters he is supervising.

The company officer is a crew boss. He is responsible for being aware of the work of his company or group that he is supervising. He must be in a position where he is able to process the task at hand, progress or lack of, and the conditions and situation that surround it. This is one of the more difficult spots to be especially in times of reduced or limited staffing whatever the politically correct term is. Once the company officer becomes involved in the task it seriously limits his supervisory capacity and reduces his scope of situational awareness back to that of the firefighter level. On the other side of the coin a Laissez-faire officer which isn’t keeping on top of the operations of his crew is doing them a serious disservice by essentially hoping it will turn out alright. Improving situational awareness for the company officer comes with drilling and training as a company. The more “data” that officer has to mentally reference the better judge he becomes of progress and the more attention he can pay to the conditions surrounding the operation. A company officer who has drilled a dozen times on a 2 ½” attack line stretch to a second floor apartment fire has a good gauge of his members abilities and how long it should take his crew to get it done. When the time starts to get outside of this range he will automatically begin to investigate reasons why there is a delay. A reasonable expectation of the scope of situational awareness for a company officer is the situation and conditions surrounding the operations of his crew members and the actions of the crew members he is observing.

The incident commander is ultimately responsible for the entire scene. While on paper it is easy to place the global view of operations and progress towards mitigation on this individual, at this level we find a challenging conflict in situational awareness. The incident commander is the one who arrives at an emergency scene, performs a size up of the situation and based on his experience and training develops an incident action plan for controlling said emergency. If we translate that into truth the IC just created a personal mission. On paper there is no personal connection to an incident action plan however in reality, even in the most disciplined individuals there is some type of emotional connection to seeing this mission through. Subconsciously, the personal connection to the plan development will guide the individual to look for signs of progress towards the mission ahead of identifying failures. The best way to improve the situational awareness for the incident commander is to provide the incident commander with an objective third party incident safety officer. It is an unrealistic expectation on an active emergency scene to think that the incident commander can effectively see a mission through and remain objective enough to provide overall scene awareness.

A separate designated incident safety officer is the third party who serves in a role between the aforementioned individuals who are committed with mind, body and skill to see a mission through and the unpredictable and ever changing forces and environment created by the emergency incident. They are continuously processing both sides of the battle without an emotional connection to either side.

The balance between risk and reward is thrown off the moment we recognize whichever first. Subsequent actions then follow the direction taken. Company officers have to recognize that blind cultural values can incorrectly predetermine the actions of a firefighter, right or wrong.

The thought process of risk versus reward is interesting and a question was once put to me why does risk always come before reward. My initial response was that we must evaluate that which we are willing to risk first. The follow up question was this. Would you think any differently if the phrase was reward versus risk? The opportunity to save a life at the risk of costing the life of a firefighter, the reward of saving a citizens property and irreplaceable belongings at the risk of an injury to one of our own. I honestly do not have an answer and it locked me up. What I do know is that as a company officer I certainly would have difficulty contemplating this while I am working with my crew performing overhaul. This is something that a separate designated incident safety officer may be able to start to process when he hears radio reports of primary searches being completed and reported negative for victims, or transmissions from the engine company that the fire is knocked and there are no signs of extension.

Photographs courtesy of and Cliff Shockley/

Brian Brush is a Lieutenant with the West Metro Fire Rescue in Lakewood, Colorado. West Metro Fire Rescue serves 110 square miles and over 265,000 residents in the West Denver Metropolitan Area. The district operates 15 stations with 340 uniformed members and responds to an average of 24,000 calls for service annually.

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