The Fire Ninja – how to increase situational awareness for fire teams
on 07 February, 2014

Situational awareness – the ability to identify, process and comprehend the critical elements of information about what is happening to the team with regards to the mission*. More simply, it’s knowing what is going on around you.

The importance of situational awareness (SA) has long been studied by the warrior class. Elite soldiers, highly skilled fighter pilots and naval warfare specialists realized a long time ago that SA was a key element in securing their mission success. A great deal of thought and focus has gone into exercises similar to the one I referenced above. But they all have one thing in common. The first step of achieving SA is to be aware of it and to recognize that it is a cognitive skill like any other learned behavior that we employ.

My first personal experience with this concept came when I was learning the fundamentals of vehicle extrication. The Hearst tools and rescue equipment were exciting and fun to use, but a much loftier goal was driven into me by my instructor. The ‘Inner and Outer Circles’ strategy. If you’re not familiar with it, let me give you the overview of how it works. When a rescue team arrives on the scene of a motor vehicle collision, before anyone touches a tool or develops an extrication strategy, one person (usually the apparatus driver) would be designated to perform an inner circle around the collision scene. This inner circle is defined as a physical walk around the vehicles involved, with primary focus on the fundamentals of the emergency. How many vehicles involved? How many patients are there? Do we have confirmed entrapment? What are our stabilization challenges? What is the level of damage/intrusion? Can we calculate the mechanism of collision to estimate energy transfer to the occupants? Are there fluid control issues? And I could go on and on… but this Inner Circle, this 360 degree ‘walk-around’ should take no more than 30 seconds all while this long list of variables should be flashing through the team member’s head.

The Outer Circle (generally performed by the Officer of the crew) is essentially the same concept only now the focus isn’t only on the vehicles and patients involved. Considerations of weather, traffic, utilities concerns, ignition points, etc. are all added to the data collection and processed by the skilled officer. Looking inward still, but also looking outward towards other variables that may affect the outcome of the mission. While this circle is generally larger and takes a little longer to perform, it should not take longer than one minute and should conclude with a meeting with the team member who did the inner circle.

This physical practice of walking in circles is designed specifically to prevent what is commonly called ‘tunnel vision’ in the fire industry. But more importantly, it recognizes the need to achieve FULL situational awareness and that can only be accomplished if you have ALL of the data.

tunnel vision.1. Vision in which the visual field is severely constricted, as from within a tunnel looking out. 2. An extremely narrow point of view; narrow-mindedness. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company.Updated in 2009.Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.

So that was a simple explanation of how the Inner and Outer Circle method can be applied to a vehicle collision, but the core concept can very easily be transcended into just about any realm of emergency response. Remove the physical example of walking around a hazard gathering information and apply the method to problems that you face in other aspects of your job. This refers to another form of the Inner and Outer Circles theory that outlines that there are a lot of things that may fall into our Circle of Concern, but there are very few that realistically fall into our Circle of Influence. Being able to tell the two apart is critical to managing an emergency scene but can also be easily rearranged to handle most daily challenges. It comes down to gathering all of the information you can about a certain problem, concern, issue and then being able to determine whether you have influence over that problem or whether it should fall into an area of concern.

A philosophy that I’ve come to fully embrace is that of; ‘Only worry about that which you can control.’  If you identify something that is a concern but that you have no control over, it becomes a stressor and needs to be set aside accordingly. Remember that there can be positive and negative stressors but once they are recognized to be out of your Circle of Influence, their power to affect the outcome of your mission is greatly diminished.

tri age  (trē-äzh′, trē′äzh′) .1. A process for sorting injured people into groups based on their need for or likely benefit from immediate medical treatment. Triage is used in hospital emergency rooms, on battlefields, and at disaster sites when limited medical resources must be allocated. 2. A system used to allocate a scarce commodity, such as food, only to those capable of deriving the greatest benefit from it.3. A process in which things are ranked in terms of importance or priority. The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company.Updated in 2009.Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved

Triage is another term that transcends its origin. Obviously we will use triage in regards to patient care and the prioritizing of decisions, but the triage process can also be logically applied to the development of your situational awareness. As you’re taking things in, a mental assignment of priority should be ‘stamped’ on each piece of information. Is it relevant? Will it affect the outcome? Can I set it aside or does it take center stage?

So, understanding all of this, how do we teach it? How do we imbed it in the minds of our team members? As I mentioned earlier, the first step is recognition. Explain the concept of situational awareness to your team and prepare them to be tested on it.

Here’s a good example of how to get them thinking: Find a room that you can secure and prepare a selection of items to be placed on a table in the center of the room. The more random and unusual the objects the better (soccer ball, fire ax, coffee mug, teddy bear, etc). Then allow your team members to enter one at a time and give them 30 seconds to survey the room. The key here is not to tell them what the objects mean, or their significance to this drill. Once all of the team members have had their turn, ask them to write down what they saw in the room. This will immediately connect them to the importance of the objects and their awareness will be raised regardless of their ability to remember everything that you placed on the table.

Let that sink in and don’t offer much in the way of follow up or explanation. Within a day or two, hold the exercise again with new objects, but this time add multiple levels of ‘obstructions.’  For example, use a box to block their view of an item. They will see it if they walk around to look behind the box, but will they walk around or not? Inside the box, you can place another object. If they take the time to open or inspect the box, they will be able to visualize the object, but will they go that far? If they ask questions in regards to the ‘rules’ of this exercise, be intentionally vague. Their awareness will already be heightened but the real pay-off comes from them challenging themselves to be more observant. After a timed period, ask them to write down what they observed and then explain to them the things that they weren’t able to see.

The last piece to this evolution is to apply it to a simulated emergency scene. Maybe two cars placed together to look like a collision. In addition to training on their normal response protocols, test their situational awareness by putting something unusual in a back seat. A rubber snake works great. Or another idea is to simulate a downed power line with an extension cord underneath the car. Will they see it and verbalize measures to mitigate it? Or will they focus only on the patients involved?

Situational awareness is akin to a muscle that needs to be flexed. Cognitive awareness goes limp unless it’s tested, excited or exercised. It’s up to the officers to challenge their teams and fight back the scourge of complacency.

Standing by in the shadows,

 ~The Fire Ninja

*This was taken from a US Coast Guard training exercise that can be found at: www.uscg.mil/auxiliary/training/tct/chap5.pdf

  • Operation Florian

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