Four Ways To Improve Situational Awareness for Firefighters and Paramedics

Four Ways To Improve Situational Awareness for Firefighters and Paramedics

Tuesday, 03 October 2023 13:54

Firefighters and paramedics work each day to keep our communities safe. Every time they respond to a call, whether it be a wildfire raging in a remote mountain range, an apartment complex fire, or a vehicle accident, they can immediately place themselves in a dangerous situation.

Some of the situations are very evident, like rush hour traffic on a major interstate near the scene of a wreck or an approaching wildfire that threatens to overtake the fire engine. However, there are many more threats everywhere that are at times not easily discernible, such as a rattlesnake near the fireline, a hornet's nest, a downed electric pole, or hazardous chemicals smoldering in a back room.

During any incident, the primary priority should always be the safety of the crews and the public, and constant situational awareness of all factors at an incident is a must, but at an ever-changing incident, this can, at times, be very challenging to maintain.

This article discusses the situational awareness cycle, offers four overriding principles, and gives strategic and tactical advice to improve the situational awareness of firefighters and paramedics. 

Four Principles to Improve Situational Awareness on an Incident

The cornerstone of good decision-making is good situational awareness. Leaders can increase their decision space by attaining and maintaining good situational awareness. Decision space is simply the amount of time that a decision-maker has to consider options before reaching a required decision point.

There are four overriding principles that can affect the situational awareness of individual firefighters and paramedics or across an entire incident. They are:

1. Adequate Training

Before a firefighter or paramedic responds to their first incident, it is the responsibility of the agency and leadership to ensure that they are properly and adequately trained. They should know their jobs and be fully aware of the many hazards that they will likely face.

2. Active Engagement in the Situational Awareness Cycle by Everyone

The situational awareness cycle is a system that can be constantly done by firefighters and paramedics even as they are doing their duties. It is important that each individual takes the responsibility to constantly be engaged in the cycle for themselves, and each leader does the same for their crew, from the engine captain all the way to the incident commander for the entire incident.

3. Effective Communication

Lack of effective communication can cause people to be hurt or killed. It is imperative that effective two-way communication is in effect throughout the incident 

4. Active and Responsible Leadership 

The professionalism and effectiveness of the crew go a long way in achieving the goals of an incident, but poor leadership can destroy the hard work of even the best crew. Leadership must be active and responsible, especially when it comes to ensuring the safety of the crews working for them on an incident.

These are just four principles that are very important in ensuring that situational awareness is maintained; however, there are many factors that must be understood and practiced to effectively improve the situational awareness of firefighters and paramedics.

Understanding the Situational Awareness Cycle

Situational awareness is depicted as a cycle because the situation and people’s perceptions are constantly changing. This internal cycle continues as long as people are awake. Simply paying attention is an important part of maintaining good situational awareness, but even more important is determining what to pay attention to. 

All perceptions are subject to filtering and focusing: people constantly filter information and shift focus. Those with more experience in an environment can more easily filter out distractions and unimportant details, and focus on the most salient information.

Developing and maintaining situational awareness is a three-step process that includes:

  • Perception: Gathering information about what is happening around you.
  • Understanding: Making sense of the information you gather.
  • Prediction: Anticipating future events to mitigate potential problems.

The information-gathering process could mean such things as observations of immediate surroundings, asking for an updated weather forecast, having pre-incident maps, looking at fire potential tables for the fuel types you are in, communicating questions to other responders, or attending briefings before arriving at the scene.

You constantly assess your environment even as you are doing your other jobs and make appropriate mitigation actions to either eliminate the threat or move away. Once you perform an action, you begin the process all over again so that as the environment changes, your actions change accordingly. This process can seem overwhelming at first, but with proper training and experience, it should become second nature.

In accordance with the three stages of situational awareness, firefighters and paramedics should:

  • Know the typical sources of information available to them when in charge of an incident when gathering information; this will assist them to obtain and maintain situational awareness
  • Be able to interpret the information they have gathered, together with their knowledge and past experience, into a coherent picture to understand the situation; this process will continue throughout an incident.
  • They should be able to anticipate how an incident will develop and change based on their understanding; in particular, they should be able to predict the impact of their actions on incident development and outcomes.

Strategic Practices To Improve Situational Awareness

Fire and rescue services should:

  • Consider developing wildfire plans
  • Make wildfire fire plans and Site-Specific Risk Information (SSRI) available to attending personnel
  • Provide an effective communications network

Tactical Practices To Improve Situational Awareness

Incident commanders and firefighters should:

  • Ensure that all personnel at the incident are situationally aware
  • Develop, monitor, and continually update a tactical plan
  • Identify and monitor fire – location, size, intensity, direction, and rate of fire spread
  • Identify and monitor topography – aspect, slope, the position of fire on the slope, topographical hazards
  • Identify and monitor fuel type, condition, moisture, arrangement
  • Identify and monitor the weather
  • Identify the presence and arrangement of ground fuels, smoldering fuels, and aerial fuels
  • Identify any risk to life, property, heritage, ecological assets, and livestock
  • Identify any quarries, bogs, marshes, shooting ranges, disused mines, and barbed wire/electric fences
  • Identify the location of electrical hazards, pylons, wind farms, substations, pipelines and other utilities
  • Continually assess and review the developing incident
  • Make contact with land owners, land managers, gamekeepers, countryside and national park rangers
  • Provide clear, concise, and structured briefings to all personnel
  • Clearly define access, egress, and escape routes to personnel and confirm their understanding
  • Regularly communicate the current situation and predicted fire behavior and spread to all personnel

StreetWise® Provides Software to Improve the Situation Awareness of Your Crews

StreetWise® is a public safety information services company located in Mooresville, North Carolina. StreetWise is an elite group of progressive, like-minded investors, managers, technical developers, and advisors that form the parent company, Hangar 14 Solutions, LLC.

It is their close and ongoing career experience with public safety that led to the development of this project concept. Hangar 14 Solutions has identified first-hand the gap in getting critical response information into the hands of emergency personnel.

StreetWise can assist you with developing pre-incident plans and provide advanced software that can improve your crew's situational awareness. If you would like more information on the services offered by StreetWise or have any questions, reach out to us! We also provide free live demos.