By: Todd McNeal
First let me start by saying what an honor it is to be able to contribute to this important publication and have the opportunity to reach out to field going emergency responders across the country in an open forum of critical life safety information sharing. Although the upcoming 2010 wildland fire season is still months away it is never too soon to begin preparing, especially mentally. As you all know well preseason intellectual preparation could easily be consumed with repetitive review and recital of the litany of checklists and acronyms related to firefighter safety. Repetition is an important part of training, both mental and physical, however repition alone does not replace the basic skill of solid situational awareness.
Situational awareness, that fluid body of knowledge comprised of the input received by your senses and surroundings is the single most important safety item you can maintain at any emergency incident. Despite the rather basic concept of situational awareness, simplified by the statement of know what is going on around you, the reality for emergency personnel is that it is elusive. Unlike other parts of our safety systems, for example PPE, you can’t compile situational awareness like donning a nomex coat and call the task complete. Situational awareness requires constant maintenance at the incident. The goal for an individual is to accurately and consistently update one’s situational awareness to reflect the ever changing incident around you. Situational awareness ‘s requirement of constant mental revision , often places it lower on the priority list when intellectual capacity is at a premium, as an example high risk and high stress operations, however I would assert this is when we need accurate situational awareness most.
Firefighters are task driven individuals with a proclivity for mission focus and producing results. This attribute which is so vital to successful operations and critical for effective emergency management, is also at times our worst detriment. Recognition of this possibility at an incident, the loss of situational awareness due to complete focus on task at hand, is our best defense against it. The simple fact of recognition and the crucial steps to prevent loss of our situational awareness by constant analysis, equips the emergency responder with the most elemental component of risk management.
There are a wide variety of statements that remind us about situational awareness: “keep your head on a swivel”,” look up, look down, look all around”, even Fire Orders built on the concept; “know what the fire is doing at all times”, but the mental discipline to maintain it has to be practiced. Along with all the other pre-season preparations you accomplish, I would encourage each individual to reflect on the concept of situational awareness. Please refrain from the often superficial addressing of this idea as another redundant mental drain, or even trendy buzz word, but actually digest the intent. Practice the skill of accurate updating and draw upon you past experience and training to produce quality, dynamic situational awareness. The time and effort you spend in this development will never be time wasted; both consciously and sub-consciously you will be a safer more effective emergency responder.