The research I have conducted over the past ten years has focused on the barriers that impact first responder situational awareness and subsequently contribute to errors in decision making. There are more than one hundred potential barriers to awareness. In part one of this series we provided a working definition for situational awareness and addressed the barriers of pre-arrival lens and confirmation bias. In this segment we will look at the barriers of task fixation, mission myopia, auditory exclusion, sensory domination, confabulation and flawed perceptions of reality.
Before we dig into those barriers, let’s review the definition of situational awareness:
Situational awareness is a first responder’s ability to capture information – cues and clues (perception), then being able to put those clues and cues together to mean something (understanding) and then being able to anticipate future events (prediction) hopefully in time to avoid a bad outcome.
Task Fixation & Mission Myopia
Task fixation occurs when a person or a crew fixates their attention on a task they are performing (e.g., stretching a line, starting a fan, raising a ladder, connecting to a hydrant, pumping the apparatus, etc.). The task is almost always physical and the responder’s complete attention is on the hand-eye coordination of task. Imagine how difficult it would be to complete many, if not most, emergency scene tasks if a responder were not paying attention to the task. Thus, it makes sense that task fixation would be a common barrier to first responder awareness.
As it is impossible for a responder to give his or her conscious attention to two simultaneous tasks (see the discussion on multitasking later in this article), a responder is particularly vulnerable to task fixation while working in environments where conditions are changing quickly, all the while, their attention is fixated on a task. The good news about task fixation is a responder can do something to combat it.
It is important to be conscientious of the fact that whatever physical task you are focused on, that task is but one component of a larger incident scene where other tasks are being performed concurrently. When a responder is in visual contact with other crews performing their tasks, it can be easier to see the big picture. When the visual observation of other crews is not possible, the next best alternative is for the responder to be in auditory contact (via radio) with other crews.
When a responder is completely fixated on their task, they may not be paying attention to the visual or audible information around them. As you can imagine, fixation can have a significant impact on situational awareness.
A best practice for combating task fixation is for a responder to periodically stop the task and take-in information about what else is happening in the environment. This is known as meta-awareness or big-picture awareness. When working in crews it can be helpful if one of the crewmembers remains hands-off and focused on the big picture while others on the crew perform the hands-on tasks.
Mission Myopia is similar to task fixation but with one notable exception. While task fixation is a micro-focus on hands-on tasks (tactical), mission myopia is a fixation on the strategic objective (the mission). Where responders go “all-in” in a strategic objective, they may overlook the process of determining if their solution fits the problem. Thus, they can become single-minded in their objective and think: “Nothing is going to get in our way of accomplishing our mission.”
Task fixation and mission myopia are not mutually exclusive. They can happen independent of each other or they can happen concurrently. Here are a couple of examples where a crew might be impacted from mission myopia and/or task fixation.
Mission: Save lives (strategic).
Task: Make entry through the front door and start a search (tactical).
Mission: Save property (strategic).
Task: Make entry though the front door and attack the fire with a hand line (tactical).
Mission: Extricate the injured from the vehicle (strategic).
Task: Use hydraulic spreaders to open the door (tactical).
Mission myopia can be taught and reinforced in training evolutions. For example, while participating in a hands-on live fire training evolution at a burn facility, the strategic objective for an evolution might be to save property. This mission would be accomplished by the task of advancing a hose line into the training facility, locating the fire and applying water to extinguish the fire. The evolutions are almost always (by design) “go” evolutions. Meaning the crew on the hose line is going to go inside the structure and extinguish the fire.
Little thought is given to whether the conditions are right for an interior fire attack. Even when a member of the crew does a 360-degree size-up (which, by the way, is often overlooked during training evolutions at burn facilities) the decision that follows the size-up will be a “go” decision. “No go” is not even an option to be considered. There are two good reasons for this.
First, the fires set by the instructors (or propane fed) are always controlled and manageable. Second, the structure – usually concrete or steel construction – presents no threat of collapse to the crew. Absent all potential for the fire being too large for entry and absent all potential for building collapse, why would a crew ever make a “no-go” decision, right?
The problem is not the hands-on training. The problem is the automatic habits being built through the physical performance of repetitive tasks. Habits that do not include scenarios that should be “no go” and the performance of physical activities that support a “no-go” decision (e.g., attacking the fire from the exterior with large hose lines or large-stream appliances).
When firefighters are taught – and reinforced in training – that evolutions are always “go” evolutions, this can become engrained into the department’s culture. No go, something perhaps talked about in a classroom, but never actually practiced on the training ground, is not an option a responder is likely to consider under the stress of a working structural fire. So, they default to their training and the expectations of their peers and go! No thought required.
This mindset can be changed through teaching skills of dynamic risk assessment and decision making based on realistic fire conditions. This is where mobile simulation (on an iPad or tablet device) can be helpful. A responder sizing on the conditions of a burn facility with fixed construction and controlled fire conditions is not very realistic. Creating simulations using real buildings and creating fire conditions that show realistic smoke and flame conditions will challenge decision makers. This is especially true when there is an instructor at the door saying “let’s go, we’ve got a fire to put out” while at the same time the officer is looking at a simulation that depicts conditions that are clearly “no-go.” This puts the officer in a position to practice making one of the toughest decisions an officer will have to make – the “no go” decision. It’s not only tough to make this decision, but it is also difficult to communicate this decision to a crew that is ready to “go” into the structure.
This decision making process needs to be taught and practiced. The process for communicating this decision to a crew also needs to be taught and practiced. Once crews have been taught (and practiced) “no go” scenarios the process for assessing dynamically changing incident conditions and how to make decisions that may include “no go” becomes more acceptable in the culture of the organization because the decision, communications and actions that support the decision (i.e., a defensive attack) have all been practiced during training.
Auditory exclusion and sensory domination
Inside the brain the visual and auditory processors work in tandem to help develop and maintain situational awareness. At the onset, the senses all work independently to gather their inputs. However, at some point, in order to form situational awareness, the brain compares, contrasts and combines the sensory inputs. This allows a person to form a coherent understanding of what is happening based on input from all the senses.
That works great so long as all the senses are functioning properly and the brain is processing the inputs properly. However, under stress the brain can do things that impact the processing of sensory information. For example, if a responder is working in an environment where there are many auditory inputs (e.g., radio traffic, sirens, people talking, fans running, etc.) this can overwhelm the audible processor in the brain. And when the processor gets overwhelmed, it can begin filtering out some of the auditory inputs.
Under severe conditions, the brain can completely shut down the auditory inputs. When this happens, a person can experience auditory exclusion and may be temporarily deaf to incoming information. To clarify, this is not because the environment is so noisy the receiver cannot hear their radio (or a person talking to them). In fact, the ears are working fine. The inputs still enter the ear and are sent into the brain (as electrical impulses). But the part of the brain that translates those impulses into meaning is closed for business – at least temporarily.
The more radio traffic a responder must process, the more likely the auditory brain region is to become overwhelmed and shut down – or “tune out” – inputs. Responders may (wishfully) think that if something important was said while experiencing auditory exclusion they’ll tune back in, hear and process the meaning of the important information. Sadly, this is not the case. Once the processor shuts down, nothing gets understood until the brain clears the overload out of the processor. The length of time a person can be in a condition of auditory exclusion is a function of how much audible input they are experiencing and how much stress they are under.
Think of the five sensory inputs combining to form a coherent understanding as the brain is trying to construct a jigsaw puzzle with each sense contributing pieces to the puzzle. Under certain conditions, one of the senses may dominate the process and prevent the other senses from contributing their puzzle pieces. This is known as sensory domination and it can impact situational awareness.
For example, if a responder is intensely listening to their radio, the audible inputs may dominate and prevent other senses from contributing puzzle pieces. Likewise, if a responder is intensely watching dynamically changing conditions, the visual inputs may dominate and prevent other senses from contributing their puzzle pieces. The same is true for each of the senses. The problem is a responder has little control over which sense is dominating their process of understanding.
Avoiding fixation on any one input can help. However, this is easier said than done because the brain is hardwired to fixate attention on inputs it perceives to be the most threatening to survival. The brain has hardwired primal “trip wires” that serve as indicators of danger. They include: Things that are loud, brightly colored, moving, and especially those things moving in the direction of the responder (the brain’s interpretation of an aggressive attacker).
Confabulation and flawed perceptions of reality
It can be unnerving to accept the fact that responders, under stress can believe – and say – things that are simply untrue. They are not saying untrue things to keep from getting into trouble. In fact, they don’t even know they’re doing it. It’s called confabulation and it can impact situational awareness from two perspectives.
First is from the perspective of the person who is experiencing the confabulation – making up untrue stories in their mind because they believe their made-up reality to be true. Second is from the perspective of the person who is told the untrue story by the person who is confabulating. This person may have no reason to doubt the veracity of the story. Thus, the situational awareness of both can be impacted from this false information.
The brain does not like confusion. And it doesn’t like having incomplete information. So, to help resolve issues of confusion and incomplete information, the brain may choose to make up it’s own reality. When that happens, it will not be readily apparent. The individual understands what is happening based on the reality residing in the brain. But that reality is only a perception, influenced heavily by assumptions.
When facts are missing and your brain fills in the missing information with what it thinks should be in the hole, you have made an assumption. In fact, saying “I assumed…” is just another way of saying: “I didn’t have all the facts so I just made up the missing information so the story would make sense to me.” Sometimes the assumptions are right (or close enough). Sometimes the assumptions are terribly incorrect and it flaws perception.
Is perception reality? The answer is, disturbingly, yes! Perception is reality one hundred percent of the time… in the mind of the person who has that perception. Your reality is your reality and the only way you will know your reality is a flawed perception is when true reality replaces it. All we can hope is that happens in time to avoid a catastrophic outcome. Sadly, that is not always the case and responders who survive often admit their perception of reality was not accurate.
Because flawed perceptions are so often undetectable, it is a best practice to compare your perceptions with others. One way this can be done is to have the officers on the additional companies arriving on the scene of an incident (where crews are already engaged) conduct an original size-up to compare their understanding of what is happening to the actions being taken by the crews on-scene. Does the strategy make sense in light of the current conditions? Do the actions (and location) of the crews make sense? Does it appear as though progress is being made toward the accomplishment of the mission? Are the conditions getting better or worse? The subsequent arriving officer’s fresh perspective may help identify flaws in the commander’s perception of reality in time to make a course correction and avoid a bad outcome.
In part three of this series, we will look at four additional barriers that can impact situational awareness including multitasking, short-term memory overload, overconfidence and complacency.
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