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Situational Awareness

What Is Situational Awareness? In simple terms situational awareness means understanding what is going on around you. But there is more to this statement than first meets the eye. Understanding is more than information gathering. It implies gathering the right information (all that is needed, but not too much), being able to analyze it, and making projections based on the analysis. In the best of all worlds, it also means being able to do something with the information (i.e., it is useful information). 

The first references to the term come from the U.S Air Force, after the Korean War, and relate to the understanding of the enemy that a fighter pilot needs in an aerial dogfight. The pilot needs to know not only where the enemy plane is but what its next move will be. This involves gathering information, analyzing it, and making projections based on that analysis. This was described by Col. John Boyd as the “observe-orient-decide-act loop” or OODA loop, also called the Boyd cycle. To win a dogfight, the pilot must “get inside” the opponent’s loop; losing one’s own situational awareness was called being “out of the loop”.

The term is still used extensively in aviation, and it encompasses the idea of understanding the entire environment of the aircraft, both inside the cockpit and out—what the instruments are indicating, what air traffic control is saying, and what is visible through the windshield. The term is also extensively used by the military. According to the Army Field Manual 1-02 (September 2004), situational awareness is:
“Knowledge and understanding of the current situation which promotes timely, relevant and accurate assessment of friendly, competitive and other operations within the battlespace in order to facilitate decision making. An informational perspective and skill that fosters an ability to determine quickly the context and relevance of events that are unfolding.”

Situational Awareness and Risk Assessment by Christopher J. Naum, SFPE

Situation Awareness related to Building Construction, Command Risk Management and Firefighter Safety is another mission critical element. Situation Awareness (SA) is the perception of environmental elements within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future. It is also a field of study concerned with perception of the environment critical to decision-makers in complex, dynamic situations and incidents. Both the 2006 and 2007 Firefighter Near-Miss Reporting System Annual Reports identified a lack of situational awareness as the highest contributing factor to near misses reported.

  • Situation Awareness involves being aware of what is happening around you at an incident scene to understand how information, events, and your own actions will impact operational goals and incident objectives, both now and in the near future.

  • Lacking SA or having inadequate SA has been identified as one of the primary factors in accidents attributed to human error.

  • Situation Awareness becomes especially important in the structural fire suppression and firefighter domains where the information flow can be quite high and poor decisions can lead to serious consequences.

  • Dynamic Risk Assessment is commonly used to describe a process of risk assessment being carried out in a changing or evolving environment, where what is being assessed is developing as the process itself is being undertaken.

  • This is further problematical for the Incident Commander when confronted with competing or conflicting incident priorities, demands or distractions before a complete appreciation of all mission critical or essential information and data has been obtained.

  • The dynamic management of risk is all about effective, informed and decisive decision making during all phases of an incident at a structural fire.

The integration of Situational Awareness and Dynamic Risk Assessment related to the building and occupancy is a mission critical element in managing structural fires and in the strategic command management and company level tactical operations as we go forward into the next decade.

  • Traditional phased incident scene size-up and monitoring is antiquated and no longer appropriate or applicable to modern fire service operations.

  • Situational awareness is a combination of attitudes, previously learned knowledge and new information gained from the incident scene and environment that enables the strategic commanders, decision-makers and tactical companies to gather the information they need to make effective decisions that will keep their firefighters and resources out of harm’s way, reducing the likelihood of adverse or detrimental effects.

Command and company officers and firefighters MUST understand the building, the occupancy features and the inherent impact of fire within and on the structure, AND be able to identify, communicate and take actions necessary to support the incident action and battle plans, mitigate incident conditions and provide for continuous safety protection to themselves, their team, their company and the entire alarm assignment operating at the incident scene.

Everyone on the incident scene MUST stay alert to changing conditions, obvious or latent conditions or escalating factors that require prompt identification, comprehension and appropriate implementation of actions. To the Incident Commander, fire officer or firefighter, knowing what’s going on around you, in and around the building structure and understanding the consequences of building, construction, assembly, fire load and fire development and growth is mission critical to incident stabilization and mitigation and profoundly crucial in terms of personnel safety. Maintain a three-sixty sphere of observation and awareness at all times.

A PDF Activity program is available HERE, that provides you with a series of incident scene images and questions that can be utilized for enhancing skill sets in the areas of Situational Awareness, Size-up and Risk Assessment and Profiling. It’s attached as a PFD File. If you are interested in obtaining an electronic file as a Power Point Program, please submit an email request at;

Use this job aid from the US Coast Guard to develop situational awareness, click here.