Maintaining Situational Awareness

00-EOY-ss-buildingcollapseMaintaining focused situational awareness while recognizing and processing a wide latitude of incoming information and observations at complex and multiple alarm incidents is a significant challenge to even the most experienced of incident command teams. However, things can go wrong and they can go wrong in a rapidly escalating manner with little time to recover. A prominent double LODD incident from six years ago provides poignant lessons learned as does another history repeating event (HRE) from 1972.

The Ebenezer Baptist Church fire in Pittsburg, PA (2004) and the Hotel Vendome Fire in Boston, MA (1972) have a number of commonalities related to extended multi-alarm operations, building compromise and collapse and multiple line-of-duty deaths of operating fire service personnel. Although building type, construction features and systems are unique for each incident as are the circumstances that lead to the events, there are mission critical lessons to be reexamined or newly introduced if you’re not familiar with either event. This is especially true when we talk about operational challenges and adverse conditions that result in firefighter injuries and fatalities during overhaul and take-up phases of an incident.

Remember 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 (SA) involves being aware of what is happening around you at an incident 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 (Hartel, Smith, & Prince, 1991) (Nullmeyer, Stella, Montijo, & Harden, 2005). Situation Awareness becomes especially important in work related domains where the information flow can be quite high and poor decisions can lead to serious consequences.

To the Incident commander, Fire Officer or firefighter, knowing what’s going on around you, and understanding the consequences is mission critical to incident stabilization and mitigation and profoundly crucial in terms of personnel safety. The integration of Situational Awareness and Dynamic Risk Assessment is a mission critical element in strategic incident command management and company level tactical operations as we go forward into the next decade. We’ll expand on some posting in the near future and address Dynamic Risk Assessment in the context of building and occupancy profiling and operations. Additionally, maintaining a heightened sense of risk and safety integrity when operating within non-combat fire suppression modes or phases also requires due diligence, focused and fluid situational awareness coupled with concise monitoring of building conditions, indicators (both evident and projected) and taking conservative actions and postures to ensure personnel are not placed in high risk, no value positions that have a high potential for error likely outcomes.

Check out the detailed posting at our sister site for insights into both the Ebenezer Baptist Church fire in Pittsburg, PA (2004) and the Hotel Vendome Fire in Boston, MA (1972) HERE. Think about the questioned posed related to complex multi-company operations, command safety and operational integrity of compromised buildings and structural systems. Remember; Building Knowledge=Firefighter Safety.

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