Blog by Dr. Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO
Retired Fire Chief and Web Master for Situational Awareness Matters

During a recent situational awareness program we were talking about near-miss events and I asked the class if anyone had experienced a near-miss. As is typical, a few hands went up. With their permission, we used the students’ real-life experiences to discuss how things unfolded and we extracted and applied powerful situational awareness lessons. It’s a great way to learn because these are not made-up “what if” scenarios or a dissection of videos snagged off the Internet. These are real events that, if only by luck, the student is still with us to share their lessons.

During this particular program a participant shared how his crew arrived on the scene of a working residential dwelling fire where smoke was coming out the front door. The crew pulled the line and advanced it in the front door in search of victims and to extinguish the fire. But they didn’t get far. The floor collapsed under their weight and into the basement they went.

A mayday was called and, as luck would have it, the second-in company arrived quickly and was able to lower a ladder into the basement and extricated the two firefighters from their imperiled situation. The two firefighters suffered fall injuries and thermal injuries. But no fatalities! So the firefighter telling about the event classified it as a near-miss.

In the process of constructing how the events unfolded, he shared that a 360-degree size-up was not completed. Sadly, the failure to complete a size-up is often cited as a contributing factor in casualty reports. This is understandable. The size-up is the first, and sometimes only, opportunity for responders to determine what the problem is before they start throwing around solutions. Shortcut the size-up and you risk operating with flawed situational awareness.

The crew thought the fire was on the first floor. It wasn’t. It was in the basement. The front of the house was on-grade. The back of the house, however, was a walk-out with plenty of windows that would have revealed the volume of fire in the basement if the 360-degree size-up were completed.

While it is easy to see how the failure to complete a size-up contributed to this near tragic event, it is critical to understand WHY the size-up was not completed. There are many possible explanations, ranging from accessibility issues, to tunnel vision, to task fixation, to imminent rescue pending, and more. But in this case, the explanation was none of those. The reason was rooted in competition and peer pressure.

The officer shared this explanation with the class:

“I am a newer company officer and our fire companies are very aggressive interior structural firefighters. We pride ourselves on getting inside and getting the job done. I know I’m supposed to conduct a 360-degree size up but if we charged our line and then did a walk around there is a chance another company would come in and take our line and go put the fire out. And if that happened, I’d never hear the end of it. The other firefighters on our shift would kill us and eat us for pussy-footing around instead of putting the fire out. I simply could not afford to take that kind of risk with my career and gain a reputation of being a non-aggressive officer.”

I give this officer a lot of credit for sharing his honest assessment, especially in the presence of his peers. The aggressive, competitive culture of his organization, coupled with peer pressure kept him from completing the size-up. I found it particularly concerning when he said he could not afford to take the risk of getting a reputation among his peers. In saying that, he was rating the risk of peer rejection higher than the risk of death.

Firefighters are competitive by nature. They train hard and work hard to win. But the opponent in this fight is not each other. The opponent is the fire and when a culture lends itself to cut-throat internal competition, coupled with peer-pressure to shortcut or bypass best practices (like size-up), the potential for flawed situational awareness increases as does the potential for a casualty.

About the Author
Dr. Gasaway is widely considered to be one of the nation’s leading authorities on situational awareness and decision making processes used by first responders. In addition to more than 30 years in the fire service, including 22 years as a fire chief, Dr. Gasaway has a second passion: Uncovering and applying research in brain science for the benefit of first responders. His website, Situational Awareness Matters (www.SAMatters.com), has enjoyed more than a million visits since its launch in October 2011.