Blog by Dr. Richard B. Gasaway
Web Master for Situational Awareness Matters
www.SAmatters.com

Shared situational awareness for first responders simply means two or more responders have a common understanding of what is happening. Formally, it means responders have a shared mental model. A mental model is the image formed in the brain of what is happening and, perhaps even more importantly, what is going to happen in the future.

Each responder that arrives at the scene of an emergency uses perception to capture clues and cues about what is happening. Since responders can look at the same thing and see something different, their situational awareness may be very different. When responder’s situational awareness is not aligned it can lead to challenges in teamwork and, subsequently, safety problems.

It is quite common for responders to arrive at emergency scenes at different times. As each subsequent arriving responder assesses the scene, it is entirely possible (even predictable) they will develop a different awareness of the situation. This broad-scale variation in understanding can cause significant teamwork and incident-wide safety problems.

The safety of responders can be compromised when individuals and teams assume there is a common understanding of what is happening. Simple exercises conducted in a classroom setting can show how easy it is for this to happen. The problem of responders not having shared situational awareness can be complicated when it is assumed everyone is on the same page.

Imagine if you arrived at a movie 10 minutes after it started. Those who have been in the theater from the beginning have a different understanding of what’s going on than you have because they benefited from capturing all of the clues and cues from the start. Unless you get a briefing, you are going to be at a disadvantage and it may be hard for you to fully understand what is happening.

The person in the best position to have a comprehensive situational awareness is the incident commander. The commander’s awareness will be strongest if they arrive early in the incident or if they receive a comprehensive briefing prior to assuming command. The individual who has been in a position to see the big picture incident (and all of its changes) from the start, in real-time, will likely have the best situational awareness.

The big picture commander will also have a good understanding of the speed of the incident — a critical component to ensuring responder safety. The commander, or their designee, can provide progress and update reports for other responding units and provide critical information to responders as they arrive. It is very difficult to have shared situational awareness when newly arriving responders think they know what’s going on when, in fact, they may be clueless (literally).

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 his 30+ year career 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 is: Situational Awareness Matters (www.SAMatters.com). He can be reached at Support@RichGasaway.com.