Situational Awareness

By: Christopher Brennan

The fire ground is a dynamic environment that is filled with threats to the fire fighter. These threats exist in a 360° “bubble”, left and right, in front of and behind, and above and below the firefighter. In order to safely operate in this kind of environment we must develop the skill to maintain Situational Awareness (SA). The United States Coast Guard says that, “Situational Awareness is the ability to identify, process, and comprehend the critical elements of information about what is happening to the team with regards to the mission.” In other words if you have Situational Awareness you constantly know what is happening around you, and where you are in relation to threats. Situational Awareness is a concept that is taught in many Warrior circles, particularly to Fighter Pilots. Fighter Pilots must operate in an environment where they maintain 100% awareness of where they are in relation to friendly and hostile aircraft, and be able to predict how an engagement will unfold. If they lose Situational Awareness they run the risk of a mid-air collision, of being shot down, or possibly of shooting down a friendly aircraft. None of these circumstances would be acceptable, so Pilots train constantly to maintain their SA. They do this in simulators, low risk virtual reality “games”, as well as in actual flight operations.

As firefighters the need to maintain Situational Awareness should be obvious. Like the Fighter Pilot we operate in an environment where threats can come from any direction. We must know where we are with-in the “battle space”, the fire building. We must know where we are in relation to the seat of the fire. We must know where the other members of our crew, and the larger fire suppression team, are. For a fireman a loss of Situational Awareness means that he no longer is aware of where he is in relation to the “bubble”. There is a breakdown of his ability to monitor where he and his crew are in relation to the fire, or a safe egress. He is no longer able to accurately interpret the effectiveness of his actions, nor the effectiveness of the suppression and rescue efforts as a whole. A loss of Situational Awareness can lead directly to disorientation. Disorientation far too often leads to a Fire Fighter Line of Duty Death.

Situational Awareness is a cognitive skill; it can be taught. Depending on your fire service experience you may already be using an effective means of teaching situational awareness. The Wildland Firefighting community is very effective at developing the skills needed to properly maintain SA. The Structural Firefighting community teaches new recruits skills that help in developing and maintaining SA, but not as often with the deeper understanding of the cognitive process. We can begin the process of developing Situational Awareness in the classroom, by examining the elements that lead to maintaining or loosing “the bubble”. Through classroom foundations we can develop an understanding how our brains collect and analyze data. The concepts presented in the classroom must be practiced in drill if they are to be used effectively on the fire ground. Even though we are saying that maintaining SA is essentially a cognitive ability it must be performed while physically being engaged in firefighting. It’s like understanding the math behind friction loss calculations but being overwhelmed by the amount of activity on the first structure fire you pump; you can have all the knowledge in the world, but if you cannot use it effectively it is wasted. Being trained in Situational Awareness may mean life or death for some of our people.

The Elements of Situational Awareness

    To effectively train our personnel to remain Situationally Aware we have to start with laying out the elements that go into developing and maintaining SA on the fire ground. In order to have Situational Awareness you must be able to perceive a threat, comprehend the threat and predict what effect that threat may have on you. These elements: Perceive, Comprehend and Predict (or Project), form the cornerstone of maintaining complete Situational Awareness on the fire ground. We need to remember that Situational Awareness is a complex thought process and as such we need to break it down into manageable components when teaching it as a new skill.


    The first step in the cycle of maintaining SA is perception. If I am unable to perceive the conditions around me I am already at a disadvantage. A lack of perception is just another way to describe tunnel vision. In 12 years of attending fire service schools and teaching firemen, I have heard the statement: “Don’t get tunnel vision” more times than I can count. The way I describe tunnel vision is that it is a cognitive focus on one particular aspect of a fire ground operation. That singular focus causes you to loose your perception of everything else that is happening around you. A lack of perception can start with the initial dispatch, your arrival on scene, or in the middle of an operation, because you have encountered a situation that begins to shift your heart rate from the “Yellow” zone into the upper regions of the “Red” or lower level “Grey” zones. We have to remember that the physiological effect of our heart rate being elevated because of anxiety has a direct effect on our ability to process cognitive information. Using techniques like four count “combat breathing” exercise to regain control of your heart rate are critical if you are to maintain the cognitive ability to perceive threats. Fighting the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) responses of anxiety becomes easier with training and experience. Teaching new firefighters, who hopefully aspire to be Fire Service Warriors, to control the SNS reaction will lay the foundation for them being able to maintain Situational Awareness.


    You can perceive a threat all you want, but if you cannot comprehend that it is a threat you can’t do anything with the perception. Let’s take pending Flashover conditions as an example. We understand that Flashover is violent event that is a regular occurrence at interior structural fires. There are signs that we can use as being indicative that flashover is likely: A great volume of turbulent smoke exiting a room (or the structure) is a sign that the heat inside is beginning to reach the point where flashover is near; Rollover and flame-over of the unburned smoke are also indicators that a flashover event is imminent. Do our people understand this? Can they comprehend these warning signs when they see them? If they see a significant volume of dense, turbulent smoke pouring from the doorway of a two-story frame at 1:00 p.m. can they articulate those facts, our will their thought process be, “that house is on fire”? One of the challenges that we all face is a lack of responses to structural fires and limited training time in burn buildings. As a whole the fire service is called on to deal with so many other tasks: EMS, HazMat, Technical Rescue, and Fire Prevention, that we are limited in our time and ability to develop our “Combat Senses”. While all the aspects of our profession are important, and need to be practiced, we need to ensure that the high risk/low frequency skills of firefighting are practiced more frequently in a burning structure.

Predict (Project)

    Taking your comprehension of the perceived threats and predicting what the potential effects will be is the final element in having Situational Awareness. You have to perceive the smoke conditions, comprehend that they are indicators of impending flashover and then predict what will happen if you crawl head first into that doorway without taking some kind of action to mitigate the conditions first. So you pull-up in front of our two-story frame at 1:00 p.m. with dense, turbulent smoke exiting the structure and say to your partner, “Hey, that looks like it’s getting ready to flash, let’s hit it from the door way for a minute and until they pop the windows and we get some lift.” You have the Situational Awareness that if you just crawl right into this threat environment you are going to get burned, and that you need to change the environment to make it “relatively safe”.

Relative Safety

    Everything we do on the fire ground, or at any incident scene, is about maintaining “relative safety”. We accept the fact that by crawling into a burning structure to extinguish a fire, or search for victims, or by going onto a roof to ventilate, or any of the other of suppression or support tasks we perform that we are doing something that is “unsafe”. Our objective must be to maintain a “relative safety” by making decisions based on conditions that will allow us to accomplish our objectives without needlessly placing ourselves or our people into an untenable threat environment. Taking up our impending flashover example again if you are the Nozzleman, the Company Officer, or the Incident Commander you need to perceive, comprehend and predict what the effects of just having that initial attack line advance into the building will be. That Situational Awareness will allow you to choose a course of action that will help maintain the “relative safety” of the folks operating on the fire ground. If you’re Standard Operating Guidelines (SOG) indicate that an aggressive interior attack is called for you must be agile enough in your thinking to realize that some kind of task must be accomplished first, to allow your objective to be met. You must change the environment so that it is tenable. By doing this you are using the Boyd Loop, the Observe, Orient, Decide and Act cycle I’ve talked about before, to choose the best course of action to mitigate the immediate threat and continue on with your mission. Situational Awareness is the skill set that allows you to perform the Observe and Orient functions of the Boyd Loop.


    The antithesis of Situational Awareness is Disorientation. Disorientation is the root cause of those Firefighter Fatalities identified by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) as caused by being “Lost”, and likely a contributing factor in those deaths caused by being “Caught/Trapped”. In my article “You Want Me To Do What” I discussed the effect of anxiety reactions on increased Heart Rates and the impact those elevated Heart Rates have on the cognitive function. While there is no definitive reporting on the role anxiety reactions play in Fire Fighter Line of Duty Deaths (LODD), we can examine published reports of LODD and extrapolate how it may be related.

    For our purposes here I want to examine the NIOSH Firefighter Fatality Report F2008-34. On October 29, 2008 24 year-old Volunteer Fighter, Adam Cody Renfroe, became lost while operating inside a residential structure fire and was subsequently caught in a flashover. The cause of death was reported as smoke inhalation and burns but we must consider that Disorientation was the root cause. If Firefighter Renfroe had not become Disoriented he would not have become “Lost” and he may not have been caught by the subsequent flashover. In examining any LODD the last thing I want is to “blame the victim”. It is important that we look at “mistakes” that were made though, and try to understand what cognitive process lead to the decisions that were made. Firefighter Renfroe had two years of experience with the Crossville Alabama Fire Department at the time of the incident; he had completed Department training on essential firefighter skills, but he had not been through Alabama’s Volunteer Firefighter Certification Course. He was among the first three firefighters to arrive on the scene of the fire, and the “senior” man among the two firefighters who stretched the initial attack line.

    I can place myself into FF Renfroe’s shoes. I’ve been a 24 year-old paid-on-call fireman. He entered the structure to do what he perceived was his job. He entered alone because he felt a sense of duty to act. His heart rate was already pounding from the adrenaline rush. We’ve all had this experience, you’re either excited or terrified by what you are faced with. When he crawled in through the carport door to begin his fire attack he found himself in an incredibly difficult set of circumstances. The initial reports transcribed in the NIOSH report say that there was thick black smoke coming from the roof. The initial attack line was stretched, and “The victim and FF2, on air, walked into the structure through the carport door. They were approximately two feet inside the structure and were met by thick, rolling black smoke, but no fire. Quickly, they exited through the carport door taking cross-lay #1 with them”. FF Renfroe then sent his partner, a member with six months experience, back to get a flashlight. NIOSH investigators state “FF2, still on air, entered back into the house through the carport door but could not see his hands or feet just inside the door.” So, this young man, with minimal training, but a huge desire to do what he believed was right, entered an environment that rapid sent his heart rate skyrocketing into the “Grey” or “Black” zones. He exited, with his partner, but then reentered on his own? Why? We can never be certain. We can postulate though that when FF Renfroe, and his partner, entered the structure the first time that the response of his sympathetic nervous system (SNS) was engaged and his heart rate elevated in response to the perceived threat (the conditions). As we consider disorientation as a key factor in firefighters becoming lost we see that when the heart rate, as a result of anxiety, approaches 175 beats per minute that cognitive processing deteriorates, tunnel vision begins to occur, and there is often a perceived slowing of time. Why did he reenter the structure then with out his partner? Again there is no way to be certain, but a likely circumstance is that his SNS response caused him to perceive that it his partner was gone for an extended period of time and that the fire was getting beyond the point where it could be controlled. His SNS was screaming “Fight” because his personal condition, his assessment of himself, dictated putting the fire out. Unfortunately the circumstances of his position did not provide him with the knowledge, skills, or experience to fully perceive, comprehend and predict the possible outcomes of entering the structure. We must examine LODDs like those of Adam Cody Renfroe if we are to fully understand the importance of Situational Awareness and the critical role that Disorientation plays in Firefighter fatalities.

Training Situational Awareness

    The ability to maintain Situational Awareness is reliant on our training, our judgment and our personal condition. These factors must come together every time we are going to perform a high-risk evolution: structural firefighting, wildland firefighting, collapse or high angle rescue, or any of the wide arrays of emergencies we are called upon to mitigate. A lack of competency, or even a temporary lack of focus, can lead to a chain of events that may be catastrophic or even fatal.


Judgment is defined as “the process of forming an opinion or evaluation by discerning and comparing.” It is the ability to choose the “best” option to respond to a given set of circumstance. Developing a sound basis for making judgments, or “tactical decisions” on the fire ground is direct result of training and experience. Given the national trend towards a dwindling number of structural fire responses we must give our firemen the ability develop experience through realistic, live fire, training.

Personal Condition

The fireman who ascribes to the ideals of the Fire Service Warrior embraces the Boy Scout Motto, “Be Prepared”. We begin instilling that idea of being ready into recruits on day one of the academy. Recruits are taught that they must have their equipment ready for duty, and are taught how their personal turnout gear is to be placed on the rig. We teach the idea of readiness when we work on developing SCBA donning skills, ensuring that the recruit places his SCBA into the “Ready Position” every time it is doffed. It is incumbent on the Fire Service Warrior to place himself in the “Ready Position” each and every day.

    There are countless trivial, mundane and down right serious matters that we humans have on our minds twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. As firemen we are bound to bring those concerns into the firehouse. Minimizing the impact of distractions is important however if we are to concentrate 100% on the task at hand when we are fighting fires, caring for patients or cleaning the firehouse. It needs to be clear, if you are distracted when you are performing a high-risk evolution the likelihood of you, or another member of the team, being injured or killed rises. Distractions take away from your ability to maintain Situational Awareness, and a loss of Situational Awareness will lead to accidents and mistakes.

    The Fire Service Warrior sets out each and every day to be prepared, to be ready, for what ever will come his way: a structure fire, an EMS call, HAZMAT Training, a Fire Prevention lecture at the grade school or cleaning the small tools on the Engine. For the career fireman it is easier to be mentally and physically prepared for duty because you know when you are going into work; the drive in leading up to shift change is a concrete time where you can put your game face on. The on-call fireman must be able to set aside the thoughts and activities he is engaged in when the pager goes off and must to train to “flip the switch” and suddenly be in the ready position.

Personal condition is a combination of being mentally and physically prepared to perform the job at hand. If you are distracted by situations and circumstances you are placing yourself, and your brothers, in danger. If you are not physically fit enough to maintain the metabolic output required to perform any job on the fire ground you are placing yourself, and your brothers, in danger.


    Training lies at the core of everything we do in the fire service. No one is born instinctively knowing fire behavior, building construction or critical thinking. We must provide our apprentice and journeymen Fire Service Warriors with the basic and advanced training they need to flourish. I will venture to say each and every one of us has seen the results of a poorly trained firefighter. It is a “twenty-year” mistake. In my experience training comes in three modes: formal, company and individual. Formal training is those classes which lead to our certifications and often times relate back to standards developed by the NFPA, OSHA or our State Fire Marshal’s Offices. Company training is the day-to-day training that our Company Officers lead to make sure their people are prepared. Individual training is that study, research or experience that we develop on our own.

    Training our people to maintain Situational Awareness needs to occur across all three modes of training. We must begin with the recruit Fireman and train him (or her) in Fire Behavior and Building Construction, Tactics and Procedures for Fire Attack and Suppression, Ventilation, Search, and the Fire Ground Support functions. Once this foundation is laid, then we must take our apprentices and teach them how to put all of these individual concepts together and think critically about how they are interdependent.

    Effectively training our firemen to maintain Situational Awareness requires that we engage in realistic, scenario based training. We must push them to confront experiences that are difficult, that scare them, so that they can develop the ability to manage not only critical fire ground tasks, but also the inevitable anxiety reactions that occur. If you cannot keep yourself calm and focused, anxiety will lead to a loss of Situational Awareness. A loss of Situational Awareness may lead directly to Disorientation, which all too often leads directly to a Firefighter Fatality.

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