Situational Awareness Part 2

By: Christopher Brennan

It’s a Team Sport

Firefighting is a team sport. We are not operating as individuals, and as such the actions of the Team are vital in our ability to maintain Situational Awareness. We accomplish this through the use of our SOGs, knowing what our teammates are doing based upon the situation. Think about a successful NFL Football Team. If the Offense has any hope of moving downfield and scoring a touchdown the guy calling the plays, be it the Head Coach (the I/C), the Offensive Coordinator (the Ops Section Chief) or the Quarterback (the Group Supervisor), has to rely on the each member of the team to perform his assigned mission without needing to be micromanaged. What happens when someone misunderstands the play that has been called? The Quarterback gets sacked, the pass gets intercepted, or the running back does not have a hole to run through. That well conceived plan is only as good as the execution of the individual team members. NFL teams play 16 games a year for sure, but they practice from the end of July till the beginning of September to make sure everyone knows the playbook. I’m going to use the Baltimore Ravens 2009 Training Camp Schedule as an example (they are the first Team listed on the NFL’s website). They began practice for the season on July 28th with twice a day practices. The first full-day that the players were off was August 14th. During this time the team practiced 26 times, had team meetings and a pre-season game. These men work hard to make sure they are prepared physically before the season starts and then develop their ability to play as a team through difficult, realistic practices. Is your fire department training that hard? Do your companies know what everyone else on the fireground is going to be doing based on well developed SOGs and realistic scenario training?

A key concept on the fireground is Implicit Coordination, the non-communicated coordination of action that takes place on the fireground. One study, Implicit Coordination in Firefighting Practice: Design Implications for Teaching Fire Emergency Responders, by Zachary O. Toups and Andruid Kerne of Texas A&M examines this in some detail. The authors examine how firefighters use “complementary communication modalities, well-defined roles, and shared experience histories to implicitly coordinate their actions.” These aspects of Implicit Coordination allow firefighters to maintain a collective Situational Awareness, which the authors of the Texas A&M study team “Team Cognition”. Team Cognition is an example of Distributed Cognition, “a theoretical framework for investigating how information is coordinated within systems of people, artifacts, and environments”, that applies to small group actions, like a Fire Company, or a Football Team. In Team Cognition, or Team Situational Awareness as I call it, we are aware of the actions of the rest of the team based upon the audible and environmental cues we are receiving. If we do not have 100% knowledge of everything that is happening on the fireground because of direct observation, then we “fill in the blanks” using the cues we observe.

As an example Tom and Bill are assigned to the Engine; Tom has the nozzle, Bill is the back-up man. They arrive on scene of a reported structure fire to find a working fire in what appears to be the kitchen of a one story ordinary house. They advance a cross-lay into the building based on SOG. As they make entry visibility is limited to about two or three inches above the floor. Tom moves forward into the structure and Bill remains just inside the front door feeding hose in. Tom and Bill work together every third shift, they have been to dozens of fires together, and they know the actions the other will take. As Tom is advancing the line Bill is listening to the staccato sound of the nozzle opening and closing as Tom ensures the ceiling isn’t too hot, and as he sweeps the floor to ensure that it is intact and cool enough to crawl on. Tom’s progress is not slowed because Bill knows that Tom moves in increments of four to five feet at a time, so he feeds ten feet of hose into the house each time he feels Tom advance. This is all accomplished with out a lot of talking back and forth, no screaming “Give me more line” or anything else. They are practicing Team Situational Awareness.

Team Situational Awareness must extend beyond the Company level though to the whole of the Fireground team. We need to “see” the big picture through the inputs we are receiving from the entire operation. As the Nozzleman of the attack line I am using the senses I have at my disposal, to maintain my Situational Awareness, but I am also relying on cues from the other firefighters operating on scene. I am listening for the sounds of windows breaking, a saw on the roof, and radio communication about what is happening in front, behind, above, below and to either side of me. These cues are being monitored by me and my Company as we advance on the seat of the fire to ensure that the environment will remain tenable for us. At the same time other companies are taking their cues from us. The Truck searching the floor above the fire is listening for the sound of victims, but also for the sound of water hitting the ceiling level below them; cues that them to maintain the same Team Situational Awareness that I have: we are getting water on the fire and the ceiling isn’t so hot that everything is turning to steam. They know that it is okay to continue with their assignment with out having to listen to a radio message from the Engine Officer or a direction from the Operations Chief to go ahead. You don’t need to actually say in your mind, “because I hear water hitting the ceiling and falling to the floor the temperatures in here are tenable for us to continue our tactical advance to the seat of the fire,” if you have “read the playbook”, understand what is happening on the fireground, and can observe the cues that are presented. You are using Team Situational Awareness to help “Observe” what else is occurring within the structure and continue making critical decisions using the Boyd Loop.

There are causes of Fireground Fatalities that we may be unable to prevent. Developing the skills of our personnel to maintain Situational Awareness will give them a better chance of avoiding one risk factor that will more often than not lead to a fatality: disorientation. Realistic, challenging, scenario based training performed in single Company, Battalion and Mutual-Aid exercises allow firemen to develop the cognitive skills to maintain Situational Awareness and utilize the Boyd Loop to make life and death Fireground Tactical and Strategic Decisions.

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