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Control measure

Share situational awareness: Major incidents

Control measure knowledge

Shared situational awareness is a common understanding of the circumstances, immediate consequences and the longer-term implications of the emergency, along with an appreciation of the available capabilities and priorities of the emergency services and responding agencies.

Shared situational awareness is not always easy to achieve and all the inherent uncertainties and obstacles that limit individual situational awareness are operating in the background. Interaction of individuals, a team or multiple teams also increases the level of difficulty. Some common barriers to achieving effective shared situational awareness are:

  • Concepts not commonly understood
  • Terminology not commonly understood
  • Unawareness of the use of differing metrics and measurements being used by different teams
  • Graphical representations (e.g. signs and symbols) not commonly understood
  • Natural team assumptions made about other teams going unchallenged or unacknowledged
  • Operating procedures and objectives of one team not understood by others
  • Information not shared amongst teams
  • Expertise held by one team not made available to the collective effort
  • Challenge and critique suppressed by dominance of one person/team (group think)

It is important to emphasise that shared situational awareness does not imply that everything that is known by involved parties should be shared. This would be grossly inefficient and not everybody needs to know everything.

Information management during major incidents is extremely challenging and can be problematic. It is then further complicated by the collective nature of multi-agency working and the sharing of information across internal and external boundaries. It should be recognised that it is at these boundaries that friction, miscommunication, misunderstanding, frustration and breakdowns can occur.

Different organisations and professions use terminology differently in this field. For example, the term ‘evidence’ has a very specific meaning in a policing context but has a more general meaning across much of the rest of the public sector. Similarly, the term ‘intelligence’ in a military and policing context refers to information that has been through an agreed process of analysis and has subsequently been graded to a standard agreed by all as to its validity and authenticity. Clarifying what is meant by specific terms when working across boundaries is essential.

To enhance the effectiveness, interoperability and situational awareness of those involved in managing major incidents, the common methodology of creating a common operating picture (COP), should be adopted. A COP that is appropriate to the operating context is a powerful point of reference for the attainment of shared situational awareness.

A COP is a product, an output or a structured display of information where shared situational awareness can be achieved across multi-agency partners to provide and agree a common end to a joint response. This kind of shared knowledge and insight is built not just by the provision of information but also interacting through asking questions, clarifying uncertainties and challenging assumptions.

During major incidents it should be recognised that the actual form of a COP will vary between organisations and contexts. Some will be graphical or map-based, others more textual. Some will be interactive, others static. Some will emphasise real time data and others will include only validated data, thereby imposing a time lag on inclusion. What, and how much, is shared depends upon the common objectives which an SCG/TCG are working towards and the level of interaction and interdependence between them in doing so.

Achieving shared situational awareness is essential for effective interoperability. Further information can be found in National Operational Guidance: Incident command – Situational awareness.

Strategic actions

Fire and rescue services should:
  • Develop procedures, training , awareness initiatives and exercising for all levels of response staff to enhance situational awareness

Tactical actions

Strategic and tactical incident commanders should:
  • Develop shared situational awareness with other responding agencies and control rooms using the common operating picture methodology

  • Communicate outcomes of the common operating picture to the relevant internal and external agencies using the M/ETHANE message structure

  • Use concepts that are commonly understood by all agencies

  • Use terminology that is commonly understood by all agencies

  • Confirm the use of commonly understood metrics and measurements used by different teams

  • Ensure graphical representations (e.g. signs and symbols) are commonly understood

  • Challenge and/or acknowledge natural team assumptions both internally and externally to clarify understanding

  • Confirm operating procedures and objectives to ensure they are understood by all teams

  • Engender information sharing amongst teams

  • Encourage the sharing of relevant expertise of all available teams