Situational awareness is a person's perception and understanding of the situation they face. It includes their anticipation of what the situation may become, including the impact of their actions. For an incident commander, it is their perspective of the scene of operations.
This situational awareness, or mental picture of the incident, is the foundation for the incident commander to formulate a plan of action. On the basis of this understanding, the commander will assess risk and make decisions, identify and prioritise objectives and develop an incident plan. The commander will also look ahead and consider how an incident will develop and also predict the consequences of actions.
Maintaining good situational awareness of the incident is a critical skill. Incident commanders need to have the ability to build an accurate mental picture of the situation. They need to be able to do this in challenging, dynamically changing and high pressure circumstances, sometimes with incomplete or inaccurate information.
A person's mental picture of an incident is like a jigsaw, made up of many sources of information interpreted as a single view. An example of this is shown below.
Some pieces of this jigsaw come from direct exposure, for example, to events that can be seen or directly experienced at the incident. However, an incident commander may not have all of the information available that they need to form a full and accurate picture.
Other pieces of the jigsaw come from memories of similar events, assumptions or communications with others. These elements combine with the information that is directly available to create a mental picture. Therefore it is important for incident commanders to constantly monitor their situational awareness, and verify the accuracy of any assumptions that might underpin their understanding of the situation.
A person's mental picture of an incident is made up of many sources of information. They are interpreted into a coherent picture in a way that makes sense to them in the current circumstances of the incident. It is important to consider the relationship between the information that was reasonably available and how the conditions have affected a commander's ability to process it.
The working conditions at an incident may affect their ability to process information. For instance, the amount of information they need to process, the tasks they are involved with and the amount of stress they are feeling all take up part of a commander's capacity to process information. Evaluations of operational decisions, whether post-incident or in a training environment, should take this relationship into account.
Good situational awareness is essential as it underpins operational decision making. Decision makers, both incident commanders and firefighters alike, make decisions based on their perception of the situation and their perception of the problem. For decision making to be effective, it is necessary for the incident commander to put in place the means to continuously monitor the environment to detect changes, and to ensure their understanding of the situation remains accurate, for example, an appropriate command structure and communication network.