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.
A commander's situational awareness of an incident is made up of many sources of information that are interpreted into a coherent picture in a way that makes sense to them.
The incident commander's situational awareness forms a basis for:
- Assessing risk and making decisions
- Identifying and prioritising objectives
- Developing an incident plan
- Anticipating how an incident will develop
- Predicting the consequences of actions
Insufficient situational awareness may lead to incident commanders potentially overlooking information when they make decisions. It is important to consider the relationship between the information that was reasonably available and how the working conditions at an incident may affect their ability to process information. Post-incident evaluations of operational decisions should take this relationship into account.
The three stages of situational awareness are:
- Information gathering
- Understanding information
Incident commanders will gather information from a variety of sources to gain accurate situational awareness. Fire and rescue services should ensure that incident commanders have access to all the available and necessary information, such as risk information, to assist this process.
Sources to inform situational awareness may include:
- Fire control: Information gathered from callers and other systems
- Local knowledge: Communication with crews including previous incident history
- Site-Specific Risk Information (SSRI): Where available this should be accessed, the accuracy of information confirmed and used to inform decision making
- Weather conditions: Influence on incident development and safety of crews
- Time of day: Effect on persons and environment
- Scene survey: Reconnaissance of the scene to gain information using sight, sound, smell and touch
- Communication: With the responsible person, other responders and witnesses to gain an understanding of the history of the incident development including numbers and locations of persons missing or unaccounted for
- On-site information: Building, emergency or evacuation via mobile data terminals
After a commander gathers information, they will process it and extract the meaning. As a result, they will form an understanding of the incident. Experience, context and assumptions can supplement or distort the incident commander's interpretation of the scene.
Fire and rescue services should ensure that incident commanders use their understanding of the situation to anticipate what is likely to happen next; for example, how the situation might develop and the consequences of their actions. This means it is vital that their interpretation reflects the actual situation, which will allow the incident commander to effectively plan their operational activities.
Effective situational awareness
Effective situational awareness ensures that the interpretation reflects the actual situation. This is critical for making appropriate decisions and predicting the likely effects of activities.
The following may assist effective situational awareness:
- Clear briefing
- Minimising distractions during critical tasks
- Appropriate spans of control
- Regular review
- Self-awareness of stress and fatigue
Factors that affect situational awareness
Fire and rescue services should ensure incident commanders are aware of the factors that can affect situational awareness. Incident commanders should understand how to put in place the means to monitor the operational environment to detect changes and maintain an accurate understanding of the situation. For example, by using an appropriate command structure and communication network, together with operational assurance/active monitoring arrangements.
Forming an accurate understanding of the situation is risk-critical. Incident commanders should be aware of the factors likely to affect their situational awareness.
New information about risks may come to light as crews work on their tasks. As the incident commander may not be aware of this information, they rely on each person to complete their own risk assessment. New information may affect the incident plan and the safety of people operating in that area, so it is important that personnel are aware of their responsibilities for identifying hazards and assessing risks to influence their actions. Relevant information should also be relayed to the incident commander as appropriate.