Situational awareness represents the perception and understanding an incident commander has of an incident, including its hazards, risks and operational activities. It also consists of how a commander anticipates the incident will develop taking into account their actions. Good situational awareness is fundamental to being able to make good decisions. It is important for incident commanders to ensure when handing over command that the level of situational awareness is maintained.
The three stages of situational awareness are:
- Information gathering
- Understanding information
In accordance with the three stages of situational awareness, incident commanders should:
- Know the typical sources of information available to them when in charge of an incident when gathering information; this will assist them to obtain and maintain situational awareness
- Be able to interpret the information they have gathered, together with their knowledge and past experience, into a coherent picture to understand the situation; this process will continue throughout an incident
- Be able to anticipate how an incident will develop and change based on their understanding; in particular, they should be able to predict the impact of their actions on incident development and outcomes
Incident commanders need to be aware of the factors that can assist them to obtain and maintain effective situational awareness. They 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. This may include the use of:
- Command support resources
- An appropriate command structure
- An effective communication network
- Operational assurance
- Active monitoring arrangements
Effective situational awareness ensures that the interpretation reflects the actual situation. Incident commanders should be aware of the factors likely to adversely affect their situational awareness. These may include:
- Biases that affect decision-making, memory recall and interactions with others
- Poor communication, for example unstructured briefs and debriefs
- Excessive spans of control
- Distractions during critical tasks
- Assumptions that are not confirmed as accurate
- Poor information management, for example, failing to record or validate information
To accurately perceive a situation an incident commander should gather and understand information to enable them to anticipate how an incident may develop and what the impact of an intervention may be on its development.
Providing risk-critical information is essential to ensure safe operations. Command decision-making can be significantly affected if there is a lack of risk information or where information has not been passed on. Fire control personnel will often be required to receive and communicate risk-critical information. Where risk-critical information is included on the initial turnout details it should be easy to identify.
One of the tasks of the incident commander is to apply suitable control measures. To be able to do this they must be able to gather all available information about an incident. This is likely to include: information from the pre-planning stage, such as risk information, available in electronic or written format.
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.
The following sources of information should help to inform situational awareness throughout the incident:
- Fire control rooms
- Responsible person
- People involved
- Operational intelligence
- Safety information
- Other agencies
- Site-Specific Risk Information (SSRI)
- Site information such as:
- Layout plans
- Evacuation strategies
- Emergency plans
- Scene surveys
- Audio and visual equipment, including:
- Closed-circuit television (CCTV)
- Aerial resources such as helicopters, satellites and drones (classified as a type of unmanned aircraft system by the Civil Aviation Authority)
- Inspection cameras
- Audio life detectors
Visual equipment is only of benefit if the downlink is available and accessible for personnel to view when gathering information about the incident.
The type of information that may be obtained includes:
- Previous incident history at the location
- The development of the incident
- Numbers and locations of people missing or unaccounted for
Specific incident types may also present additional sources of information, for example passenger or cargo manifests, stock inventories, and so on. Indications about these sources of information are provided in other sections of National Operational Guidance where appropriate.
Sources of information may need to be referred to throughout the incident, to ensure the information is still relevant and up to date. The accuracy of all information should be assessed and confirmed where possible, prior to using it for decision-making. A record of the information gathered should be made, especially if provided verbally.
There may be barriers to information gathering, including:
- Failure of technology, such as telecommunications
- Unavailability of resources, such as audio or visual systems
Contingency arrangements should be considered and put in place for the failure of technology or the unavailability of resources.
Other barriers to information gathering may be due to the inability to communicate with people at or involved with the incident. This includes those who may:
- Be affected by the incident and showing signs of distress or confusion
- Have disabilities that impair communication
- Have insufficient command of English to understand questions or instructions, or provide information
The quickest solution may be to find somebody else at the scene who can assist. The use of flashcards or picture boards may be useful to overcome communication barriers, or if children are involved. If it is possible to determine the language being spoken, interpreting services are available from a number of agencies.
Situational awareness responsibilities for all personnel
As personnel carry out their tasks, they may gain new information about hazards or risks. Each person has a responsibility to complete their own risk assessment, and to provide this to the incident commander as appropriate. This new information may affect the incident plan and the safety of people, property or the environment. Therefore it is important that personnel are aware of their responsibilities for identifying hazards and assessing risk, to support accurate situational awareness.
Remote situational awareness
Decision-makers may be remote from the scene of operations, at locations such as:
- A remote tactical command point
- A strategic co-ordination centre
- A fire control room
- An operations support cell
The reliability of elements contributing to their situational awareness can vary. They should question any assumptions they have and constantly review the accuracy of their situational awareness.
If appropriate and feasible, they may wish to visit the scene of operations to confirm the accuracy of their mental picture, taking care to avoid creating a command gap.
Further information may be found in Incident command: Knowledge, skills and competence: Situational awareness.