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The Importance of Situational Awareness

Greetings fellow educators. Last month, during an NRA safety class, our instructors discussed at length situational awareness (SA). While I had heard the term before in firefighter related training, I was ignorant to what it really meant. When I reviewed the topic afterwards, I found it very interesting when trying to understand people’s state of the mind during dangerous situations. SA really hit home after the most recent bombings in New York and New Jersey.

Situational awareness is the ability to identify, process, and comprehend the critical elements of information about what is happening to the team with regards to the mission. More simply, it’s knowing what is going on around you.*

Allow me to share an example of what situation awareness looks like, while also referencing a popular color coding standard used during defensive tactic classes.

Imagine that you were invited by a friend to a outdoor concert to see a band you both enjoyed. The timing is perfect for your schedule, the weather is great, so you arrive early to catch up before the show. After entering the gates of the venue, you begin looking around for the best place to sit and have not a care in the world. You are just above a resting state when it comes to identifying safety risks around you. Oblivious to your surroundings, my mother might say. You are in what is called a white condition when it comes to being aware of your surroundings.

If though when you were looking around for a good place to watch the show, you and your friend made a point to sit away from the rowdy section in the front of the stage, you have stepped up your game to mental condition yellow. By choosing with intentions to avoid potential troubles, you at Yellow level on the situational awareness scale. Granted your eyes are not darting around like a cat, you are actively thinking about things more than the lower state of awareness.

About a half hour later, you notice a cooler breeze and see the clouds in the sky darkening a bit. It is then you choose to move with your friend closer to the exit just in case things get bad with the weather. In this state you should consider your SA in orange condition. You are not paranoid, but are now paying closer attention to things around you including the people and the environment. Basically, your Spidey senses are tingling and your gut is saying something may go wrong here. You might even be running scenarios and what if’s though your head while chatting with your friend. If something went south now, you would not be surprised.

In condition red, you shift brain and body to defensive mode. It might occur when you see the lightning flashes or the crowds starting to move for cover out of the rain. Your concentration intensifies while you figure out how to protect yourself and eliminate any threats. Health professionals call this the fight or flight response.

This so called ‘sixth sense’ helps us understand situational awareness better. It is a critical aspect of survival instincts for pilots, the military, police officers, and other professions use to overcome life threatening events. Experts explain in the literature that is essential to know what is going on in a potential hazardous place to reduce the consequences of a disaster. They further suggest that by having a heightened and appropriate situational awareness, you can actually predict the future and ultimately reduce negative outcomes of traumatic incident.

Pretty powerful stuff in my opinion. I would recommend we all continue researching and sharing more about this subject with your students and colleagues. The evidence based research says it makes a big difference and could be a matter of life or death.

This month’s article comes straight from the heart. I hope it serves you well and look forward to hearing your thoughts about it. Thanks, Tom Gottschalk

*U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Coast Guard, Team Coordination Training Student Guide, August, 1998, Page 5-1