How Independent Actions Can Negatively Impact Situational Awareness

Blog by Dr. Richard B. Gasaway, CFO, EFO, Fire Chief (ret.)
For some public safety agencies, it is standard practice for personnel on first alarm assignments to arrive and deploy independently – meaning without any one person designated to coordinate the activities or timing of tasks. Oftentimes these responders are highly trained, highly motivated and action oriented. What they are lacking is coordination of their efforts.
SOP for First-Arriving Personnel
It’s important for departments to have a set SOP for first-arriving personnel at incidents. It makes sense to have a supervisor assume the role of coordinator for other incoming personnel.
It is unrealistic to think a dozen, or more individuals could arrive at varied times at an incident and each make exactly the same assessment of the situation/conditions and know, absent a centrally located commander, what every other team member is thinking and doing. Can you see how this spells trouble?
Even professional football teams, who practice their plays repeatedly, have the benefit of someone coordinating their actions on the field. Imagine the impact if a football team had no one calling the plays. The team might stumble into success on occasion, but the propensity for error, simply because the players lack a shared understanding and a centralized coordinator, is guaranteed. So it is on an emergency scene, as well.
Someone has to keep a view of the big picture right from the beginning and coordinate the actions of incoming personnel. Otherwise, the incident may degrade as the independent, uncoordinated actions of responders fail to achieve a common goal.
A Solution to the Issue
Develop a standard operating guideline/policy that requires the first-arriving supervisor to assume the position as the person in charge and have that person maintain a “big picture” view of the incident. Allow some variation for imminent rescue situations. This person then becomes the coordinator of other incoming personnel. If they are a junior supervisor, they can be relieved of their command on the arrival of a more senior command-level officer.


About the Author
Dr. Gasaway is widely considered one of the nation’s leading authorities on situational awareness and the human factors that complicate first responder decision making. In addition to his 30-plus year career in the fire service, including 22 years as a fire chief, Dr. Gasaway has a second passion: Uncovering and applying research in brain science for the benefit of first responders. His website, Situational Awareness Matters ( welcomes 50,000 visitors a month from 156 countries. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].

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