In the Presence of Overwhelming Evidence: Self Awareness for Fire Commanders


Blog by Dr. Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO
Retired Fire Chief and Web Master for Situational Awareness Matters

You might think that if a commander were faced with overwhelming evidence that the incident they are operating at was not going well they’d see it and do something different to prevent a tragic outcome. Yet, evidence to the contrary is well documented in the investigation reports. Why, in the face of overwhelming evidence, would a commander not change the plan?

One explanation is, they can’t see it. Not because they are physically removed from the incident and therefore cannot see the bad things coming (though that can be a contributor). Rather, they’re looking right at it and cannot see it. They’re blind to what is right in front of them.

It seems implausible. I know there are skeptics and critics. That is why I devised an exercise that I use in the Mental Management of Emergencies program where I have participants solve a simple problem. They write their answers down on a piece of paper and then raise their hand. I come around to see what they’ve written. Then I ask them if they are certain their answer is right. They look at the paper and affirm it is (often with a great degree of confidence).

The only problem is, their answer isn’t right and the instant I tell them it’s not and the reason its not, they immediately realize it. But right up to that point, they were blind to it. The overwhelming evidence that proved they were wrong was written in their very own handwriting and they were staring right at it. And yet they couldn’t see it.

This exercise serves as a powerful example of the stubborn nature of the human brain. You see what you want to see. You can lock on to a solution to a problem and refuse to see alternative solutions. And, sadly, in the presence of overwhelming evidence that you’re wrong, you may take a stand (even argue) that you are right. These human factor challenges can have catastrophic consequences for first responders. And sadly, you may never know you’re displaying these undesirable traits until it’s too late.

The key to working through these challenges is awareness. Not situational awareness. Rather, self-awareness. Understanding your own limitations and shortcomings as a human being and acknowledging these challenges exist. So when someone comes up to you and points out the overwhelming evidence that you’re on a path to catastrophe, you don’t reflexively argue and defend your position. Rather the alarm bells go off in your head and you seek to reconcile your error in time to change the outcome.

About the Author
Dr. Gasaway is widely considered to be one of the nation’s leading authorities on situational awareness and decision making processes used by first responders. 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 ( has enjoyed over a million visits since its launch in October 2011. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].

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