Pre-Arrival Situational Awareness Looking to the Past to Predict the Future


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

The foundation to forming your situational awareness is size-up the capturing of clues and cues in your environment. Those clues and cues are then used to comprehend what is happening and that, in turn, helps you make accurate predictions about future events. Your understanding of the clues and cues can be improved when you look into the past.

As I think about pre-arrival situational awareness I am reminded of the movie Back to the Future. There, we are introduced to Marty McFly, his family, and a few other essential characters. Then, when Marty is transported back in time, he begins to see the back story of how a chain of events led up to his modern day life as he knows it. This improves Marty’s understanding of why things are the way they are.

The ability to look into the past to get this back story is the essence of pre-arrival situational awareness. And while, unlike Marty McFly, you don’t have a time machine and you won’t be able to alter the course of history, you can construct a look into the past through your mind’s eye.

Assessing the current situation and then constructing a coherent understanding about how the facts of the incident came into existence forms your pre-arrival situational awareness. For example, let’s assume you respond to a traffic accident where a car slid off an icy highway and rolled down an embankment. As you arrive you see a car about 100 feet down over a hill and a person is still inside the vehicle. You grab your essential medical gear and start making your way down to conduct your triage.

STOP! Before you even exit your vehicle, develop your pre-arrival situational awareness by asking: How did the situation I now see come to be? In other words, how did that vehicle, which just a short time ago was traveling safely down the highway, end up where it is now? Questions like this may be difficult to answer because you are lacking the facts. Maybe a deer ran in front of the vehicle and they swerved to miss it and lost control. Maybe they fell asleep. Maybe they were texting and were distracted. Or, maybe the vehicle hit a patch of ice on the bridge overpass that is just short distance up the road from the accident scene and they lost control.

SOMETHING caused that car to end up there. This is where youd ask the critical second question: Could history repeat itself? In other words could another driver fall victim to the same fate as the first and end up in the very same place? If the plausible answer is yes, then you need to take steps to protect yourself from becoming a casualty if that happens.

Looking to the past to predict the future pits us in a war between possibilities and probabilities. Is it POSSIBLE that another car could do the same thing and end up in the same place. The answer is yes. In fact, the possibility of anything happening, regardless of how bazaar it may seem, is always 100 percent. Anything is possible. But is it probable? And this is where it can get challenging for you. The more unusual the event, or the less experience you have with dealing with past events of similar circumstances, the more you may explain the incident away as an isolated occurrence freak event that is not likely to repeat itself.

It is not by coincidence that I chose the example of a traffic accident. Unlike most fire incidents, the unforeseen future event at a traffic accident, potentially putting you in grave danger, will be caused directly by the actions of humans. And human behavior can be terribly difficult to predict.

As you think about it, the list of probably causes that led to the vehicle losing control and rolling down the embankment is relatively small: Medical problem, distraction, mechanical (like a tire blow out), swerved to avoid (another vehicle, animal, debris in the roadway), lost control (slid on the ice, hydroplaned, excessive speed), impairment (drugs, alcohol, fatigue) and maybe a few others.

The probability of a subsequent driver losing control of their vehicle due to a medical condition at exactly the same place and rolling down the same embankment and ending up in the same spot as the previous vehicle is relatively low. But depending on the circumstances, the probability of another driver being distracted, impaired or losing control and ending up in the same place is much higher.

So, before you put yourself into harm’s way, fire up the Flux Capacitor and travel back in time and construct the back story see how the event ended up as you now see it. Then come back to the future and take steps to protect yourself just in case history decides to repeat itself.

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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