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There are many jobs and responsibilities that require an astute sense of situational awareness. In fact any job, task, or activity that carries real and often severe consequence for error demands this. Think of a surgeon, pilot, race car driver or rescue technician. Although these are all different they all require an advanced level of decision making skill and a high degree of “peripheral vision” for the operating environment.

Situational awareness involves being aware of what is happening in the vicinity, in order to understand how information, events, and one's own actions will impact goals and objectives, both immediately and in the near future. One with an adept sense of situational awareness generally has a high degree of knowledge and experience with respect to the situation and a firm understanding of how their decisions will affect both the short and long term outcomes. Lacking or inadequate situational awareness has been identified as one of the primary factors in accidents attributed to human error. Thus, situational awareness is especially important in work domains where the information flow can be quite high and poor decisions may lead to serious consequences (e.g., piloting an aircraft, performing rescues or treating critically ill or injured patients).

Having complete, accurate and instantaneous situational awareness is essential where technological and situational complexity on the human decision-maker are a concern. Situational awareness has been recognized as a critical, yet often elusive, foundation for successful decision-making across a broad range of complex and dynamic systems.

One of the greatest risks a person has when faced with a problem is that they are simply not aware a problem exists. This undesired state is referred to as loss of situational awareness.  Commonly termed as the unknown unknown. Loss of situational awareness can sneak up on you unbeware —danger is imminent, but you are pleasantly unaware of it. 


There are many factors that can cause a breakdown in situational awareness. Here are some common causes:

  • Ambiguity – Unclear plans or instructions
  • Fixation – Focusing on one thing to the exclusion of everything else
  • Confusion – Uncertainty or misunderstanding a situation or information
  • Preoccupation – Everyone focusing on other activities
  • Unresolved discrepancies – Contradictory data or personal conflict
  • Poor communications – Vague or incomplete statements
  • Broken rules – Limitations, regulatory requirements, failure to follow SOPs
  • Rushing- Trying to get through it as quickly as possible
  • Complacency- often caused by repetition and/or boredom
  • Too high or too low workload
  • Distractions and interruptions
  • Lack of knowledge or experience.
  • Use of a poor or incomplete mental model


A confirmation bias is also a major contributor to mistakes during any dynamic operation. This happens when perceived information is misunderstood. Expecting to observe something and focusing our attention on this belief can cause seeing what you expect rather than what is actually happening. Over-reliance on the mental model and failing to recognize that the mental model needs to change.

Situational awareness is dynamic, hard to maintain, and easy to lose. Knowing what is going on all the time is very difficult for any one person, especially during complex high stress operations such as rescues.Therefore it is important that we know what behavior is effective in keeping us situationally aware. The following actions can help a team retain or regain situational awareness.

  • Be alert for deviations from standard procedures.
  • Watch for changes in the performance of other team members.
  • Be proactive, provide information in advance.
  • Identify problems in a timely manner.
  • Show you are aware of what’s going on around you.
  • Communicate effectively.
  • Keep abreast of the mission status.
  • Continually assess and reassess the situation.  
  • Ensure that all expectations are shared for complete awareness by the whole team.

Any activity in a dynamic and/or high consequence environment requires a high degree of skill and honed situational awareness. During rescues it is imperative that people maintain mental clarity. This gets increasingly more difficult as things speed up and more variable are introduced. The mark of a professional is being able to slow things down in their mind in order to make situationally aware decisions, while at the same time maintaining efficiency in the task. The other very important hallmark of the rescue professional is the ability to recognize immediately the loss of situational awareness, from any member of the team, and the know how to take instantaneous corrective action.



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