The Situational Awareness Factor in Near-Miss Reports

Since the Near-Miss Reporting System Web site (www.firefighternearmiss.com) went live, I have read every report of the week (ROTW), in an effort to identify trends that lead to near misses.

One of the most interesting things I found in researching near-miss reports is the fact that situational awareness–or the lack thereof–by personnel operating on scene was listed in almost every report I could find. In fact, while using the search tool on the Near Miss Web site, I found that out of 955 reports filed under the classification fire emergency event: structure fire, vehicle fire, wildland fire, etc., 866 list situational awareness as a contributing factor–that’s more than 90 percent!

Wikipedia defines situational awareness as: “The perception of environmental elements within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future. It is also a field of study concerned with perception of the environment critical to decision-makers in complex, dynamic areas–from aviation, air traffic control, power plant operations and military command/control to more ordinary but nevertheless complex tasks such as driving an automobile or motorcycle.”

Now reread that definition. What stands out to you? To me it sounds a lot like the foundation of scene size-up and incident command. I took the definition and applied some basic fireground ideas to those key terms: – Perception of environment = what you see – Time and space = time of day/what’s on fire/where’s the fire going? – Command and control = the need for competent incident command, from the start of every incident

Applying this Concept
As I read near-miss reports, I always try to relate the information, tactics, staffing and procedures described in the report to my own organization. I then ask: “Could that happen here? How would we handle a similar event? What do we need to do to prepare for a similar event?”

My department recently experienced a significant near-miss event involving a backdraft during a structure fire in a large home that had been converted into several apartments. Fortunately, no firefighters suffered serious injuries.

Since this event, we’ve spent a lot of time learning more about fire behavior, reviewing our own actions and trying to determine how we as an organization could operate safer in the future. Through this process and after reading several other reports involving injuries or line-of-duty deaths (LODDs), I’ve identified several similarities, but–again–one stands out to me: situational awareness.

Following are just a few lessons gleaned from near-miss reports listing situational awareness as a contributing factor in structure fires:

  • Complete a full size-up from the exterior; – Hazard must be identified and communicated to units working on the scene;
  • Changes in the fire’s appearance must be relayed to crews;
  • Good communication between command and the safety officer can avert serious injuries at a fire;
  • No incident is routine;
  • The incident commander and qualified division and group officers must have a strong command presence; and
  • Good standard operating guidelines, training and fireground discipline avert problems.

Some of these may sound basic, but it’s crucial that we focus on the fundamentals at all times.

Final Thoughts
For your next crew drill, search the near-miss Web site for a department that’s similar to your own, and then add to your search “situational awareness” as a factor. After reading the reports generated by your search, apply the situation to your organization, and ask yourself: “How would my officers react to a similar incident? Are my firefighters trained to identify and communicate hazards? Am I using crew resource management to run my emergency events?” Your answers can identify areas in which your department needs to drill. Hopefully this will lead to training and dialogue that will improve your operations and reduce the number of near-misses and LODDs.

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