Situational Awareness for Operating Fire Apparatus

It seems that no matter where you look in the various fire service publications today, the term “situational awareness” has taken over as the new buzzword. At some time in our fire service careers all of us have probably been guilty of not being totally involved in what is going on around us when on the fireground, operating emergency vehicles, or in live-fire training exercises. But I thought about the term and how I could apply it to fire apparatus, which is my area of expertise.

It wasn’t too hard to make the connection.

First of all, what exactly is situational awareness? A search on the internet results in many definitions, but liked one for its simplicity and relevance to the fire service: Seeing bad practices while responding and operating on the fireground and addressing them in time to change the outcome.

Let’s go further to understand this concept. If you look at NIOSH and their findings, you will see that most firefighter deaths are caused by lack of incident command, lack of accountability, inadequate communications, lack of standard operating guidelines (SOGs) or failure to follow the SOGs that you have in place.

So what does this have to do with fire apparatus? Plenty! The answer is improper risk assessment, and it is probably the biggest mistake we all make at one time or another.

Just think of what happens when you receive an alarm. If you are volunteer, you respond to the fire station, gear up and respond to the scene. If you are paid, you gear up while on duty and also respond. But there are concerns already present before you respond:

  1. Is the apparatus you are responding on been maintained properly? If not, should it even be in service? Does your mechanic or whoever does your maintenance and repairs (hopefully a fully-certified EVT) follow the procedures for placing a vehicle out of service?
  2. Do you perform yearly pumps tests and aerial ladder inspections?
  3. Do you maintain and have on file concise maintenance records?
  4. Do you have seat belts on all of your riding positions, do your SOGs require all firefighters to be seated and belted before you respond?
  5. Do your SOGs include an adaptive response program? For example, responding without lights and siren to automatic alarms, water leaks, etc? And can this be changed by a chief officer if needed?
  6. Have your members been adequately trained in driving the various types of apparatus you have in your department? (Not just going out with a senior member and driving around town.) You should be keeping adequate training records on all members–this should include hours driving, pumping, operating an aerial device etc. This is especially important if your state does not require you to have a CDL to operate a vehicle of a certain size and weight.
  7. Do your SOGs require your responding drivers to stop at stop signs and red lights before proceeding? Do you have your officers control the driver’s speed while responding?
  8. Is there a proper backing procedure in place when your return to quarters? (Always have a backup person before you backup any vehicle.)
  9. Do your members follow the SOG’s that you currently have in place, or are they just for show?

The list can go on and on, but you get the picture. In order to have situational awareness, you have to have some insight and prepare ahead of time for the outcome to be favorable. While there are some circumstances that we cannot control, I firmly believe that we can control at least some of our destiny in responding to and returning from alarms.

In any case, let’s better prepare ourselves to prevent injuries and deaths, before and after we take action on the fireground.

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