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Using the Situtational Awareness Cycle to See the Big Picture


Lt. Robert Brown illustrates the need to create a situational awareness cycle from the time a fire call comes in until the incident is over.

Dec 16th, 2013 / Firehouse Magazine

"Everybody goes! Phone alarm, first-due engine and first-due truck for fire in a commercial building at 1655 Pitkin Avenue. The fire is reported on the first floor. Critical information dispatch system (CIDS) is available from the dispatcher."

As we hear the house watchman read the ticket, we start our size-up. You are thinking about that building and trying to anticipate what it looks like and what the most common problems may be. The evaluation starts with that ticket and never ends. Using any/all information you can get to start your plan of attack. Critical information must be given to all units responding as soon as it becomes available. This ensures that each responding unit has the ability start a plan of attack for the fire or emergency being presented.

"Brooklyn to Ladder 120, we also had a second call on this reporting smoke from the store."

"Ladder 120 to Brooklyn, go with the CIDS over the air."

When available and there is a higher probability you have a job, it is important for you to have the CIDS read over the air. This allows members getting ready in the back and on all other responding apparatus to hear what the fireground might look like before we arrive on scene. This allows all members responding to begin a "situational awareness (SA) analysis" using all information provided to formulate a plan of attack, anticipate problems and variables that might affect the operation and the safety of all on the fireground. The "SA analysis" is a tool to allow firefighters the ability to continually evaluate their situation/objective by following a narrower focus of the 13-point size-up. This SA checklist must be constantly evaluated throughout the job.

Each radio transmission you hear gives you the ability to know what is going on in other sectors of the fire to allow you to alter your situation/objective (when necessary). Most fires will not require you to drastically alter your plan of attack. But as you will see, fires change very fast today, our ability to react after the fact is diminished to a level that is not safe. We must learn to be flexible and adaptable on the fireground. We must now learn to anticipate problems before they happen and have an alternative plan ready to implement to keep everyone safe.

"Ladder 120 to Brooklyn 10-75 the box! Fire appears to be on the first floor of a two-story commercial building 80-by-100."

When you arrive at the scene of a commercial fire in the middle of the night, your first thoughts should be that we are the only life hazard. When we do this, it allows the operation to take a more cautious plan of attack. It is not to say that we cannot go into the building and put out the fire in most situations. It merely lowers the reward of our #1 objective, which is life. Objective #2 is property. This objective is very important, it is not however, more important than a firefighter's life. When we become the only life hazard we have to tip the scale of risk versus reward toward the risk side, with not much reward. A third objective we need to have at every fire is safety. By adding this objective, we broaden the focus to saving civilians and protecting firefighters from injury and death, especially when there is an extremely low probability of trapped civilians.

"Ladder 120 to Battalion 44, we have gained entry to the building…looks like we have a fire in the rear of the store. Low to moderate heat and no fire above us, we are working off the search line to find the fire."

"Ladder 120OV (outside vent) to Ladder 120, I am in the rear and we have fire blowing out the window from the basement…you have fire below you."

As the officer, when you hear that report from your outside vent person, what do you do? Does this change your objective and situation? What are your immediate concerns? These are all questions we should have been asking ourselves before the report was even given. Plan B should already be in place, if you were constantly going through your "SA cycle." You would have been anticipating possible fire in the basement due to the construction and conditions of fire upon arrival. It is now, without hesitation, you immediately exit the area and implement a defensive strategy. To stay in that position knowing you have fire below you is reckless not aggressive.

"Battalion 44 to all units, we are pulling out of the interior and going to an outside operation…All units stand by for a roll call and acknowledge when called."

As an incident commander you will not feel comfortable until all units are out of the fire building and have acknowledged your roll call safely. The roll call should always be initiated in a scenario where you go from an inside to and outside operation to confirm you are not missing any members immediately.

"Mayday, Mayday, Mayday. Ladder 120 roof to command, a collapse of the roof has occurred 20 feet from the front of the store. All members on the roof are accounted for and are seeking refuge on exposure 2."

"Command to Engine 231, Ladder 120, are you out of the building and are all members accounted for?

Both companies reply that all members are accounted for in front of the building.

As you can see, things can change very rapidly on the fireground and your ability to anticipate a problem and have a solution to the problem can save your life and the members of your company. We are all risking our lives to save others; nobody should ever question that. An FDNY Chief of Department once said, "The bravest act a firefighter does is take the oath to put his life on the line to save others." Even when we do all things right, and we control as many variables as possible, we still can die or be seriously injured. We must do a better job controlling as many variables we can. In doing so, we decrease the chances of abandoning our objective. One way we can do this is to monitor our "SA cycle" continuously throughout the entire operation by monitoring the following:

  • Location and extent of fire
  • Location of members under your command
  • Construction
  • Life hazards
  • Water resources
  • Weather/wind
  • Apparatus/tools for the specific job

We can continually adjust our situational objectives to an ever-changing fire. When we implement a strategy such as a simple six-point SA analysis, we can monitor all critical areas on the fireground to anticipate and react to situations as quickly as possible to save lives. Had the officer in the scenario not had a Plan B, we would have had to risk other firefighter's lives and jeopardize the rest of the operation, commit resources and get those trapped firefighters out. Although the above operation had a happy ending, the outcome would have been much more disastrous if the contingency plan was not in place and implemented immediately on acknowledgement from the officer.

Implementation of strategic thinking from the receipt of the alarm is crucial to the success of every emergency operation. Ongoing evaluation of your situation and objectives are essential components of a safe operation. Firefighters must understand that while their tasks are the most important thing to them, they are the core of an entire operation with a tremendous amount of moving parts around them. The need for you to complete your task may change depending on what is going on in another area of the fire. If other areas of the operation are starting to break down or worsen, you need to be aware of it and anticipate what is needed to correct it. By continuing to be aware of the operation around you will become more aware of potential problems and be able to react quickly and safely when needed. Our job has many variables when it comes to responding to and mitigating emergencies. It is our job to control those variables as best we can to keep the operation as safe as possible.

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