When I was a new firefighter, over 30 years ago, I remember my basic fire instructor telling me to “pay attention” and “avoid tunnel vision.” While it was good advice, he did very little to help me understand what that meant. I did my best, doing what I thought was supposed to. As it turns out, I wasn’t that good at it. I was mostly lucky.
I have spent the last seven years intensely studying situational awareness and decision making in high-stress, high-consequence environments. This includes firefighting, aviation, medicine, military, nuclear energy, and more. I have also immersed myself into cognitive neuroscience and have come to realize there is so much the fire service does not know about how to develop, maintain, and regain situational awareness.
There is SO much research that has been done (and is currently being done) on this topic – research that can benefit the fire service. It has become my passion… my mission, to take those lessons from cognitive neuroscience and share them in understandable and meaningful ways (presenting in a way that firefighters value and appreciate) so the fire service can benefit from the findings of science.
It takes me a FULL DAY just to teach firefighters how to pay attention! (The program is called “The Mental Management of Emergencies”). Yes… understanding how to pay attention IS that complex. Giving it 20 minutes during a strategic, tactics or safety class isn’t working. We need to build a DEEP knowledge of this critical topic area. Situational awareness is THE leading contributing factor to firefighter near miss events and a very significant contributor to casualty events.
On Tuesday I am heading to Orlando, Florida to attend the International Conference on Naturalistic Decision Making (NDM). The conference “brings together world leaders in research seeking to understand and improve how people actually perform cognitively complex functions in demanding situations. The NDM community represents an interdisciplinary group of researchers united by their study of human performance in situations marked by time pressure, uncertainty, vague goals, high stakes, team and organizational constraints, changing conditions, and varying amounts of experience. As such, this conference continues to be the premier forum for presenting work exploring complex cognition as it occurs in dynamic and real-world contexts.”
Are your eyes glazed over yet? Granted, it’s not nearly as sexy as putting water on fires or cutting up cars, but it is nonetheless important. The wording from the previous paragraph comes directly from the conference website http://www.ce.ucf.edu/ndm2011/. Look at what’s on that list again… time pressure, uncertainty, vague goals, high stakes, team on organizational constraints, changing conditions, and varying amounts of experience impacts how we do our jobs. That is EXACTLY our world.
I can assure you I will be the only firefighter attending this conference… just as I was the last time I attended it. I think it’s important to immerse myself into their world, extract their lessons, and share them with the fire service.
It is my mission… it has become my passion. Stay tuned as I’m certain the findings shared at this conference will be incorporated into my future program offerings and my blog and magazine articles.
Fire Chief (ret.) Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO, MICP
Center for the Advancement of Situational Awareness & Decision Making