Sunday, May 29, 2011

A quest to improve situational awareness

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 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
Executive Director
Center for the Advancement of Situational Awareness & Decision Making

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Improving your intuition

Intuition is based, in part, on your tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is the collection of all your life’s experiences stored and cataloged in your brain – available for subconscious pattern matching to help you find solutions to problems. (The full explanation about how this happens, as fascinating as it is, is a little too complex to cover here in a blog post.)

I often get asked by young fire officers how they can get the experienced required to make intuitive decisions. Here are a few things you can do to pre-load your experiences.

1. Read: One of the best ways to build knowledge is through reading.

2. Take classes: Formal training builds a strong foundation of knowledge.

3. Practice evolutions: Practice does not make perfect. Practice makes permanent. Make sure your practice reflects how you would perform in real fire conditions.

4. Simulations: These are a great way to trick your brain into thinking you’ve actually had the experience when, in reality, it was only a simulation.

5. Study: Become a student of near-miss reports and line-of-duty death reports. There are many lessons contained in these documents that will help you.

BONUS. Get emotional: You heard me right. As you do the things on the list above, make each experience personal and get emotionally invested in it. For example, if you’re reading about a line-of-duty death report, read it as though you’re really there and not as some third-party observer. Emotions cause lessons to seat deep into memory.

Fire Chief (ret.) Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO, MICP
Executive Director
Center for the Advancement of Situational Awareness & Decision Making

The Four Competencies of Leadership

Being a leader does not mean you have to be the Chief Alan Brunacini in your fire company. In fact, trying to be a type of leader you are not can cause you some serious problems and get you into deep trouble. You should develop your own leadership style. You just want to make sure that the style you develop has the four common competencies that are key to being a successful leader.

1. Management of Attention – This is described as the ability to draw other to you through an intense focus on attention. If you have the ability to get others to buy into your vision and embrace it as their own you will be moving forward as the individuals no have buy in. Remember you need to keep your intentions in clear view with total transparency.

2. Management of Meaning – Is the ability to clearly communicate visions, ideas, dreams and concepts effectively to your team. In your efforts to do this you must use your entire self. By utilizing your entire self you understand that you must talk the talk but you must also walk the walk. Talk is cheap but actions and appearances speak volumes and is an effective way to communicate. In today’s society we are overwhelmed with data and facts, we are looking for true meaning.

3. Management of Trust – Trust is an essential component of any relationship. People must able to trust their leaders or they will not follow. It is even true that people will follow a leader they can trust even if they don’t agree over a leader who changes position frequently, simply because of trust. Remember that people don’t care how much you know till they know how much you truly care.

4. Management of Self – As a leader you must know your own knowledge, skills and abilities with profound identification of your weaknesses and limitations. Think of it this way, if you can’t manage yourself how will you be able to manage others. Leaders need to concentrate on positive goals and not get hung up on the risks. Reject the idea of failure. Be confident and don’t worry about making mistakes…everyone does it is just a fact of life.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Situational leadership: Using the right tool

How to handle a particular personnel situation is often the topic of interview questions for promotion. These can be difficult to answer because the question rarely contains all of the information needed to make a good decision. This can work to your advantage or to you disadvantage depending on how you choose to resolve the use.

In most cases, the short answer to how you’d respond to a personnel issue should be “It depends.” However, if you stop there you’re probably not going to score well on the interview. Take the response to the next step and share with the panel what it depends on. What are the critical criteria that are essential to evaluate to make a good decision.

Say “It depends on additional information that provides the critical criteria that would help me make a quality decision. In this scenario, that criteria would include…” and then list the things you would consider when evaluating the situation and how you would respond. There are many ways to handle problems and each scenario is dependent on the situation.

The best leaders have many tools in their toolbox to help them build and maintain successful organizations. If their only tool were a hammer, then every problem would look like a nail. If a hammer is your only tool, you’ll end up using the hammer on a board that needed a saw. This will cause you expend unneeded energy because you used the wrong tool. You may eventually shorten the board by beating it until it breaks. Obviously, there’s a better way to get the task complete. Use the right tool, at the right time, in the right way, under the right conditions. That’s situational leadership!

Fire Chief (ret.) Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO, MICP
Executive Director
Center for the Advancement of Situational Awareness & Decision Making

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Control your reactions

Many times throughout my career I have been in a position to promote (or not promote) firefighters into positions of leadership. Sometimes the decision was hard because I was blessed with a number of highly qualified candidates. Other times the decision was easy because I had one candidate who stood out among their peers.

In communicating the decision to the candidates who were not selected, I have noticed the bad news presents an opportunity for a reaction on their part. How they react to the bad news is what I want to address.

Some of the candidates reacted in a way that was so positive and professional that it actually made me regret that I did not promote them. I saw a level of maturity that was absolutely impressive. When I have witnessed this, I have gone out of my way to give this candidate personal time and attention to help ensure the next time I have an officer position open up, they will be the leading candidate. In the bad news I saw their potential shine.

Some candidates, on the other hand, reacted in a way that was so negative and so unprofessional that it confirmed to me that I had made the right decision. I saw a level of maturity that was very unimpressive. When I have witnessed this, I have assured myself that the right decision was made not to promote this person and affirmed this person will likely never be promoted to a position of leadership. A little bit of bad news caused them to self-destruct. That’s not the kind of leader I want on my team.

If things don’t go your way, maintain your professionalism and fashion a positive, supportive response, even if you have to fake it. Being a loser hurts but you should invest great effort in ensuring you use your pain to compel you to address your shortcomings and to become a better qualified leader. If you take that pain and decide someone needs to pay a price for the injustice you faced, your behavior will only affirm to the boss the right decision was made. You may not control what happens to you, but you are in complete control of how you react to what happens to you.

Fire Chief (ret.) Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO, MICP
Executive Director, Center for the Advancement of Situational Awareness & Decision Making

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Have you Looked at the 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives Lately; Doing Anything with them?

When was the last time you looked at the Initiatives?

Are you and your company aware of the 16 Fire Fighter Life Safety Initiatives? Are they more than just words, can they be implemented, institutionalized or integrated into our operationa, training and administration; or are they the latest in the trends that come and go within the Fire Service?

Ask your personnel within your company, station or department what they are, what they represent and what is the meaning, theme and objectives of these 16?

Use this opportunity for constructive dialog, discussion and mentoring....

1.Define and advocate the need for a cultural change within the fire service relating to safety; incorporating leadership, management, supervision, accountability and personal responsibility.
2.Enhance the personal and organizational accountability for health and safety throughout the fire service.
3.Focus greater attention on the integration of risk management with incident management at all levels, including strategic, tactical, and planning responsibilities.
4.All firefighters must be empowered to stop unsafe practices.
5.Develop and implement national standards for training, qualifications, and certification (including regular recertification) that are equally applicable to all firefighters based on the duties they are expected to perform.
6.Develop and implement national medical and physical fitness standards that are equally applicable to all firefighters, based on the duties they are expected to perform.
7.Create a national research agenda and data collection system that relates to the initiatives.
8.Utilize available technology wherever it can produce higher levels of health and safety.
9.Thoroughly investigate all firefighter fatalities, injuries, and near misses.
10.Grant programs should support the implementation of safe practices and/or mandate safe practices as an eligibility requirement.
11.National standards for emergency response policies and procedures should be developed and championed.
12.National protocols for response to violent incidents should be developed and championed.
13.Firefighters and their families must have access to counseling and psychological support.
14.Public education must receive more resources and be championed as a critical fire and life safety program.
15.Advocacy must be strengthened for the enforcement of codes and the installation of home fire sprinklers.
16.Safety must be a primary consideration in the design of apparatus and equipment.

The Following links From the NFFF/Everyone Goes Home web site, HERE

Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives Resources
16 Intiatives Overview & Explanation
Watch Media Resources:

» Overview & Explanation: View | Download
» Initiative 1: Culture - View | Download
» Initiatives 1 - 4 - View | Download
» Initiatives 5 - 8 - View | Download
» Initiatives 9 - 12 - View | Download
» Initiatives 13 - 16 - View | Download

Related Resources:
» 16 Initiatives in EspaƱol
» Power Point Presentations: Part 1 | Part 2
» Resolution: Home Fire Sprinklers (Initiative 15)

In Print:
» 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives Handout
» 16 Firefighter Life Safety Initiatives Poster
» Everyone Goes Home® Bookmark

For Your Computer:
» 16 Initiatives Desktop Wallpaper

Monday, May 2, 2011

Changing Attitudes

Recently I was attending a conference where the hot topic among a group of Fire Chiefs was focused on the amount of firefighter injuries and deaths, many resulting from motor vehicle crashes. A big subcomponent was the use of seat belts or lack there of. This topic was discussed at length as they were searching for answers of how to get firefighters to comply. Ideas of affecting funding from county government, decreasing state death benefits and others were tossed around as ideas to get groups to comply. One salty Chief finally just blurted out, “it is all about attitude and many folks have a damn bad one”. “The attitude has to be there to make this cultural change and it has to start with the fire chief”, he went on to say. I was so excited to hear that one statement come out, I could have turned flips. Problem being was the next question, “How do we change the attitudes of individuals who don’t see this as a problem”?

There are many attitudes about hundreds of topics in the fire service. But why are there still attitudes when it comes to the safety of fire personnel. Unlike other public safety professionals the fire and rescue service is charged with the responsibility of protecting people and property from the ravages of fire and other hostile forces – both man made and natural. Who is going to protect us with acts like, failing to wear your seat belt going on? We are our own worst enemy when it comes to safety. Failure to be safe is a human act… ATTITUDE!!! It seems that when a firefighter is seriously injured or killed, the fire service does little to promote positive action to prevent a reoccurrence. The message spreads quickly of a fallen comrade, but the lesson is slow to follow and is seldom learned. How do we make the changes in these attitudes?

One area of this is the line of duty deaths that occur as a result of motor vehicle accidents. It has been shown repeatedly where the “Need for Speed” is not relevant in most cases. Now, I am not advocating that we not expedite our responses but the difference between 65 mph and 55 mph is a drastic difference when you look at the handling of a 48 1/2-foot long ladder truck that weighs 73,500 pound or a large apparatus weighing 45,000 pound. The laws of physics show a drastic difference in the stopping distances not to mention the external forces that affect the apparatus. Additionally we need to remember we don’t have a hedge of protection around us in vehicles and we must buckle up! In most states it is the law and guess what, we are not special or immune from any of the dangers associated with motor vehicle crashes. Attitude wise, we just think we are!

Time is long over due for the fire and rescue services to actively and seriously address the firefighter safety issue. Too often we tend to take a cosmetic approach rather than getting to the root of the problem. We treat the symptoms and rarely the cause.

The fire and rescue services, at all levels, must rise to meet this challenge. This means doing what is necessary to turn around the seemingly apathetic or complacent attitude about safety which prevails in the fire service today. At this point you may be saying to yourself that the fire service is safer today than it ever has been. This may be true, but times change and we are playing catch up!!! Although technology is a necessary ingredient in the safety recipe, it is not the most important. This is where I feel a lot of professionals are missing the point. Sure we are dressed well today and our equipment and apparatus are safer. This aspect is of the utmost importance and is a portion of the recipe. This is the portion that is most often not left out. Where we are lacking is the ATTITUDE of both management and the firefighter or at least a safety conscious attitude. Most fire service personnel have plenty of attitudes, just that they are far too often focused on the wrong things. I can’t understand why a firefighter would have an attitude problem with safety since it is there own lives affected. Further, I absolutely can not see where a leader, fire officer or management position could not constantly be focused on the right attitudes about everything, especially SAFETY.

Over the past two years the firefighter safety stand down has taken the fire service by storm with progressive departments. However, there are departments across our great nation that have not even heard of this program, even with all of the efforts made this past year by the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation. Every attitude in the fire service needs to be focused on the concept of “having the courage to be safe”.

As a Fire Chief and as a member of the fire service, I want to challenge each and every individual across the United States to change there attitude. I know I am asking for the world here folks, but we have got to loose the 100 years of tradition unimpeded by progress mentality. We have got to change and we have to do it NOW! Line of duty deaths are nothing to be proud of.

I challenge you to help me and other fire service leaders make that attitude change? How do we do this you ask? Start by being safety minded in everything you do. Take the 16 Life Safety Initiatives, developed by the Fallen Firefighters Foundation, and look at your own department to see how you are measuring up. If you are falling short, MAKE CHANGE!!! Focus on making cultural changes in how you operated and conduct daily business. Take aggressive actions to identify and correct actions that are unsafe. Make Everyday a training do “SO THAT EVERYONE GOES HOME”…there families are counting on you.
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