“Situational Awareness” is: “paying attention to what is going on around you.” How’s that for practical? It’s more than that, but the basic definition is the ability to scan the environment and sense danger, challenges and opportunities, while maintaining the ability perform tasks. In other words, to pay attention to your surroundings while performing your primary duties.

Understanding the Baseline

Awareness is a choice. One has to choose to pay attention. But once that choice is made, the part of the brain responsible for monitoring the senses, known as the Reticular Activating System (RAS) takes over. It switches filters on and off that will fulfill your subconscious desire to pay attention. By simply telling yourself to pay attention to certain things, the RAS will scan for and acknowledge those things when it encounters them.

There are three main obstacles to developing awareness. To understand the obstacles with awareness, lets define the most basic tenant of awareness: BASELINE. The concept of baseline states that our environment has a baseline, a consistent state of what things look like, sound like and feel like when nothing much is going on.

In the woods, this is reflective of the noise and activity level of the area when nothing much is happening. The normal state. For example, in the late afternoon, things are normally pretty quiet. The baseline is pretty flat. As we move into evening, the baseline changes a bit. Night feeding animals are coming out, day feeders are going in.

The increase in noise and activity is still the norm. It is louder and yet still within the realm of normal. Suddenly a predator appears. All the prey animals react. Alarm calls go out and the noise level suddenly spikes. This is referred to as a concentric ring of disturbance because it radiates out from the source.

Being able to develop awareness is dependent upon first knowing the baseline for the incident you are responding to and recognizing any variations to the baseline. These changes in baseline are learned from observation. One must know the baseline. One must recognize disturbances to the baseline and one must recognize if those disturbances represent a specific threat.

This requires knowledge of the fire environment. It requires that one recognizes hostile conditions and events. It requires one to see well beyond normal sight. For example, an aware person will notice things others may miss: a garage fire where welding takes place – possible pressurized flammable gas cylinders. Or a fire at an agricultural storage facility – possible presence of oxidizers used in fertilizers. It can be threats or potential threats. You must constantly monitor and assess. Over time, this becomes almost a background activity, requiring little conscious thought.

The key to great situational awareness is the ability to monitor the baseline and recognize changes.

Three Obstacles In Situational Awareness

1. Not Monitoring the Baseline. If you are not monitoring the baseline, you will not recognize the threatening conditions, or precursor events – these are clues. Hostile conditions don’t usually occur without observable clues.  A chain of observable clues will eventually lead to the hostile event that threatens life and property. One of the keys to personal and crew safety is learning to look for and recognize these clues. 

2. Normalcy Bias. Even though we may sense a precursor or condition that could be alerting us of danger, many times we will ignore the alert due to the desire for it NOT to be a danger. We want things to be OK, so we don’t accept that the stimulus we’re receiving represents a threat. We have a bias towards the status quo. Nothing has happened yet, so nothing is likely to happen. We do not ignore the clues, we dismiss them!

3. The third interrupter of awareness is what we define as a Focus Lock. This is some form of distraction that is so engaging, that it focuses all of our awareness on one thing and by default, blocks all the other stimulus in our environment. An example of this is when someone is texting and walks into a telephone pole. The smart phone is the single most effective focus lock ever invented. It robs us of our awareness in times and places where it’s needed most.  Another example is staring at the fire, when you should be reading the smoke.

Penn & Teller use Baseline, Normalcy Bias and Focus Lock to perform magic.

Three Effective Techniques To Stay Aware

1. Monitor the Baseline. At first, this will require conscious effort. But after a while, you will find that you can monitor the baseline subconsciously.

2. Fight Normalcy Bias. This requires you to be paranoid for a while as you develop your ability. Look at every precursor or condition to the baseline as a potential clue. This will allow you to stop ignoring or discounting precursors and conditions and begin making assessments of the actual risk. But as you learn, people will think you are jumpy or paranoid. That is OK. It’s a skill that will save your life.

3. Avoid distractions from focus locks. It is ok to text while you are sitting at your desk or laying in bed. But it’s NOT ok to text as you walk down a busy street with telephone poles.

Any time you see a clue, do a quick assessment, then stop looking at it and scan the rest of your environment to see what you’re missing. Look for the next clue.  Hostile events involve a chain of clues.

Developing awareness is a skill. At first it will seem very awkward and self-conscious, but with practice, it will become seamless and subconscious. You will start to pick up on more and more subtle clues and more complex stimuli. Eventually, people may think you are psychic as they notice how you seem to sense events before they unfold.

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