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Fostering a culture of situational awareness

Despite ongoing improvements in fire rates and public safety, North American trends show injuries and deaths among firefighters are on the rise.

February 10, 2014 
By Martha Dow Len Garis and Larry Thomas

Despite ongoing improvements in fire rates and public safety, North American trends show injuries and deaths among firefighters are on the rise. A new study suggests that a greater focus on situational awareness – the ability to understand the environment, predict future problems and act effectively in a high-risk situation – may be the key to reversing this trend.

Situational awareness  
Situational awareness is a dynamic process characterized by fluidity, rapidly changing circumstances, peril and high stress. In research, it has been described as “being aware of everything that’s happening and could happen during your initial arrival on scene, initial and ongoing size-up, operational period, and overhaul and rehab period.”


Reframing Situational Awareness within the Fire Service Culture, which was published in September by the University of the Fraser Valley, examined the literature related to situational awareness (SA) with the goal of understanding how the fire service might improve the SA of its members.

In essence, the study indicates that the fire service must understand the nature of SA and address some of the core aspects of its culture in order to create an environment in which SA can be developed.


“Our purpose with this study was to take what we’ve learned from others about situational awareness and find a way to operationalize it,” said Len Garis, fire chief in Surrey, B.C.

“We realized it was important to tailor what we learned to our own organization’s beliefs, experiences, traditions and culture. Each organization’s experience with situational awareness will be unique.”

■ SA and decision making
SA is widely cited as a critical factor in preventing firefighter injuries and deaths during high-risk events, including close calls.

In the firefighting context, SA is a dynamic process characterized by fluidity, rapidly changing circumstances, peril and high stress. Situational awareness has been described in research as “being aware of everything that’s happening and could happen during your initial arrival on scene, initial and ongoing size-up, operational period, and overhaul and rehab period.”

At play are individual experience and skill level, and team-based inputs, including complementary communication and widely understood rules and responsibilities that are based on past experiences. Some of the key factors viewed as affecting SA include communication processes, continual size-up and auditory distractions.

As the fire service moves to develop training designed to enhance firefighters’ situational awareness, research indicates it must provide for fires that are increasing in complexity and speed, unexpected situations, and continually evolving scenarios, given that static training does not enhance SA. Further, providing realistic scenarios is critical for trainees to retain the lessons learned.

■ Fire-service culture
While the entire fire service cannot be painted with the same brush, some aspects of fire-service culture are universal. Some research suggests a relationship between some of the overarching causes of injuries and deaths and the fire-service culture; in other words, some fire-service traditions or aspects of the culture, far from developing SA, can have the exact opposite effect.

A high threshold of risk is built into the fire-service culture, reinforced both through a positive public image and through the service’s own traditions and member socialization. As an example, Garis noted that respecting leaders is inherent to the fire service. “This may result in someone not challenging leadership if they don’t think something’s safe, and the result could be catastrophic.”

The fire service needs to strengthen those policies and procedures that support safety in relation to building and maintaining SA, sound decision making and grounded risk/gain assessment. However, these discussions can be undermined by a perception that common sense and experience are more valuable than technical training.

■ Hyper-masculine orientation
The combination of being both a male-dominated and inherently dangerous field can lead to a culture in which certain risks are accepted as normal. Research indicates that traditionally, a firefighter’s self-worth comes from a combination of physical, technical and emotional competence, and that manual labour is valued over mental labour.

While a can-do attitude is essential for the tasks facing firefighters, it can also result in overconfidence in the safety of a given strategy.

■ Hero orientation
A key challenge to modernizing the fire-service culture, some argue, is to replace the hero orientation with one that is safety-centric. Conversely, it could be argued that extreme individual efforts and heroics are required amid a reality of limited resources and compromised roles, functions, operational steps and safeguards.

Research suggests the socialization of firefighters as heroes can result in greater risk-taking behaviour while feeding an expectation of that behaviour from the public. This socialization is critical to the recruitment, training and integration of new members.

■ Veteran-centric milieu
The fire-service culture is shaped by a paramilitary and hierarchical structure and an emphasis on experience, which, in some cases, equates experience to expertise. This can affect SA during high-risk events in which the most experienced members – typically, those in command – may be unwilling to relinquish their influence even during situations in which they have no special knowledge or insight.

In this kind of environment, how do firefighters with less experience interrupt a flawed chain of command? Some research suggests that in moments of crisis leaders may place a greater emphasis on questioning and enabling members’ interpretations, and less on directing and controlling. Researchers Elizabeth Minei and Ryan Bisel, in their 2013 paper Negotiating the Meaning of Team Expertise: A Firefighter Team’s Epistemic Denial, proposed that teams be trained to recognize this dynamic in order to affirm the value of multiple perspectives from members and to suppress team tendencies to simplify decision making.

“We can learn something from high-level military organizations, like the British Special Air Service and the U.S. Navy SEALs, which create strategies to predict behaviour before they go into high-stress situations,” said Deputy Chief Larry Thomas of Surrey. “There is also value in after-action briefs following high-risk incidents, to help build our experience and knowledge about how we operate under stress.”  

While it is impossible to eliminate the unknowns present during emergencies, what is needed is a leadership structure and personnel who are highly and reliably skilled at navigating these unknowns.

It is important that the implications of the fire-service culture on safety be fully considered in the discussion about situational awareness within the fire service. Although extensive research links a safety culture with reduced injuries, a persistent incongruence persists in the fire service between the discussions about safety and the actual practice that relates to elements of its culture.

Further exploration of SA within the context of the fire service should consider the concepts of mindfulness (experiencing a given situation in a non-judgmental way) and heedless interrelating (when people who work together in dangerous contexts can make sense of their environment through communication while keeping in mind the potentially dangerous unintended consequences of their actions).

“We now have a greater understanding of the problem and some of its components,” Garis said. “The next step is to commission more work to explore how we can embed what we’ve learned into our members’ training, education and experiences.”

To read the full report, go to the reports and publications section at

Dr. Martha Dow is a faculty member in the Department of Social, Cultural and Media Studies at the University of the Fraser Valley.

Len Garis is the fire chief for the City of Surrey, B.C., a past president of the Fire Chiefs’ Association of BC and an adjunct professor in the School of Criminology and Criminal Justice at the University of the Fraser Valley. Contact him at

Larry Thomas is a deputy fire chief for the City of Surrey, with 24 years’ experience and is the manager for training with a background in science from Simon Fraser University.

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