Situational awareness in the fire service has several ranges of applications, from a firefighter’s personal size-up of the fireground to a state of hyper-alertness while on the scene of a shooting. The actual definition of situational awareness varies as well but it is defined in the fire service as a state of alertness involving perceiving, processing, and predicting the scene to prevent an unexpected incident from happening.
Research, studies, articles, and presentations about fireground situational awareness usually begin with showing how the topic is related to the main causes of fireground line of duty deaths. Some of the main contributing factors are:
- Inadequate fireground size-up
- Lack of incident command
- Poor accountability/communication
- Failure to recognize signs of pending collapse/extreme fire behavior
The need for situational awareness is obvious. Firefighters need to know what all sides of the fireground are as they arrive and begin their initial operations. This is first accomplished with the initial size-up description. Despite department differences and staffing levels this first descriptive report is usually done by the first arriving officer.
Some departments spell out how this first report is to be done in their standard operating procedures (SOP). They require the officer, at a minimum, to confirm the address, identify the type of construction, and state what is observed as far as any smoke and fire showing. Nuances in the SOPs may include that the officer states what the initial actions his or her company is doing and that he or she physically walks around the fire building, doing a 360, and describing conditions found on the other sides.
This report now paints a picture for all firefighters on the scene and arriving. This mental image helps to eliminate most of the unknowns until the firefighters arrive and go to work around and inside the burning house. This picture also enhances firefighter situational awareness, even for the firefighter who may not go around all sides of the house.
It is important to be situationally aware of what is reported in that 360-degree size-up. The house a firefighter enters may look like a one-story home in front, but it may be two stories in the rear, and the firefighter entering from the front may think they are on the first floor when they are on the second floor. Light smoke showing from a second-floor window may lead us to what may be thought of as the fire room, but a 360 report might state that it is a basement fire that has extended into the second floor. This added information now adds to the situational awareness that firefighters entering the home will be working above a significant amount of fire and with an increased risk of a floor collapse.
Regarding basement fires, this report and growing situational awareness may cause firefighters to alter their initial attack strategy. Instead of advancing the first hoseline through the front door, it may be repositioned to a side or the rear of the house where there is an exterior basement entrance.
Additional points from the 360 size-up that impact situational awareness are:
- Fences in the rear that may slow firefighters down and delay raising ladders.
- Window bars
- Exposed buildings or setbacks
- Trapped occupants
- Signs of impending collapse
- Signs of fire behavior that may affect firefighters operating inside
- Additional hazards such as live wires, pools, dogs, or delayed forcible entry
Each of these needs to first be observed and interpreted before being communicated to the incident commander and other firefighters on the scene. Their reporting affects operations and can help firefighters avoid severe injury or death. The problem is that sometimes these items are not noticed during the 360 size-up.
Training on reporting things that are not visible is difficult. You cannot walk around a house and describe something that is not there, such as fire coming from a first-floor window and extending into the second-floor window, or a person getting ready to jump from a window. Role-playing in front of an actual house or in a classroom with a photo of a burning building also does not capture the full effect of being on the scene and physically walking around a burning house.
Because we simply cannot burn down houses for training, firefighters must use training aids that can simulate as best as possible the most realistic fireground conditions to condition the mind and body. Most of the time this can be done in a fire academy setting with burn buildings designed to simulate a residential structure. Budget constraints limit many departments in their training on structures and burn buildings. The costs are quite large and range from setup, operations, decon, and cleanup, to the man hours involved in taking fire companies out of service for training and relocating companies to cover the area for those doing the training. There is also the cost due to injuries and time lost from work and overtime to cover the injured firefighter’s position.
To provide realistic training while keeping the physical and financial costs low some fire departments have turned to augmented reality training. This technology offers several possibilities to counter these costs:
- a safe environment with the 360-degree view
- create an accurate three-dimensional environment
- can be done anywhere and anytime
- reduce the risk of injury and equipment damage
- Keeps gear and equipment ready for actual emergencies
Forge is an augmented reality training system that provides firefighters with detailed and accurate simulations using real buildings, fully customizable, in a format that is safe, easy to use, and economical. Using Forge in situational awareness, size-up training allows the student to go through different scenarios, avoiding rote and expected challenges and answers, while capturing audio and biometric information and creating muscle memory.
Using Forge is simple. The student will don the AR headset and carry a handheld device. At 11 ounces the headset is among the lightest on the market and the handheld device is connected to a smaller device that the student will wear, much like a portable radio holder and strap. The AR simulation then places the student into the training simulation where they will actually move through the scene. The instructor can easily follow along with another headset or device. The system can also include multiple students in one simulation.
Imagine taking a company or shift of firefighters and giving each individual firefighter a different structure and fire scenario to see, interpret, and communicate, without leaving the firehouse – and doing it all in one day. Forge allows an officer or instructor to create scenarios and then review the outcomes to make sure that vital size-up information is helping paint a detailed picture for the needed situational awareness.