Why we cannot leave our safety to luck

The video of a police officer who survived being hit by a train while pursuing a suspect provides an opportunity to review principles of situational awareness


Rom Duckworth, a fire captain and paramedic EMS coordinator, delivered the presentation, "Aware, Alert, Aggressive, Always: How to do your job effectively when things are trying to kill you" to an audience of EMS personnel, firefighters and officers at the at the Wisconsin EMS Association Working Together conference. Click here to view Duckworth's presentation, and for top takeaways, including predictable failures to situational awareness.

In late 1992 I was a young E-3 deployed to Mogadishu, Somalia, as part of the U.S. led Unified Task Force (UNITAF), in support of Operation Restore Hope. One day, I was searching for an access point to the roof of what remained of our embassy. I was in a hurry, frustrated, fatigued and focused on what was important to me at the moment.

After searching and not finding an access point for the roof of the embassy, I abruptly walked into the first office I saw, approached a group of men wearing brown T-shirts and asked: “Can you please tell me how to get to the roof.” It was the wrong decision.

The red flags were all there for me to process: the presence of distinguished-looking men who clearly held high rank, hanging maps and planning materials consistent with a command post, and the big one, a white paper affixed to the wall stating, “UNITAF/CC.”

In hindsight, it was likely my self-induced time pressure, frustration and myopic focus of attention that led to the words spoken to me by one of those men in brown t-shirts. That man, USMC Lt. General Robert B. Johnston, said, “Airman, let me educate you on situational awareness.”

What followed was a memorable one-way conversation that I remember with clarity almost 30 years later. I was informed that situational awareness is a person’s perception and understanding of the environment. I was also informed that a failure to maintain situational awareness leads to adverse outcomes. Lesson learned, sir.

Video: Officer hit by train during foot pursuit

A Georgia police officer responded to a burglary call. The officer’s body-worn camera records him locating the suspect as he walks on a set of railroad tracks. The officer is engaged in multi-tasking by simultaneously focusing his attention on the suspect, giving commands and talking to dispatch. In the same 20 seconds, the officer’s bodycam records the alarming sound of a rapidly approaching locomotive. The bodycam video appears to show the officer stepping just to the left side of the tracks before he is violently struck by the train.

The officer doesn’t remember much of the event, but after watching his BWC video stated, “I’m lucky to be alive.”

How could he not realize what was about to occur? I turn back to what Lt. General Johnston taught me all those years ago. Maintaining situational awareness is key to better decision-making, which in turn leads to better outcomes. Like my incident, the Georgia officer likely had some excitement or frustration as a stressor. Also, his limited attentional focus was more on the suspect and talking to dispatch than the approaching train.

In hindsight, we could reasonably say that prioritizing his attention on the train, even for a moment, might have changed the outcome. For instance, he might have seen the oversized plow attached to the front of the train, as well as the train’s approach speed. The resulting increase in situational awareness might have affected his decision to step just off the tracks instead of quickly stepping several feet away.

The Georgia officer survived, thankfully, and I wish him a speedy recovery. What happened to him could happen to anyone of us under similar circumstances. It doesn’t matter if you wear an EMS, fire, corrections or police uniform – we are all human beings with a limited capacity to process information. That limited capacity is stretched to the maximum when we operate in fast-paced, ambiguous environments. For our safety and the safety of the public, we should recognize these limitations and work hard toward maintaining situational awareness.  

Principles of situational awareness

Situational awareness has a significant history of study and application to a multitude of fields. There are many influences on situational awareness that range from individual capabilities, organizational influences, training, experience and teamwork. However, there is a real need to focus on how first responders maintain situational awareness from the perspective of individual field personnel, teams and organizations. Here are important considerations for each.

1. Situational awareness for the individual

  • Realize your limitations. Recognize when the incident or situation is moving too rapidly for you to perceive the changes. When faced with situations that are or becoming unmanageable: back out, ask for resources and re-engage when appropriate.

  • Do not become overly fixated upon one aspect of the environment. Attempt to keep up a degree of global awareness. If unavoidable, ensure you have adequate resources to watch for changes you may not perceive.
  • Use caution when engaging. Be mentally primed to look for changes in the environment. Seek out new information, assess that information, look for potential contradictory evidence and then act according to protocol.

2. Situational awareness for the team

  • Communicate, coordinate and confirm. The recommendations for individuals remain active for teamwork but require significant coordination and communication between team members. Confirmation of group understanding is vital when moving forward in more ambiguous and time-compressed environments.

  • Leadership is critical in a group environment. A single point of command and control helps to ensure vital oversight to ensure the team is functioning within the vision and mission of the organization.

3. Situational awareness for the organization

  • Clear direction. Establish a vision and mission that guides individual, team and organizational priorities. This will aid teams and individuals during in-the-field decision-making.

  • Real-world training. Provide adequate training for real-world situations that operationalize situational awareness at both the individual and team levels.
  • Culture guides decisions and actions. Create a culture that guides field decision making and ensure accountability. The culture includes proper risk assessment and prioritization of objectives.

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