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January 30, 2017

Importance of situational awareness process for emergency responders

MILWAUKEE ? Firefighters and EMS personnel learned and reviewed the critical steps to situational awareness and action for a safe and effective incident response at the Wisconsin EMS Association Working Together conference. Rom Duckworth, a fire captain, 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. 

Situational awareness (and action), according to Duckworth, follows six steps. The first step is to perceive by seeking and scanning for critical clues and cues. The second step is process to form a mental model from the critical clues and cues gathered during the seek and scan. The third step is to predict what will happen next if responders don’t intervene. The prediction is based on the mental model formed in the previous step. Use the prediction to decide in the fourth step and then in step five take action. The final step in Duckworth's situational awareness process is to communicate and coordinate.

Memorable quotes about situational awareness

Duckworth is a rapid-fire presenter with an engaging and entertaining presentation style. He mixed theory with quick group exercises and videos of actual incidents to inform the audience. Here are a few memorable quotes from the presentation.

"Situational awareness is knowing what's going on so you can figure out what to do. It involves perceiving, processing and predicting. Then doing something about it."

"For you to operate safely (as a firefighter), but effectively you need to understand what your role is in the incident."

"When you feel something isn't right, that's because something isn't right and you need to say something."

"People start doing unsafe things and they don't even realize it. Nobody wants to say anything to get anyone in trouble."

"Do not pick a strategy or tactic that is not going to change the outcome."

3 top takeaways on situational awareness for emergency responders

Duckworth delivered an information dense presentation on situational awareness. Here are my three top takeaways from his presentation.

1. Know and understand top causes of LODD

Duckworth opened the session by reminding participants of top contributors to LODD. Those contributors are:

1. Inadequate risk assessment
2. Lack of incident command
3. Lack of accountability
4. Inadequate communications
5. Lack of SOGs or failure to follow established SOGs

These contributors of LODD affirm the importance of knowing and practicing a situational awareness process.

2. Learn and practice situational awareness and action process

Duckworth gave attendees a six-step process, as well as other tools for communication, for situational awareness and action. Situational awareness and action, consistently applied, needs to be part of training, EMS responses, rescue incidents, fire alarms and working fires.

3. Failures to situational awareness are predictable

Duckworth guided the audience through a series of quick scenarios and on-screen experiments to identify predictable failures to situational awareness. Several photos and videos were used to show how peripheral vision, distraction and stress impact perception of change in an environment. Because of the limitations of cognition, especially when compromised by stress, failures in situational awareness are predictable. Knowing possible failures reinforces the importance of following and repeating a situational process.

Learn more about situational awareness

Duckworth's presentation is available on SlideShare or can be viewed in full below. Here are other articles to learn more about situational awareness.

About the Author

Greg Friese, MS, NRP, is Editor-in-Chief of He is an educator, author, paramedic, and marathon runner. Ask questions or submit tip ideas to Greg by emailing him at