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Situational Awareness for Incident Commanders

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Hi all,

I am currently planning some RDS workshops on the above topics and wondered if anyone had any novel ideas on classroom sessions that you have used to good effect to make a fun interesting but thought provoking session ?

Any pocket drills or ideas gratefully received.

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Bob.....appliance positioning! probably the most common mistake which is incredibly difficult to undo once the handbrake goes on the first machine.

Have a look through youtube and the like to see how often this mistake is made!

Simple yet so effective

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Its an interesting topic to pick, Bob. 

Ive seen this discussed in the wider international community quite recently....

We all agree, im sure, that this an essential part of what we want from a commander....but what is it? how do we measure it? can it be taught?

Is it something we all develop through the years of attending incidents, or is it something some of us can do quite naturally very easily, because perhaps thats the way we are wired, while others struggle ? 

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I think the best training on situational awareness was one I received on my level 2 course. 

Essentially it breaks situational awareness into three distinct stages that you need to progress through.

Stage 1 is perception - you see something and that is the extent of your awareness - I.e you rock up and see a fire punching out of the ground floor of a restaurant with flats above. before you seek out any further information that’s all you’re aware of.

The second stage is understanding - you speak to the owner at that incident and he tells you that the fire involves a range of fat fryers, now you understand the fuel of the fire, what extinguishing media would be suitable to put it out, what the fire was caused by.

The final stage being prediction - further questioning about the building might reveal that the ducting system from the kitchen runs up through flats above. Now you’re thinking about what might be coming, where the fire might spread, and therefore you can put preventative measures in place and get out in front of it.

If I was holding a training session I’d take that approach and get the participants to apply it to different features of incidents - for example life risk:

  • stage 1 - someone shouting a fire that there’s people in there
  • stage 2 - understanding where those people are and how to rescue them
  • Stage 3 - identifying a casualty handling area for them to be brought out to, ensuring ambulance service are there ready to receive casualties. Getting the local authority out to find somewhere for the displaced residents to shelter after the incident is resolved.

Does that make sense? 

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Thanks for your replies it does make sense your example. I am trying to look at the fun element of it in that if you engross yourself in someone shouting fire you will not be aware of the whole picture of the incident and risking falling into a decision trap.

I have found plenty of PP's but I want to make the sessions enjoyable and for staff to leave with food for thought. If I make it too Fire Service generic I risk switching the RDS off and losing appetite for our workshops. 

I love dilemmas :)

I have researched this to death and interested in the research of  Sab Cohen - Hatten and her approach to decision making, but it is very difficult to find material or session plans. I wouldn't say no to some sessions with her though ;) 



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Something I used on a station I was at might be worth considering. It was a one pump station with limited training opportunities especially on the night shift and we had a crew manager on his development:

1) Syndicate work

I broke the watch into two teams and gave them a pack of information. They went to different rooms and read the pack. It had a photo of a commercial building, a plan of the building (at least 2 floors) and details of the nature of the premises, the nature of the business, staff, shifts etc - but nothing about risks.

The nature of the business would usually be based on a real address and could range from something bread and butter (jeweller workshop above a mini supermarket) to something a bit off the wall (a mental health unit with a residential 'wet' drying out unit on the top floor, residential eating disorder unit on the floor below and a MH day centre on the ground & basement) - and yes, that last example is based on a real headache of a building in London - now closed!

The most important part of the exercise was each syndicate had to list potential risks to fire crews and a list of initial actions/risks/resources etc  the IM should be considering.

Each syndicate would present their premises and write their lists up on a flip chart and white board. The other syndicate had to question everything and perhaps fill in some gaps that had been missed. On one session, one syndicate got a fire in a  newly built distribution warehouse at 2am. Nobody on site, no idea what the nature of the building was. The second syndicate had the identical warehouse a 2pm. The photo showed an 'Amazon' sign on the warehouse and had staff on scene to question. As you would expect, identical buildings and fire, vastly different lists of risk and considerations.

The sessions were always competitive and full of Mickey taking and joking - but good learning points. I would act as judge & award points to each team in various areas - it always ended in a dispute in relation to my controversial/mischievous marking methods!! 

2) Table Top Exercise

We extended the syndicate idea and used old Fire Certificate plans smuggled out of a fire safety department. Using the detailed plan and a childishly drawn road layout around the building on a white board, we walked through different scenarios. Don't forget, this was a one pump station, so just 4 or 5 playing at any one time. I rotated the roles around so the trainee would be Crew Manager on the first scenario - perhaps an AFA shout - and the real Crew Manager would be in charge for the last scenario which would be more complex. (I once through in a 'distress to wearer'as the stop was being sent!)

The incidents would always start from the station and would include seat belts, instructions en route, the actual route (if relevant) , risk register and on arrival tactics such as parking and DRM locations etc

I would throw in changes to the scenario if it was going to well and would act as the Responsible Person to provide information from the occupier upon request

Most of these table tops were buildings on or near our ground and some a long way off. Again, lots of humour, 'abuse' and silliness was injected and encouraged to oil the wheels of a potentially dry and boring training event

The aim of both sessions was to  give the development Crew Manager food for thought, help the watch support him or me at a job by reminding us if we had overlooked anything, and help everybody's DRA skills 

@Bob, I am not sure how useful they might be to the RDS workshops you are planning, but you might be able to cherry pick some ideas

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That's great, thanks Messy they are the sort of ideas/scenarios I need and can pick bits from to come up with a good session. I always had my little pocket drills and these are the sort of things I am after.

Much appreciated


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Thanks Becile I will take a look.

I am also heading down to the NFCC Ops Discretion conference if anyone is heading there on 22nd May. Would be good to put some faces to names. 


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Ok, If you do manage to free up your 24 I will be there with  Lancs Fire and Rescue, I have just put the paper through for 3 of us.

A really interesting debate and one which needs more clarity, as an Incident Command instructor I think we need to be clear what exactly Ops discretion is aiming to achieve. I do think it is misunderstood as a gap filler between procedures at the moment rather than for what it was initially intended of allowing an IC to move away from a SOP to meet the needs of an incident within the three criteria in rare or unforeseen events.  I attended the ICL2 in Nov and they confused me even more by adding the Risk v Benefit argument into the equation :( 


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I was under the understanding that if you stepped outside of a policy or procedure it was Ops discretion being applied. However on a recent visit to FSC this was deemed a DRA and an example of Greater Risk for the benefit of for example saving life. 

I was under the impression rightly or wrongly that Ops discretion was where a policy did not exist and you were required to adopt a procedure to meet the needs of the incident subject to the 3 criteria. I am starting to overthink this and need clarity on my own thoughts with this to enable the discussion when delivering IC training.

My example at the minute is : Using a rope pack and not enough staff to use a safety line you would not commit an individual over the edge ?  would you wait until resources arrive and then deploy with the full SSOW in place ? I am finding people are using this for Stage i to Stage II and using Ops discretion as a rationale for using 2 ECP's with insufficient crewing/support to meet the SOP, that IMO does not meet the criteria for Ops Discretion, there is a policy and an IC is operating outside of it to meet the needs of an incident without putting the correct SSOW in place. 

I am happy for people to provide better examples of Ops Discretion and Risk V Benefit  and provide seem clarity on the two. I am attending the NFCC conference to help clear up the inconsistencies and probably in my case mis-understanding of what Ops discretion is and how it should be applied. 



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Situational awareness is a person’s perception and understanding of the situation they face. It includes their anticipation of what the situation may become, including the impact of their actions. For an incident commander, it is their perspective of the scene of operations.

This situational awareness, or mental picture of the incident, is the foundation for the incident commander to formulate a plan of action. On the basis of this understanding, the commander will assess risk and make decisions, identify and prioritise objectives and develop an incident plan. The commander will also look ahead and consider how an incident will develop and also predict the consequences of actions.

Maintaining good situational awareness of the incident is a critical skill. Incident commanders need to have the ability to build an accurate mental picture of the situation. They need to
be able to do this in challenging, dynamically changing and high pressure circumstances, sometimes with incomplete or inaccurate information.

A person’s mental picture of an incident is like a jigsaw, made up of many sources of information interpreted as a single view.

Ops discretion relates to rare or exceptional circumstances where following an operational procedure would be a barrier to resolving the incident, or where there is no procedure that adequately deals with the incident. IC's need to know the policies, and the skills and qualities of their crew to justify this risk they include

  • saving life
  • prevent the incident from escalating
  • incidents where taking action may lead to others putting themselves in danger.

The over-arching principle should be that in the opinion of the IC the benefit of taking unusual or innovative action justifies the risk!

I would send a message over the main scheme that i was using ops discretion to time stamp my decision! The other important facet is that the actions you take are the minimum necessary to get the job done and for a limited time.

Benefit V Risk ...

Does the benefit of my actions justify the risk, happens every single time you make an operational decision.

I hope this helps Bob?

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Hi Ian,

I am happy with the definition of Ops Discretion and Risk v Benefit  and what each requires. I am more confused with placing this into an operational context.

As I said earlier in the thread I was happy with the criteria for Ops discretion and then FSC threw Risk v Benefit into the mix and its all become a little confusing.

I know the Foundation for Incident Command guidance well as its part of my role, I am more interested how and when people would apply this and what justification you would have.

It seems a huge grey area for me when we have previously been governed by clearly defined Service orders. Andy Bowers sought to clear up the definition of Ops Discretion but it seems to have become a default for an IC who wants to move away from a Service policy. 

I am sure I am overthinking this but to teach it I feel I need a greater grasp of what we are aiming to achieve by its introduction into the FICG.

O.o Rob

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Here is an example when I have used Ops discretion to my advantage

I had a car with one person in it trapped in flood water, the 2 crews I had with me were only level 1 water trained (throw lines PFD and not to enter fast flowing water) the level 2 crew were 10-15 minutes away, but en-route.

The man in the car now gets out and is washed about 50meters down the ford into the flood water and was now hanging onto a branch. 

I have a choice.....

  1. wait for the level 2 crew to arrive and then commit to water or 
  2. ask one of the level 1 crew responders with me to enter the fast flowing water without all of the usual SSOW in place to save a saveable life.

I had my command support notify fire control with this message.....

level 1 crew member entering fast flowing water to effect a rescue.

A couple of things

  • I knew the crew and their skills
  • Iknew the policies, i.e level 1 doesn't commit to water
  • I had a saveable life
  • If we didn't commit to water there was plenty of eager members of public who would have!

We committed to water and our man was successfully rescued! As soon as the rescue was complete no other level 1 responder was committed to water.  

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  • 1 month later...

Sorry Rob, missed your reply.

Yes, i think you are overthinking it a bit mate, as we all do i guess occasionally.

Risk vs benefit is relevant to DRA and ops discretion, 

Its just words though, the actions should be simple enough.  Happy to discuss further if you'd like.

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