Processing data to develop situational awareness

Rick Bondar and Hal Mortier on the Red Top Fire
Rick Bondar and Hal Mortier, members of the El Cariso Hotshots, on the Red Top Fire, Mendocino National Forest, 1972. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A website specializing in situational awareness for first responders, Situational Awareness Matters, has an interesting article about how the brain processes information from various senses to develop what it perceives to be the current environment. Below is an excerpt which follows a paragraph about what wildland firefighters call their “slide file”, memories of past experiences that can be called upon to understand what is going on currently, and used to predict what will occur in the near future:

…No one sets out to misunderstand what is happening while working in a high-risk, high consequence environment. Yet it happens… A lot! Can someone look at something and not understand what they’re seeing? Yes! Can someone hear something and not understand what they hearing? Yes! It doesn’t take a stressful environment for this to happen. But stress, coupled with the perception of consequence, compounded by the compression of time and a sense of urgency to act can accelerate your need to comprehend. This speeding up can lead the brain to take shortcuts.

These shortcuts, termed “Heuristics” are the brain’s way of trying to help you survive in a perceived hostile situation by taking limited amounts of information and, for lack of a better metaphor, jumping to conclusions. The good news is your brain is pretty good at this task. If it weren’t, we’d probably be extinct as a species. The more stress you’re under, the more heuristics may guide your assessment of the situation and influence your decision making. The problem is, while your brain is very good at making quick assessments and applying these “rules of thumb” to guide your decision making, it is not flawless. It compares current inputs to past experiences and, with lightening speed, guides you to comprehension. When it’s right, you accurately comprehend. When it’s wrong, you misunderstand. The problem is, you may not know whether you comprehend or not until after your decision is made and the outcome is revealed…

That excerpt is from Part Three of a three-part series. More information can be found in Parts One and Two.
Thanks and a hat tip go out to Barbara.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

One thought on “Processing data to develop situational awareness”

  1. We have started incorporating some some of Dr. Gassaway’s teachings in the refresher and basic class. I think it is damn good stuff.


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