Meta Awareness

Meta Awareness

Developing and maintaining situational awareness at an emergency scene can be a very challenging task. Scenes are often stressful, complex, time-compressed, and complicated with rapidly-changing conditions. Police officers have lots of information to process and many tasks to perform. And, sadly, situational awareness isn’t always front-of-mind. Under such conditions, meta awareness may help.

Awareness About Awareness

Meta awareness is a term we derived from the work of developmental psychologist, John Flavell, who coined the term “metacognition” to describe a phenomenon where a person has cognition about cognition or, stated another way, they are thinking about what they are thinking about. Applied to situational awareness, the term “meta awareness” would mean you are actually (in a conscious state) thinking about your situational awareness.

As noted previously, it may not be intuitive (or automatic) for police officers to be consciously thinking about their situational awareness while fulfilling all their duties and responsibilities during an emergency response. If an officer is able to elevate awareness to the conscious level, then it (awareness) becomes as important in the mind of the officer as anything else they may be doing or thinking about.

How to Use Meta Awareness

Before we go down the path of how to develop meta awareness, it may be appropriate to offer a working definition of situational awareness.

Situational awareness is:

An individual’s ability to perceive information (clues and cues) about what is happening in his or her environment and to understand the meaning of those clues and cues (in the context of how time is passing). And then, be able to make accurate predictions
about future events (in time to avoid bad outcomes).

Meta awareness is a purposeful focus (at a conscious level) of how you are developing and maintaining your situational awareness. One way you can accomplish this is by employing “self-speak”.

 

Intrapersonal Communications

Do you ever talk to yourself?  Of course you do. We all do. This internal, personal dialog is known as intrapersonal communications or “self-speak”. Self-help gurus teach their clients to use positive self-speak to maintain a conscious awareness of what is important or what to focus on in order to accomplish goals. The same concept can be applied in the formation and maintenance of situational awareness.

An Example

Here’s an example of how meta awareness can help in forming and maintaining situational awareness. The scenario I will use is a police officer in a high speed pursuit. I will play the role of the police officer and share how I would deploy self-speak:

Ok, Drew. Remember your acronym B-R-E-A-T-H-E take a breath to keep calm (breathe in for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds, out for 4 seconds, pause for 4 seconds).

My situational awareness starts with perception. I must conduct a size-up to gather factual information about what is happening. In my 360-degree size-up I am going to use my eyes and ears to gather clues and cues. The most important pieces of information I need to gather include:

  1. What crime was just committed?– Was this a crime of violence? Or just a simple property crime in which a vehicle was stolen?
    2. Environment – Is it nighttime or daytime? What’s my backdrop look like if I have to shoot? What are traffic conditions?
    3. Can I use a PIT maneuver – Does the crime warrant a PIT maneuver? What does my policy state? Can I ram the vehicle?
    4. Speed – How fast are we traveling? Are other agencies putting out spike strips? How fast are conditions changing?
    5. Policy – Is there a supervisor on that can shut this pursuit down? Am I the senior officer on and have to make the call? What does my policy state?
    6. Resources – What is the quality and quantity of resources I have available to me at this moment in time? Are there other agencies that can assist or am I solo?

I need to use this information to form my understanding of what is happening to help me make an action plan. (pause and think).

 

Now it’s time to make some decisions:

Critical Decision #1: Should I PIT the vehicle? If I have another agency with me this might be the best situation as quickly as possible.

Critical Decision #2: Should I follow for a while to look for the best place to stop this vehicle?

Critical Decision #3: Do I disengage?  If so, I need to completely stay out of the pursuit and listen to my supervisor and announce on the radio I have terminated.

Now it’s time to predict future outcomes:

Benchmark: What do I expect to be the outcome of my action plan?

Deadline: What is a reasonable deadline to accomplish this benchmark? (With consideration to #1-6 above.)

How much time should it take for the benchmark to be achieved? (The answer to this takes into consideration the critical factors mentioned above: Crime, Environment, Speed, PIT, Policy, Resources).

Only after I have completed this process will I take an action. While it seems like it would take a long time to work through this process, it really doesn’t. This can be accomplished in 1-2 minutes, depending on how long it takes to complete the size-up. Of course, the more you practice this process, the better (and faster) you’ll be at completing it.

 

Drew Moldenhauer’s Advice

There are many barriers that will try to impact your ability to form and maintain situational awareness – pre-arrival lens, task fixation, mission myopia, stress, urgency, culture, and peer-pressure (to name a few). There are multiple stimuli competing for your attention as well – your partner/other officers looking for orders, radio traffic to be answered, civilian issues to be addressed, etc.

 

On top of all of this, there is a high speed pursuit happening – saving lives and property and ensuring officer and citizen safety. With consideration for the complexity of an emergency scene, it can be easy to lose track of critical information and it can be easy to forget just how important developing and maintaining your situational awareness is.

Talk to yourself and use meta awareness to help you develop and maintain your situational awareness. Of course, it’s also a great idea to talk with fellow officers about the same criteria. This helps ensure the team is on the same page.

Action Items

  1. Discuss how police officers can use intrapersonal communications to help form and maintain situational awareness.

 

  1. Practice using self-talk (out loud) during training sessions.
  2. Make a habit of asking fellow officers: “What’s on your mind?” as a way to encourage them to share their self-speak.

 

Written by:

Drew W. Moldenhauer, M.S, has 15 years of Law Enforcement experience with two police organizations in Minnesota. Some of the titles he has held in his tenure are Active Shooter Instructor, Use of Force Instructor, Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Instructor and Field Training Officer. He is currently a full-time licensed police officer that works part-time with the City of Osseo Police Department. He holds a Master’s Degree of Science in Public Safety Executive Leadership from St. Cloud State University. He is a Certified Master Instructor for Situational Awareness Matters and has a passion for training his clients on this very important subject.

Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, CSP is widely considered a trusted authority on human factors, situational awareness and the high-risk decision making processes used in high-stress, high consequence work environments. He served 33 years on the front lines as a firefighter, EMT-Paramedic, company officer, training officer, fire chief and emergency incident commander.  His doctoral research included the study of cognitive neuroscience to understand how human factors flaw situational awareness and impact high-risk decision making.  He is the founder and CEO for Situational Awareness Matters, a teaching and consulting organization located in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  He can be reached at [email protected].

B-R-E-A-T-H-E

B-R-E-A-T-H-E

We know from previous articles that situational awareness is the ability to perceive and understand what is happening around you while being mindful of time passing, and then being able to accurately predict future events in time to avoid bad outcomes.

This is very important when it comes to conflict management and de-escalation as well.  As a young-police officer I didn’t know the proper ways to de-escalate situations and I had very poor situational awareness.  I wasn’t able to read people’s body language and perceive what it was telling me.  I often used attack words such as “calm down!” or “come here!” while using my fingers to motion them to walk towards.  Unbeknownst to me, this was actually having the reverse effect.  I wasn’t de-escalating the situation. I was actually escalating the situation.

It took me several years on the job as a patrol officer to recognize people’s body language and then to deploy empathy to de-escalate the situation. I learned how to understand what makes people upset during a crisis situation. Often, I was the first face they saw.  I don’t think they were intentionally displaying anger toward me. They were simply upset and not thinking rationally. Deploying good de-escalation techniques and conflict management skills can save your life.

To help, I developed a process (and an acronym) police officers can use to help gain compliance and maintain good situational awareness.  I call it the B-R-E-A-T-H-E technique.

Breathe: Take a couple of slow, deep breaths to relax yourself while using your perception skills. Breathing can help calm you down and allow you to think rationally and rational thinking is critical to good decision making.  What is the person you’re dealing with telling you, both verbally and non-verbally?  Controlled breathing can help reduce the undesirable effects of stress (e.g., tunnel vision) and relax your mind to think logically.

 

Recognize: Be vigilant of what’s happening around you while being mindful of how time is passing.  What’s being discussed?  Have you seen this situation before?  For example, does the suspect you’re dealing with have his/her hands in their pockets and won’t take them out?  Is your red flag warning sign going off?  By recognizing a situation like this, you can keep yourself safe and rely on training.  By recognizing the danger signs (clues and cues) you’re displaying good situational awareness.

 

Examine: Is this an emotional situation or logical situation?  Is this person you’re trying to de-escalate in a logical state of mind or are they highly emotional and possibly in a crisis situation?  I can remember some people coming into our lobby of the police department very agitated because they just received a parking ticket.  I examined them and determined they were in an emotional charged state and not thinking logically.  It’s a good idea to empathize with people in this situation and repeat back to them what they’re saying by using good active listening skills. Empathy can calm the emotions.

Abstain: Restrain yourself from engaging in conflict or from making a quick, irrational decision. Again, take your time and don’t rush the situation. Like most problems to be solved, slowing the pace and allowing some time for emotions to settle down usually leads to better decisions and better outcomes.

Think: Think of your course of action. Restrain yourself from engaging in conflict or a quick irrational decision.  This is very tough to do. Like many officers, I have struggled to restrain myself many of times. And when I failed to properly restrain myself, it usually led to a physical confrontation, which could have resulted in me getting hurt or becoming the subject of legal action.

 

Stressed brains revert to basic human instinct, of which the foundation is survival.  This can trigger an automatic fight or flight response.  When an officer is under severe stress and the fight or flight kicks in, the officer no longer has conscious control over their response. And this is where things can go wrong quickly.  Take a second to breathe and try your best to not let the person you’re dealing with trigger your emotions.  They are behaving emotionally and having an emotional response. You’re the one that needs to have a calming presence and be the voice of reason. Think ahead of the situation and predict where it could go and how you can prevent a bad outcome.

 

Handle: Take care of the situation in a calm and professional manner.  As police officers, we are trusted by the public to display a calming presence.  We must show we can handle the situation professionally. If we don’t, the situation can spin out of control quickly and use of force may escalate.  Under extreme stress, we can experience multiple barriers that can impact situational awareness and performance, including tunnel vision (narrowing of our visual field), auditory exclusion (going deaf) and loss of fine motor skills.  We will perform best when we remain calm. We can practice controlling our stress by practicing de-escalation techniques during realistic scenario-based training.

 

Examine: After an encounter, ask yourself what went well? How can you perform better in the future? Debriefing is so important in everything we do.  We will be well-served to identify opportunities where we can improve our conflict management and de-escalation skills.  As police officers we know that every call is different. With experience we become better at reading people and improve our situational awareness skills over time. Building scenario-based verbal de-escalation training into your annual use of force training can be very beneficial.

 

 

Everyday life:

De-escalation is very important in everyday life.  Whether we’re talking with our co-workers, a significant other, or our kids, good de-escalation techniques are extremely valuable.  Learn how to recognize when someone is in a highly emotional state and not thinking rationally.  Good de-escalation techniques can help save relationships and prevent destroying friendships and marriages.

The next time you see someone in a highly emotional state and not thinking rationally don’t tell them to CALM DOWN!  This never works.  Instead use good active listening skills and say something like: “I just want to make sure I’m hearing you correctly. Is this what you’re telling me (fill in the blank).” This shows you’re using good active listening skills and you’re repeating back what the person has said.

Discussions

  1. Share some examples where you have used de-escalation and conflict management skills.
  2. Discuss training your department has in place to incorporate de-escalation and conflict management strategies.
  3. Discuss how you can assist your partners if you notice they are struggling with these techniques.

 

Written by:

Drew W. Moldenhauer, M.S, has 15 years of Law Enforcement experience with two police organizations in Minnesota. Some of the titles he has held in his tenure are Active Shooter Instructor, Use of Force Instructor, Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Instructor and Field Training Officer. He is currently a full-time licensed police officer that works part-time with the City of Osseo Police Department. He holds a Master’s Degree of Science in Public Safety Executive Leadership from St. Cloud State University. He is a Certified Master Instructor for Situational Awareness Matters and has a passion for training his clients on this very important subject.

Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, CSP is widely considered a trusted authority on human factors, situational awareness and the high-risk decision making processes used in high-stress, high consequence work environments. He served 33 years on the front lines as a firefighter, EMT-Paramedic, company officer, training officer, fire chief and emergency incident commander.  His doctoral research included the study of cognitive neuroscience to understand how human factors flaw situational awareness and impact high-risk decision making.  He is the founder and CEO for Situational Awareness Matters, a teaching and consulting organization located in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  He can be reached at [email protected].