As I talk with my students in classes about the impact of distractions and interruptions on situational awareness, I find myself often being asked, “What’s the difference?” While there are distinctly different causes for distractions and interruptions, the outcome is often very similar…a reduction in situational awareness and the potential for a catastrophic outcome.

 

A distraction is something that draws one’s attention away from what they are supposed to be paying attention to, entirely unintentionally. For example, a police officer working at a scene might be distracted by a loud noise (e.g., an air horn, siren, a scream, or an explosion). This draws the officer’s attention to the source of the noise (though it doesn’t have to be a noise… it could just as easily be something visual or a smell). While the officer’s attention is focused on the sources of the distraction, however brief, their attention is drawn away from what they were giving attention to just prior to the distraction.

 

An interruption is something that draws one’s attention away from what they are supposed to be paying attention to, entirely on purpose. For example, an officer working at a scene might be interrupted by someone talking to them, by being called on the radio or by receiving a cell phone call. The interruption draws the attention of the officer away. However brief, attention is refocused on something new.

The reason distractions and interruptions are so dangerous for police officers are multiple fold.  First, emergency scenes are fertile ground for distractions and interruptions. There are often loud noises, bright lights, and lots of things to stimulate the visual and audible senses. Second, responders like to share information, and this is often done by radio or face-to-face communications. Each interaction is, without passing judgment on how important it may be, an interruption to the receiver’s thought process.

Every time a thought is disrupted by a distraction or interruption, the brain leaves one thought behind to pick up on the new one. When this happens, situational awareness is at risk because the return to the original thought may not be to the exact place where the thought was left. Or, even more dangerous, it’s possible the brain may never come back to the original thought at all, even though that original thought may have involved the performance of a critical safety task.

Drew Moldenhauer’s Advice

The best way to avoid the impact of distractions and interruptions is to reduce exposure to them. If commanding this incident, this can be accomplished by being physically remote from direct contact to those stimuli that distract and interrupt. This may mean commanding from a short distance away from the action or commanding from within a vehicle. Designate someone to answer phone calls for you if involved in a major critical incident.

Remember a radio transmission is an interruption. Try to avoid having the entire department drawn off task to listen to a radio transmission that may not even pertain to their assignment. And while consideration needs to be given to avoiding tunneled senses it is important to stay focused on the task.  Teach your new rookie police officers and staff to only use the radio when necessary.  This will avoid numerous distractions and interruptions.

Action Items

  1. Describe an incident scene where a distraction impacted your ability to stay focused on your task.
  2. Describe an incident scene where an interruption impacted your ability to stay focused on your task.
  3. What are some tips and tricks you use to control distractions and interruptions while operating on stimulus-rich emergency scenes?
  4. Are your supervisors located remotely or in the thick of the action? What have you observed about their ability to maintain situational awareness based on where they are located?

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 an Assistant Professor of Police Science and Leadership at Bemidji State University and is 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]