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”.
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.
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:
- 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.
- Discuss how police officers can use intrapersonal communications to help form and maintain situational awareness.
- Practice using self-talk (out loud) during training sessions.
- Make a habit of asking fellow officers: “What’s on your mind?” as a way to encourage them to share their self-speak.
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].