Frustration Can Impact Situational Awareness

Anyone who’s been frustrated knows it can consume a lot of your mental energy and thinking space. This can significantly impact your situational awareness. In fact, depending on the level of frustration, your brain can be hijacked by all-consuming thoughts about what is causing the angst. While operating at an emergency scene, frustration may draw your attention away from perceiving and understanding critical clues and cues that form situational awareness.

Some sources of frustration

There are many things that can cause frustration at an emergency scene. As I reflect back on my experience and conversations with police officers, I can offer this small list of sources of frustrations that can impact your situational awareness:

  1. Receiving incomplete or inaccurate information from dispatch about the nature or details of the emergency you are responding to.
  2. Delayed response times because of a train or traffic jam.
  3. Fellow police officers that did not know how to perform their jobs effectively (this includes not only technical job knowledge but also being physically unfit to perform the duties, causing a team member to fatigue quickly).
  4. Tasks not being completed as quickly as you expected your fellow police officers to complete the tasks, or tasks not being completed at all.
  5. Performing independent actions (i.e., freelancing). Police officers performing actions that are not consistent with the overall incident objectives, causing confusion and safety concerns.
  6. Police officers complaining about having to do their jobs, sitting on calls too long, or dodging calls.
  7. Inadequate equipment to get the task done efficiently or general lack of equipment or other resources.

With little effort, I am confident you could easily add to the list of things that have frustrated you from time to time while operating at incident scenes. And, if you’re being honest, you’d probably admit that your mind wasn’t completely on-task while you were pre-occupied with the frustrating issue or condition.

Tangible example

I can recall a good example of being frustrated when I was dispatched to a motorist assist in my city.  While enroute to the call my partner was dispatched to a property damage accident on the highway.  My partner got on the radio and said he was very close to my motorist assist and requested that we change calls.  I agreed with him, and we advised dispatch we would change calls.  I found out later that my partner had driven past his property damage accident, and it had multiple vehicles involved and included some commercial vehicles.  It was a huge mess!  I was so frustrated by my partner that I became very angry on my call and didn’t treat the people I was dealing with very well. I noticed my attention being drawn away from other critical tasks.

Drew Moldenhauer’s Advice

It can be very difficult to control your frustration at an incident scene, especially when expectations are not being met. If you find yourself becoming frustrated, and thus fixated on something happening, try these suggestions:

  1. Be mindful at all times of the role you are playing and how important it is for you to stay focused on your role for your safety and the safety of others.
  2. If the source of frustration can be set aside and dealt with later, delay addressing it at the incident scene. Of course, matters of safety should be addressed immediately to prevent harm to members and civilians.
  3. Employ a stress reduction breathing technique: Breathe in on a four-count. Hold for a four-count. Breathe out on a four-count. Delay your next inhalation for a four-count. This will cause a small increase in carbon dioxide levels in the blood and slow the release of chemicals that can hyper-focus attention. The old adage of “take a deep breath” has some merit.
  4. If you are in the command role, consider delegating the frustrating issue to a subordinate and let them resolve it. This will allow you to keep your focus on the important task of commanding the big-picture incident.
  5. If you must address the source of frustration, be courteous and professional and adopt a mindset of being helpful. Avoid confrontational language or demeanor (like using your frustrated, annoyed or agitated voice).

There is too much at stake if your situational awareness erodes as a result of frustration. And if your eroded situational awareness results in a casualty, you’ll be very disappointed in yourself that you yielded your awareness of your critical role to your frustration.

Action Items

  1. Discuss a time when your awareness was drawn off-task by a frustration.
  2. Discuss some strategies you have used to reduce the impact of frustration.
  3. Discuss strategies for addressing frustrating issues in ways that will not make matters worse.
  4. Find that person who always seems to be calm under pressure and ask them to share their best practices with you.


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].