Testing Situational Awareness and Consequences

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Firemind is an online training too aimed at supporting and enhancing the abilities of fire and rescue personnel. In order to do their job, they must be able to effectively make decisions, which requires a very good understanding of the situation (situational awareness). This awareness requires a good amount of correct information from the situation (Arendtsen, 2017). A lack in situational awareness can have horrific consequences, especially in critical occupations. In July 1994, fourteen fire fighters lost their lives as a result of an overpowering wild fire in the South Canyon Colorado, when it suddenly changed direction (due to strong winds) (cited in; Sallis et al, 2013). It could be suggested that a lack of situational awareness led to these firefighters losing their lives i.e. overlooking weather forecasts. Situational awareness can be defined as “one’s ability to remain aware of everything that is happening at the same time, and to integrate that sense of awareness into what one is doing at the moment” (Haines, 1992). Situational awareness can be split into two; actual situational awareness, which is the actual accuracy of a person’s SA compared with the actual truth. The second is perceived situational awareness, this is the persons awareness of their own SA, (Sallis, 2013). If actual and perceived situational awareness are not the same, an individual is likely to make mistakes in a difficult situation. There are many reasons why this may occur, however, this article focuses on the brains inability to be able to attend to lots of different information at the same time, therefore oversights when making decisions is likely. Kahnemen (1973) states that within the brain there is some sort of limited capacity central processor. This processor is responsible for analysing incoming information and integrating it with information already held in memory. and perceived situational awareness. Actual SA is the actual accuracy of the achieved SA compared to the actual truth.

Whereas perceived SA is the persons awareness of their situational awareness, (Sallis, 2013). If perceived SA and actual SA are not the same, an individual is likely to make errors when faced with a difficult situation. There are many reasons why there may be a gap between the two. This article focuses on the brains inability to be able to attend to lots of different information at the same time, therefore oversights in decision making is a likely outcome. Kahnemen (1973) states that within the brain there is some sort of limited capacity central processor. This processor is responsible for analysing incoming information and integrating it with information already held in memory. Broadbent (1954) puts forward the idea of bottleneck theory of attention, this states that only a small amount of sensory information will pass through this bottleneck, and filtering out some sensory information on the basis of simple characteristics i.e. location of sound, so that most incoming sensory information receives no conscious processing at all. This is supported by Engel (1971) who puts forward the idea of attention tunnelling; whereby if attention is focused on a limited area, stimulus outside that area receives relatively little attention.

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This leads onto bias which Sallis et al (2013) identifies as the way that people select certain information from what is available. Catherwood et al, 2013 identifies an “information bias” whereby individuals make decisions, but do not use all available information, causing them to make errors. Under pressure individuals making decisions may show one of two bias patterns. Arendtsen et al (2016); firstly, they may “zoom in” on a narrow amount of information, therefore only using a small portion of what is available to them. Secondly, they may “zoom out” and try to look at a wide amount of information, but will only be able to do this on a superficial level.

These biases may occur for a variety of reasons; however, the most likely factor is the limitations within the brain and processing systems. As humans, we do not have to ability to process everything, there has to be a limit to how much we can process at a particular time. Posner (1980) refers to this as “attentional spotlight”, whereby each individual has an attention spotlight which illuminates only a small part of the visual field, everything within this field receives priority processing, and information outside it does not receive immediate processing so may be overlooked. This is a good example of narrow bias; whereby an individual may overlook important information because they are focussed elsewhere. This would pose a problem for firefighters, as all information about surroundings must be processed before decisions can be made, in order to avoid unnecessary dangers i.e. Colorado wildfire.

Eriksen and Murphy (1987) identify this spotlight as a zoom lens which suggests that attention focusses tightly on a narrow area, or broadened over a wider area. This suggests that an individual can only pay little attention if they are focussing on everything around them. If the scope is too wide an individual will treat all information as equally important, making them just as likely to make errors, as when using a narrow scope bias.

Several studies have been conducted to demonstrate bias within situational awareness; Simons and Levin (1998) conducted a study in which participants were approached by a by someone asking for directions on a map. When participants were looking at the map people carrying a door walked between them, here the original experimenter switches with someone else. Despite looking completely different only about half of participants noticed the change. This study exemplifies the ideas put forward by Posner (1980); Eriksen and Murphy (1987); Engel (1971), that when we are paying attention to a specific piece of information, all other information around us has to wait to be processed. All of the above studies suggest that humans in general are unable to process large quantities of information at the same time. This is where a situational awareness test like Firemind comes in. As stated previously it is used to train, support and enhance abilities of fire personnel, in order to have a better level of situational awareness. This study has further looked into the use of Firemind situational awareness tests (focussing on bias), and comparing those scores with a stroop test; another method of attention allocation (Stroop, 1935). It is aiming to investigate whether how well an individual does in a stroop test can predict how well they perform on a situational awareness test.

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