Fire Engineering Training Community

Where firefighters come to talk training

It’s more than just Size-Up; Situational Awareness and Dynamic Risk Assessment

Dynamic Risk Assessment is commonly used to describe a process of risk assessment being carried out in a changing or evolving environment, where what is being assessed is developing as the process itself is being undertaken. This is further problematical for the Incident Commander when confronted with competing or conflicting incident priorities, demands or distractions before a complete appreciation of all mission critical or essential information and data has been obtained. The dynamic management of risk is all about effective, informed and decisive decision making during all phases of an incident.

Situation Awareness, [SA], is the perception of environmental elements within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future. It is also a field of study concerned with perception of the environment critical to decision-makers in complex, dynamic situations and incidents. Both the 2006 and 2007 Firefighter Near-Miss Reporting System Annual Reports identified a lack of situational awareness as the highest contributing factor to near misses reported.

Situation Awareness (SA) involves being aware of what is happening around you at an incident to understand how information, events, and your own actions will impact operational goals and incident objectives, both now and in the near future. Lacking SA or having inadequate SA has been identified as one of the primary factors in accidents attributed to human error (Hartel, Smith, & Prince, 1991) (Nullmeyer, Stella, Montijo, & Harden, 2005). Situation Awareness becomes especially important in work related domains where the information flow can be quite high and poor decisions can lead to serious consequences.

To the Incident commander, Fire Officer or firefighter, knowing what’s going on around you, and understanding the consequences is mission critical to incident stabilization and mitigation and profoundly crucial in terms of personnel safety. The integration of Situational Awareness and Dynamic Risk Assessment is a mission critical element in strategic incident command management and company level tactical operations as we go forward into the next decade. Traditional incident scene size-up is antiquated and no longer appropriate or applicable to modern fire service operations.

Situational awareness is a combination of attitudes, previously learned knowledge and new information gained from the incident scene and environment that enables the strategic commanders, decision-makers and tactical companies to gather the information they need to make effective decisions that will keep their firefighters and resources out of harm's way, reducing the likelihood of adverse or detrimental effects.

According to a 1998 published Tri Data study report, "Situational Awareness is one of the most difficult skills to master and is a weakness in the fire community. The report goes on to state that "The culture must change so that [personnel] are observing, thinking, and discussing the situation constantly.” It’s all about implementing effective human performance tools; perceptions versus reality, expectations versus realization, comprehension and forecasting, informed decision-making and calculated and formulated risk.

It’s a whole lot more than just “Size-Up”. What do you think?

Views: 1076

Replies to This Discussion


Thank you for another great article

I completely agree that effective decision-making, especially in the early phases of a rapidly evolving/changing environment, requires the Incident Commander (IC), officers and firefighters to maintain situational awareness (SA). Easier said than done. This is further complicated by the fact that each of those members has a different perspective of the incident based on their location (inside, outside or on top of) and the task or tactic assigned. The IC must remain on the exterior in a “stationary” command position because they have to keep the big perspective in view and attempt to maintain an overall SA. The problem is that the IC, even with the best view has a limited perspective. He/she must rely on company officers, firefighters, safety officers and RIT/RIC to relay critical information from their perspective and based on their own SA to obtain and maintain the best perspective and overall SA. For example, an engine officer loses perspective as soon as they enter the doorway. The truck officer looses perspective once they ascend the ladder and step on the roof. The ability to obtain a more full and complete perspective and SA is only possible with a great deal of input from the various fireground perspectives and based on their individual SA and regular progress reports.

As you point out, the ability to properly assess ones SA is dependant on training, experience, attitude, culture and many other factors. Has our ability to correctly assess SA and to make timely, solid and informed decisions on the fireground decreased in relation to a steady decline in “fire duty”? Has the great turnover and loss of senior members over the past several years further eroded our ability to obtain and maintain SA? Can we effectively make-up for the lack of “real” experience in the classroom on the training ground and by reading books and watching videos?

Thanks again Christopher, your postings are always interesting and thought provoking.

Your last two sentences has some great and powerful insights related to the "big picture" that I'm certain most organizations have yet to come to grips with. Your ending comments would make for a great thread of discussion....." Has the great turnover and loss of senior members over the past several years further eroded our ability to obtain and maintain SA? Can we effectively make-up for the lack of “real” experience in the classroom on the training ground and by reading books and watching videos?"

Thanks for a great reply
I agree with both of you 100%. I honestly don't know if we can make up for the lack of real experience, but we must do our best, for our members. The question I have and I'm faced with regularly is, Where do we start trying to make up for real experience, when many folks BELIEVE we only do EMS, until a fire comes in and they do? This mentality reaches to the upper ranks at some depts in my little piece of the Fire Service. Ability to obtain and maintain SA, what's that? At times we take a step forward and 3 back.

Christopher, very thought provoking post! Makes me look for options, Thank You
many folks BELIEVE we only do EMS, until a fire comes in and they do? This mentality reaches to the upper ranks at some depts in my little piece of the Fire Service.
I see the same thing here too. I don't see any way to make up for the lack of true fireground experience, but continuous discussion and training and reviewing the many videos of others fireground experiences can get us about as close as we can.
The attitude of not not having time to do these things because we might be busy with whatever should be just plain unexceptable, but the unfortunate reality is that some of the upper bosses have made this claim and some of the younger members have bought it. I don't know the answer, if anyone does, let me know.
KTF and bring everyone home

Art you really hit the nail on the head. MY SA quality is DIRECTLY connected to my ability to obtain good information from my interior companies and my Safety Officer and visa versa. I have often modified my IAP based not on what I see but what I am hearing over the radio from my attack companies. I have also redirected interior attacks based on what I see outside that they can not. Communication is the key. 

As for your belief that the loss of older more seasoned personnel is effecting the fire service. It is well founded. My department is wondering the same thing. We have instituted "Mentering" and welcome back retired members to assist in training when possable but more often as of late when they leave the service its with a bitter taste in their mouth. Face it. We in the fire service have went from heros to zeros in 10 short years. The very same politicians that could not get enough of us in 2001 want to rip our pensions from us, replace us with bargan basement workers and make replacement of tired emergency vehicles a joke in 2012. Add to that the growth of light weight building construction and we face serious problems for the future. Were loosing well trained "Traditional Construction Fire"  firefighters and  facing a real shift in tactics for future firefighting.



Policy Page


Our contributors' posts are not vetted by the Fire Engineering technical board, and reflect the views and opinions of the individual authors. Anyone is welcome to participate.

For vetted content, please go to

Fire Engineering Editor in Chief Bobby Halton
We are excited to have you participate in our discussions and interactive forums. Before you begin posting, please take a moment to read our policy page. -- Bobby Halton

Be Alert for Spam
We actively monitor the community for spam, however some does slip through. Please use common sense and caution when clicking links. If you suspect you've been hit by spam, e-mail

FE Podcasts

Check out the most recent episode and schedule of

© 2022   Created by fireeng.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service