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We are well aware of the fact that fire behavior is heavily influenced by many factors; ventilation, construction, wind, fuel loading. The fact is that there are just as many if not more variables and factors at work on human behavior as there are in fire behavior. The ignorance begins when we watch a video and believe that those at work on the screen are in the same frame of mind as we are at our desk. Only when we consider these influences, couple them with the presented conditions can we begin to properly frame the situation we watch unfold as we settle in for the 2D firefight.

Lt. Col. Dave Grossman speaks on the videotaping of lethal threat engagements for police officers from On Combat:

“Video tape cannot record perceptual distortions:

  • Videotapes don’t capture diminished sound. “What do you mean you didn’t hear the shots?” the critics and investigators ask. “There it is on the videotape. You must be lying.”
  • The videotape cannot capture tunnel vision. “What do you mean you didn’t see him? He’s right there in your field of view. You must be lying.”
  • The videotape cannot capture autopilot effect. “Why did you do that?” they ask, and you tell them to study your training because you did exactly what had been drilled into you. Will they understand the procedure?
  • The videotape does not capture the preservation effect that is a normal, fear induced response to a deadly threat.
  • Nor can videotape capture memory distortions that are products of perceptual sets and past associations. “Wait a minute. First you said this happened, but now you say that it didn’t. Why did you lie the first time?

Since we can expect critics, investigators, juries and judges to use videotapes to play Monday morning quarterback and second guess the actions of warriors in the heat of battle, it is vital that they be informed about what happens to warriors under such incredible stress so they understand the limitations of videotaping.” (Grossman 2008)

The video camera will never capture the effects of stress beyond the visual clues in faces and body language or the tones of voice. You are a human, built of emotion and cognition; with some education on the physiological and psychological effects of stress on our body’s senses you may begin to see the scene with a more accurate lens. With that said, if all you seek is to critique you might as well just remain a critic. If you seek to learn you must become a student and “you need to prepare your mind for where your body may have to go” (Lim 2008).

Doctor Alexis Artwohl and Loren Christensen conducted research on a pool of 141 police officers who were engaged in a lethal threat situation. Some of the research was targeted at the effects of hormonal induced stress and perception. For the purpose of keeping things concise I will just present the distortions which were reported over 50% of the time.

A person with a permanent disability must receive accommodation by law. Our firefighters, operating under physical and psychological stressors are experiencing temporary disabilities which may make the difference between life and death for a civilian or one of our own and we are ignoring it.

click on the image for improved viewing

Hormonal stress and auditory exclusion is never considered to be the reason a radio transmission is missed. How many times have you heard these statements? “Why won’t those guys listen?” “They are ignoring me!” “These dam radios.” 85 percent of the officers involved in these situations reported experiencing auditory exclusion. Is it reasonable to believe that on a working fire we could expect that we would experience a similar percentage? We are not faced with a gun or a knife but a police officer is not wearing a hood, breathing air from a mask with a standing background noise of saws and pumps. In preparing this article I contacted Ric Jorge a fire instructor in Florida who has been conducting “Impact” stress inoculation training for firefighters. In a recent email from Ric he had this to offer regarding auditory exclusion in the situations he places students. “What I observed in our classes was that while there was a lot of noise, when the vision was obscured some students reported it seemed louder. So maybe when you exclude one of the senses like vision it enhances others. This would explain why we do not hear our radios with all the other noises inside; people talking loudly to be heard through their masks, the fire, saws, diesel motors, pumps, other crews working.”(Jorge 2012)

Tunnel vision and visual clarity appear closely connected so I will provide definition. The body’s natural survival response has been referred to as “fight or flight”; in the fight mode your response focuses on the threat. The 80% of officers who reported experiencing tunnel vision describe just that; their vision thoughts and actions were intensely focused on the threat and not at all on their surroundings. The visual clarity is probably best described as magnified tunnel vision. Of the officers who reported visual clarity one stated that he could describe in great detail, a ring on the hand holding a weapon drawn on him. Another officer described being able to see the bullets in the cylinder of a revolver over 12 feet away. Once again I believe that there are some direct parallels which can be made to our service that may improve our understanding of how much situational awareness is truly possible. We should expect that our firefighters will experience tunnel vision and rather than wave a magic wand of situational awareness and think that it will disappear we should work towards training firefighters through the experience and condition them to recognize the signs and work out of it. Once again Ric provided an example from a student involved in the impact training. “During one of our burns the attack line nozzle man was repeatedly told fire was overhead and behind him. In the post incident analysis he said he had heard us but was so intensely focused of the fire in front of him he felt he could not move he said he was “frozen in place”, those are his words, pretty interesting huh? He had to be grabbed by the pack and pulled backwards, forced to move. Once that occurred he was fine.” (Jorge 2012)

“Whatever you train to do comes out the other end” (Grossman 2008). Just as many of our body’s responses are subconscious our training can also become subconscious and in 74% of the officers interviewed they reported their actions to be on autopilot. The difference between the officers reporting the feeling of autopilot versus taking the lesson to the grave is in the correctness and the quality of the training. It is easy to point the finger at the performer because those who were responsible for their training and preparation may not be visible. On April 6th 1970 in Newhall, California 4 California Highway Patrol Officers were killed in a gun fight with two armed individuals that lasted less than 5 minutes. This tragic incident unfortunately brought to light so many failures in training and equipment that it ultimately changed policies and procedure for law enforcement officers worldwide. The slain officers were found with spent shell casings in their pockets due to the fact that “in training” there were strict rules to “collect your brass” on the range. Lack of standardization in weapon selection allowed officers to select their own guns none of which were equipped with the ability to be “speed loaded” in such a shoot out situation as they encountered. Over 40 years ago and the fact that it is such a dramatic example of auto pilot is still being used to institute change. A police department recently cited this incident to demonstrate the need for flexi cuffs (pre-rigged zip tie restraints) to a city council which opposed the equipment due to potential for injury to suspects. The department presented the fact that the restraints can be deployed quickly, do not require fine motor skills and can be trained into muscle memory. The next time we jump to comment on the deployment of a hand line or the lack of an SCBA in a video consider that the puppet on the end of the string. Maybe his or her organization, officer or “brothers” are setting them up for failure. “It is my experience that once the midbrain starts to kick in you have seconds to intervene…you have to get right in the guy’s ear and start telling him to trust his breathing techniques and eye movement to stimulate a decrease in heart rate which in turn will decrease hormonal release and restore cognitive control.” (Jorge 2012)

Slow motion time was reported to have been experienced by 65% of the officers. Some describe the “slow motion” as the movements of the assailant slowing to a near “frame by frame” allowing them to intervene. Others just report the duration of an incident which only lasted a few seconds to have felt like minutes. A person who just ran out of their burning home will without a doubt explain that it took forever for us to get there. The true definition of slow motion time is difficult to pin down however it occurs frequently and may even be familiar to some of us. “Until the day arrives all we can say is that the slow motion time effect seems to be a random, unpredictable and sometimes useful response to combat. For now it is sufficient to warn our warriors that it might happen.” (Grossman 2008)

Over half of officers involved in these situations reported at least partial memory loss. “Memories of high risk situations are often like a series of snapshots, some vivid, some blurry and some even missing” (Artwohl 1997) In a 2001 article for the Journal of the Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors Lt. Col Grossman wrote about his research into memory loss in these high stress “condition black” instances and coined the term “Critical Incident Amnesia”. This data is framed in the case of police officers involved lethal threat situations, I am attempting to connect to fire ground operations but either way the research and data collected in post traumatic stress cases is a direct parallel. The critics who either refuse to make the connection or have not been educated in the effects of high stress may explain away memory loss; “He’s just blocking it out.” “I can’t remember is just a protection for I am responsible” Too many jump to the conclusion that memory is completely within our control especially in emotionally charged inquiries and reviews like LODD or Maydays. In On Combat Grossman speaks to the memory of individuals taken to the hormonal induced stress level of “condition black” (heart rate over 180 beats per minute) “It is common within the first 24 hours to recall roughly 30% of the occurrence, 50% of it after 48 hours and 75 to 95% after 72 to 100 hours.” (Grossman 2008)

Experience can be shared and reputation can be destroyed with the click of a mouse. A mayday report could be on Facebook before the firefighter is removed from a structure. There is nothing but attention to be gained in chiming in on negative banter about a video or audio of an incident. Being respectful, applying an understanding of the human factors which are missing, viewing and listening with a focus on education and improvement can provide you with a tool that has infinite potential gains.

- I would like to thank Ric Jorge for his additions and insight. If you have not reviewed his work in the “Impact This” training video please do so at his Facebook page the Glass Guy

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Comment by Bobby Halton on January 24, 2012 at 1:24pm

Brian excellent post, it's extremely important that we stop being so quick to use our hindsight bias and counterfactual reasoning to simply critique and spend a little more time trying to understand why the people in the situations we are viewing made the decisions they did. We can get much more out of these videos when we take a little more time and understand that the people in these videos were making the best decisions they could given their understanding of the situation at the time, their training and their lack of resources and or information. Outstanding post thank you very much for sharing this information with us.

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