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Better situational awareness through a Socratic stance

Could Socrates – a well-known Greek philosopher who lived 2,400 years ago – teach us anything about better situational awareness during incidents?
His motto was “Know thyself,” which is a great starting point.

It was sometime in 2015 that a group of instructors from the Amsterdam-Amstelland Fire Department, including me, got together for the first meeting of the “Firefighting Development Group”. The group had been formed – following an accident on the Marnixstraat in which we almost lost two colleagues – to take a critical look at our methods of firefighting.

The conclusion of the investigation into this incident was not mild; what we learned in training, what we described in our work instructions and what we carried out in practice were three different things. And often still used interchangeably. That had to change.

The working group was initially given the working title “Stop and Think! This title caused some discussion. “What do you mean by stop and think?”, the project leader was asked. “That you guys don’t just run in anymore.” “So it’s a disguised attempt to kill the interior attack!”

Questioning the interior attack has always been a controversial topic and, once again, caused the discussion to derail fairly quickly. I myself did have an idea of “Stop and think”o. I remember being taught at my first fire station: you look up before you run in, so you know what you’re running into. Wasn’t that also stop and think?

I decided to start the conversation with the project leader, and it went something like this:

• "Why do we have to stop and think?"
• "Because otherwise you guys are always running in, you have to think before you do so"
• "And what do we need to think about?"
• "Whether it's wise to go in."
• "When is it wise?"
• "If you can predict how the fire will develop and therefore take the right approach"
• "How can we predict how the fire develops?"
• "By understanding what the signals mean"
• "What signals do you mean?"
• "The characteristics of the smoke and flow path, everything you see when you look closely at fire."
• "So basically, you mean, 'Stop and look, understand and think?'"
• "Yes, something like that."

Without realizing it at the time, I had engaged in a Socratic conversation. I had not been guided by my own premature judgment around the purpose of the development group, but I had shown genuine interest in the choice of this title.

I recently read the book ‘Socrates on Sneakers’ by Elke Wiss. This book takes you through the process of having a Socratic conversation. Such a conversation consists mainly of value-free questioning of the statements your conversation partner puts on the table to learn together and get to the essence of the statement. This is precisely what I was unconsciously doing with the project leader.

However, the conversation had passed by the vast majority of the group. Those colleagues were stuck in their belief that the interior attack was no longer allowed. Meanwhile, I was happy with the answer I had formulated with the project leader: we need to stop, look, understand and reflect on our actions. That sounded like situational awareness.

Situational awareness

Several years earlier, I had been made aware by Bert Brugghemans of Fire Department Antwerp of Dr. Richard Gasaway’s work on situational awareness in our field. In 2014, during Fire Department Instructors Conference (FDIC), I was fortunate enough to take a class from him for an entire morning. The class was about the limitations we have as humans when it comes to situational awareness.

What exactly is situational awareness? Let’s take the definition used at Situational Awareness Matters

The ability to perceive and understand what is happening around you in relation to how time passes, and then to be able to predict future events accurately and in time to prevent a bad outcome.

So, exactly what I took from the conversation at the meeting: before we run into the burning building, observe the fire, then understand what we see, and then predict what action would have the best outcome and then execute it.

The catch is that Dr. Richard Gasaway’s research revealed more than 120 (!) obstacles to situational awareness. Even if you consciously perceive and try to understand, there are many obstacles that can limit you from making the right decision. This means that you should always check with yourself whether what you think you have seen or understood is actually true.

The essence of the “Stop and Think!” program was about situational awareness; I got this essence clear for myself through the above Socratic conversation. Is this the only connection between these two themes, or is there more?

Socratic attitude during your incident

The basic elements of a Socratic attitude are:

  • Wonder
  • Curiosity
  • Courage
  • Not taking your own judgment seriously
  • Embrace not knowing
  • Endure irritation

How do these basic elements relate to an incident deployment? Let’s look at them one by one.

Wonder – To make the right decisions during an incident, it is important to be open to what is going on around you. Step into the incident like a child entering a theme park for the first time, marvel at everything you see and let it come to you. A jaded “I’ve seen it all” attitude will not help you perceive properly.

Curiosity – Really try to understand what you have observed means. Don’t make assumptions, but be genuinely curious about what you see. Ask yourself the questions “What does this mean?” and “Is this what I expected?”

Not taking your own judgment seriously – If you have assessed the situation through wonder and curiosity, that is the basis for making a decision. But always question your own judgment. Check the basis of your judgment and listen to those who doubt your judgment, preferably yourself.

Courage – There comes a time when you are expected to make a decision. In a dynamic environment, there is always a lack of information and later you always know more. Dare to take the next step, but also dare to go back on your decision if your curiosity has given you a different insight at a later stage.

Embrace not knowing – During an incident, we gather information until we feel the picture is complete. This can make us feel comfortable, but it can also cause us to stop asking questions later in the incident. After all, wasn’t the picture already complete? Embrace and accept that there are always things you don’t know during an incident, that you should always be looking for that which you didn’t already know. Continually ask yourself the question, “What do I not know?”

Enduring Irritation – Things don’t always go the way you planned, people won’t always understand your goals, and circumstances may end up being different than you initially thought. This can lead to irritation, which in turn distracts you from what really matters. Rather than endlessly repeating the same actions that reinforce your irritation, use the irritation to choose a different tactic or method.

A Socratic attitude during a deployment almost sounds natural: always keep asking questions in everything you do. Stay critical of yourself and assume you don’t know.
How does this attitude relate to situational awareness?

Situational awareness with a Socratic attitude

As we described in the section on situational awareness, there are three elements of situational awareness:

  • Perception: gathering facts with our senses
  • Understanding: can we analyze the facts to create a picture that we recognize?
  • Prediction: can we predict what will happen based on what we understand, and then make the right decision?

At all these levels, there are obstacles that can negatively affect our situational awareness. It is going too far to cover all the obstacles here, but some of the most important ones can be overcome with a Socratic attitude. For all three elements of situational awareness, let’s look at the attitudes and obstacles.

Perception – Good situational awareness begins with observing. That seems so simple; use your senses, be alert and look around. But personal biases can throw a spanner in the works; previous experiences with similar situations can (unconsciously) influence your perception. This is where wonder helps. Regardless of the information you are given beforehand, or what you know about the location you are going to, you should try to perceive as if you are seeing it all for the first time.

Understanding – If the perception is done with the right amount of wonder, all those observations must be made into a picture. This is where curiosity comes in. Don’t assume too quickly that you understand what you have observed, but try to see further. Confirmation Bias is an obstacle lurking here; linking observations to what you think you understand.
Also accept not knowing; some pieces of information will never be available or not available in time. The things you know you don’t know are an important clue to the hidden risks during an incident. When the missing information keeps you busy, your mind can drift; an obstacle that causes you to stop actively perceiving.

Predict – If with the available information, you have succeeded in understanding what is going on, you can predict the course of the incident if you were to do nothing. Doing nothing, by the way, is not advice.

If you know what will happen if you do nothing, you have the knowledge to make judgments about the best deployment strategy at the time. Don’t take this judgment too seriously; in fact, it can cause mission blindness. This occurs when the picture of the incident is not adjusted based on new information. Always question your own judgment!

It is important to show courage to act: “With the available information, this is the best option to execute”. Dare also to show the same courage the moment your judgment changes: “This was not the right decision, we are going to do it differently.” The latter requires a safe environment; daring to go back on previous decisions is not a sign of weakness. Fear is a major obstacle to good situational awareness.

The moment your judgment does not change, but the chosen effort does not work, irritation may arise. A natural reaction is to try harder -Task fixation: “I’m going to get this door open” – with the result that your perception becomes severely limited. Do you recognize irritation in yourself or the team? Then see that as a signal to choose a different path.

Monitor time. As humans, we are poor at keeping track of time; time distortion can cause the effort to feel like it is going slower or faster than you think. Slow down and stop. To become aware of your own situational awareness.

Monitoring situational awareness with a Socratic attitude seems almost a given. People who have actively managed complex incidents know better. They know how easily you get “sucked” into the incident. It takes conscious practice to benefit from it during incidents.

Why not “Stop and Philosophize”?

Of course, in my enthusiasm, I might give the impression that philosophizing during an incident is the ideal way to improve your situational awareness. But beware; most philosophers find the process of asking the questions more interesting than the answers. Our customer, the citizen, is (rightly!) not interested in that.

We may very well bring a Socratic attitude to our efforts to help our situational awareness, but we must also be careful not to get too deep into philosophizing. That might well result in inaction.

Which immediately raises the question whether we really always need to do something? Or do we want to do something because we feel we should and therefore feel the urgency to do something? Urgency is precisely one of the 120-plus obstacles of situational awareness.