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A Model for Situational Awareness

Author: Charlie Maclean-Bristol

Charlie shares a model of situational awareness from the Endsley paper and discusses how this can be applied to incident management.

This week I carried out my first Live Online Advanced Incident Response and Crisis Management public training course, and I decided to add some information from the Endsley paper I was reading on situational awareness. I promised that when I had read the paper I would share what was in it with the readers of this bulletin, and try to give a model which they could use and teach to members of their incident team on how to conduct situational awareness in their own organisation. I have tried to simplify the Endsley model and make it more appropriate to incident management, as it was written from a view of looking at the management of large installations, such as power plants or nuclear power stations.

Situational awareness is defined by Endsley: ‘Situational Awareness is the perception of the elements of the environment within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future’.

In today’s bulletin I will attempt to explain the elements of the model shown in Figure 1. In a later bulletin I will look in more depth at how to use the model practically during the response to an incident.

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Figure 1 - Situational Awareness Diagram

At the heart of the model is the Incident Team, which is shown in the yellow box. The team bring their ‘experience and capability’ to managing the incident. If you would like to know more about the skills, knowledge, behaviours and capabilities required for managing an incident, then you can read my recent bulletin Building an Incident Team Competency Framework. The team’s capability is built of their abilities, experience and the amount of training and exercising they have carried out.

When managing the incident, the team will use a decision-making model which is shown in Figure 2. This is similar to the typical Plan-Do-Check-Act cycle. In Figure 1 you can see the elements of Situation, Decision, Action and where they fit in the decision-making cycle. It is during the ‘situation’ part of this cycle where situational awareness takes part.

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Figure 2 - Decision-making Cycle

According to Endsley, there are three levels of situational awareness.

Level 1 – Identifying where the information you require for situational awareness is available. Some information comes to you naturally, as you may be informed by other team members or stakeholders, you may witness the event first-hand, see it on the news or on social media. Other information on the incident may not come to you directly and you may have to actively seek it out. When I am teaching incident management, I mention that there are four different types of information you should be looking for.

  • Events – which may occur in response to or caused by the incident.
  • Actions - actions of stakeholders or parts of your organisation.
  • Attitudes – attitudes of stakeholders to your handling of the incident. Prior to looking at attitudes you should conduct a ‘stakeholder analysis’ to identify which are the stakeholders whose attitude you most care about.
  • Interest – you have to gauge your key stakeholders’ and other individual’s interest in the incident. Do they have a key interest in the events and your response or are they preoccupied with other events and so, are not scrutinising your response?

Level 2 – Making a coherent picture of the current situation. Once you have gathered information, then you need to understand the meaning of the information and make sense of it. For the team carrying out situational awareness, this is where experience, training and understanding of the environment they are operating within, will all help with their understating of the situation.

Level 3 – Once you have made sense of the situation and its consequences, you are then able to address identified issues and take appropriate action to first stabilise and then recover the situation. Now the incident team can make decisions and carry out the actions to implement them. Within the diagram, there is a feedback loop, as soon as actions are taken situational awareness needs to be conducted again to see if the actions are having the desired effect.

Decisions also need to consider the organisation’s ‘goals, objectives and preconceptions’, as these will have to be taken into account when making decisions and also in trying to understand the level 3 impact consequences. It must be noted that the preconceptions can be a double-edged sword. Your preconceptions may be right and will help you understand the situation quicker, but if they are wrong, you may not be able to make sense of the situation or you may interpret the situation wrongly on account of your preconceptions.

Lastly, the team’s ability to conduct situational awareness is going to be complicated by a number of factors. Stress, as discussed in last week’s bulletin, can complicate and make it more difficult for those conducting situational awareness. The environment they are operating within and their workload may also make it more difficult to conduct the activity. The complexity of the environment will again make it more difficult to gather information, make sense of it and evaluate its consequences.

I think situational awareness is a trendy term to use in incident and crisis management at the moment and most people have a general understanding of what it is and know that it is a good thing to do. I think Endsley’s model and my interpretation of it helps us better understand what the levels of situational awareness are and the factors which affect our ability to conduct it. My next thought on this is going to be that now we understand it we can start to think through how we can practically implement it while responding to an incident.

You might be interested in the following stories

The Effects of Stress on the Ability of Teams and Individuals to Manage Incidents

Why, for many organisations, we are entering the most dangerous period of coronavirus.

You may be interested in the following course

BCI Incident Response and Crisis Management course

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