Reading From The Same Map: Towards A New Situational Awareness Model For Emergency Management

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Erik Rau

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY

Situational awareness (SA) is a critical issue for public safety disciplines, including emergency management, law enforcement, and the fire service. These fields operate substantially differently from each other, but share a common model for SA, based on John Boyd’s OODA loop. Boyd’s model, though applied widely, is heavily shaped by artefacts from its origin in the culture of fighter pilots.[1] These artefacts include premises that the practitioner can perceive information directly, they have a clear understanding of the nature of events, and they are primarily concerned with their own actions. While some disciplines have enough in common with pilots for this SA model to match their activities, emergency management does not. Differences in culture create mismatches between emergency management activities and the SA model, which in turn lead to repeated failures of SA across many organizations. Thus, this thesis asks the question: How can models of situational awareness be adapted to describe shared SA among distributed teams in emergency management?

One of the common elements that make up the central activity of emergency management is situational awareness (SA): the aggregated activities by which practitioners develop, understand, and share an understanding where individual actions fit within the context of the collective response to an event.[2] Because SA is a central issue in emergency management and public safety, one of the greatest challenges facing practitioners is that breakdowns in it affect the entire response.[3] Even when SA processes are working properly, however, practitioners can achieve incompatible results if different models are used. These deficiencies and mismatches need to be addressed in order for the discipline to develop a model of SA that better matches practitioners’ activities.

It is not surprising that practitioners are just beginning to develop ideas and epistemologies in emergency management, nor that the discipline’s models still require adjustment. In a departure from other public safety fields, the natural state of the work is not at the individual level but rather in teams, often spread across large spans of time, distance, and organization.[4] Furthermore, the primary job of emergency management practitioners is to coordinate information effectively rather than to act instantaneously, another major difference from other public safety disciplines. Though these are challenging activities, applied to sometimes difficult circumstances, they provide extraordinarily rewarding opportunities for growth and learning, and can therefore be, as Rebecca Solnit says, the avenue by which gifts arrive.[5]

Being able to analyze SA models according to principles that reflect practitioners’ actual use would allow not only basic improvements through deliberate design but also better improvements after failures noted during exercises or events. Such analysis would require additional effort, but it would address many failures that are currently noted but not classified. The ability of these theories to incorporate complexity beyond the immediate elements of an activity is also valuable—there are several elements that affect SA that have not yet been identified because they exist outside the SA processes themselves.

As challenging as the problems intrinsic to SA are, factors outside the SA process itself nonetheless exert very strong influences over that process and the SA models that underlie it. These factors include goals set by organizational leaders, definitions of the environment and activities that SA is applied to, and even the types of knowledge used to build those definitions. The relative importance of these factors may vary from one event to the next, or even from one team to the next, but they are all germane to the overall SA model, and none of them is accounted for in existing descriptions of that model.

Emergency management and public safety as disciplines require a commitment to iterative change, a constant desire for improvement, and a recognition that there are no universal solutions. These qualities have rarely been stated so bluntly as by the authors of the Final Report of the Interagency Management Review Team from the fatal South Canyon Fire:

The reader will find no dramatic changes in the form of new equipment or technology, new training, new policy, or new procedures. Rather, there are numerous modifications and improvements in those areas, representing a process of constant and ongoing progress toward the goal of reduced risks to wildland firefighters.[6]

In short, we do not, or perhaps cannot, know the totality of what we need to know in our operating environment, but we can and must continue to push forward in some areas based on past experience and available knowledge.

Compounding the problem, the tremendous variety in organizational structures makes it difficult to supply specific recommendations, as emergency management is conducted in widely disparate ways. Processes are profoundly shaped by factors external to the processes themselves, so any specific solutions must be founded in an understanding of a particular set of processes as well as those external factors relevant to their operation. This thesis provides insight into the SA model, but any organizational improvement will require a great deal of internal analysis to realize the benefits described herein.

In order to seek improvements in SA models and reduce some of the failures articulated throughout this discussion of emergency management, there are two important areas of action. First, we must admit that the problem exists and set higher standards than we have had for solving it. While no organization will ever achieve perfect communications under ordinary circumstances, it is possible for practitioners to imagine a functional SA process that does not suffer from frequent and expected breakdowns. Second, we must recognize some of the conditions that make the causes of failures so damaging and adjust organizations to make them less susceptible by mitigating those conditions. One area of research that demonstrates this approach separates SA into three levels with consistent groupings.

  • Figure 1. Comparing Three Descriptions of SA Levels[7]

The nuances of the three levels reflects the activities of emergency management better than the existing SA model and allow for a better analysis of how to improve SA overall. It is precisely these two remedies—imagination of a higher standard and the improvement of indirect conditions—that require the qualitative methods described in this thesis.

Converging pragmatism and exploration is precisely the kind of novel thinking required to develop a new SA model. Such a model will not emerge from an endless succession of after-action reviews conducted under the current model any more than one person observing one star while another person observes another can form an idea of where their ship is sailing to. The scholarly research provides many potential remedies, but pragmatism is needed to measure, compare, and apply those remedies to the actual challenges. This thesis examines the SA model to identify mismatches with emergency management, consider research on shared cognition to identify useful elements, and summarize those elements to present options for consideration and further investigation.

LIST OF REFERENCES

Allen, Tom, Tom Zimmerman, Jim Douglas, Michael Benscoter, Robert Joslin, Mike Edrington, Jose Cruz, Edy Petrick, Mike Barry, and Rick Ochoa. Final Report of the Interagency Management Review Team: South Canyon Fire. Washington D.C.: US Department of the Interior, 1995.

Azuma, Ron, Mike Daily, and Chris Furmanski. “A Review of Time Critical Decision Making Models and Human Cognitive Processes,” 1–9. Big Sky, MT: IEEE, 2006. https://doi.org/10.1109/AERO.2006.1656041.

Donahue, Amy K., and Robert V. Tuohy. “Lessons We Don’t Learn: A Study of the Lessons of Disasters, Why We Repeat Them, and How We Can Learn Them.” Homeland Security Affairs 2 (July 2006): 28.

Endsley, Mica R. “Situation Awareness: Operationally Necessary and Scientifically Grounded.” Cognition, Technology & Work 17, no. 2 (May 2015): 163–67. http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10111-015-0323-5.

Endsley, Mica R. “Toward a Theory of Situation Awareness in Dynamic Systems.” Human Factors: Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 37, no. 1 (March 1995): 32–64. https://doi.org/10.1518/001872095779049543.

Federal Emergency Management Agency, National Response Framework. 4th ed. Washington D.C.: US Department of Homeland Security, 2019.

Mohammed, Susan, Lori Ferzandi, and Katherine Hamilton. “Metaphor No More: A 15-Year Review of the Team Mental Model Construct.” Journal of Management 36, no. 4 (July 2010): 876–910. https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206309356804.

Rouse, W.B., J.A. Cannon-Bowers, and E. Salas. “The Role of Mental Models in Team Performance in Complex Systems.” IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man, and Cybernetics 22, no. 6 (December 1992): 1296–1308. https://doi.org/10.1109/21.199457.

Russas Sr., Michael E. “Correcting Blindness in the Nerve Center: How to Improve Situational Awareness.” Master’s thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, 2015. https://doi.org/10.21236/AD1009217.

Solnit, Rebecca. A Paradise Built in Hell. New York: Viking, 2009.

 

 

[1] Ron Azuma, Mike Daily, and Chris Furmanski, “A Review of Time Critical Decision Making Models and Human Cognitive Processes” (2006 IEEE Aerospace Conference, Big Sky, MT: IEEE, 2006), 1–9, https://doi.org/10.1109/AERO.2006.1656041.

[2] Amy K. Donahue and Robert V. Tuohy, “Lessons We Don’t Learn: A Study of the Lessons of Disasters, Why We Repeat Them, and How We Can Learn Them,” Homeland Security Affairs 2 (July 2006): 28.

[3] Mica R. Endsley, “Situation Awareness: Operationally Necessary and Scientifically Grounded,” Cognition, Technology & Work 17, no. 2 (May 2015): 163–67, http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s10111-015-0323-5; and Michael E. Russas Sr., “Correcting Blindness in the Nerve Center: How to Improve Situational Awareness” (master’s thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, 2015), https://doi.org/10.21236/AD1009217.

[4] Federal Emergency Management Agency, National Response Framework, 4th ed. (Washington D.C.: US Department of Homeland Security, 2019), 48.

[5] Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell (New York: Viking, 2009), 6.

[6] Final Report of the Interagency Management Review Team: South Canyon Fire (Washington D.C.: US Department of the Interior, 1995), 7.

[7] Adapted from Mica R. Endsley, “Toward a Theory of Situation Awareness in Dynamic Systems,” Human Factors: Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 37, no. 1 (March 1995): 32–64, https://doi.org/10.1518/001872095779049543; W.B. Rouse, J.A. Cannon-Bowers, and E. Salas, “The Role of Mental Models in Team Performance in Complex Systems,” IEEE Transactions on Systems, Man, and Cybernetics 22, no. 6 (December 1992): 1296–1308, https://doi.org/10.1109/21.199457; Susan Mohammed, Lori Ferzandi, and Katherine Hamilton, “Metaphor No More: A 15-Year Review of the Team Mental Model Construct,” Journal of Management 36, no. 4 (July 2010): 876–910, https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206309356804.

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