A pilot faces many situations when he is up there in his aircraft. He must be aware of his location, his direction, his fuel level, weather considerations and his distance from his destination. And that is just flying the aircraft. How much more when military pilots are in combat situations? The pilot flies the aircraft in a three-dimensional environment and uses the aircraft as a weapon system. He must now have to also process information on the targets, the threats, location of friendly troops and armaments onboard.
The art of doing all this is called situational awareness or SA, a concept that has its roots in the United States Air Force. Colonel John Boyd of the USAF conceptualized a mental loop that is considered the forefather of situational awareness. He called it OODA, for observe, orient, decide and act.
The military aviation community has always been indoctrinated to maintain SA in all phases of air operations. This is the very reason why pilots have pre-flight briefings, emergency procedures review and crew resource management techniques and procedures. All this is designed to ensure that all crew members share the same frame of mind about the mission, aircraft status, weather considerations, departure and arrival procedures and other information required to accomplish the mission. This is called shared SA — the sum total of individual SA within a group with the same objective. Working within a team is commonplace in any organization; hence, the need for shared SA cannot be ignored whether in a family, company or other organization. Shared SA can be defined as the degree to which team members possess the same SA on shared SA requirements. It is very crucial that individual SA is consistent with that of the shared SA. If one individual falls out of line, the chain is broken, and with it goes organizational objectives.
For pilots, losing situational awareness could be fatal. Situational awareness starts with focused attention, or the ability to stay focused at all times, which prevents you from being surprised. An unanticipated event might catch you by surprise and you might not have the luxury of time to react to it properly. If you cannot react properly, the consequences may range from stress or irritation to a fatal event not only for yourself and your organization, but also for your family. It’s not just a matter of obtaining the right information; it’s using the information properly for your security and safety that is the key to a safe environment.
Although Situational Awareness (SA) traces its roots to military aviation, it is now an integral part of the training of employees of the US Department of Homeland Security. This just goes to show that SA can also be applied in civilian settings. Among these would be the fields of corporate business intelligence, manufacturing processes and other fields like computer forensics, psychology and emergency room management as well as information warfare.
Situational awareness can be defined in so many ways, but the bottom line is knowing what is happening, what is going to happen and how to react properly. It keeps you one step ahead of whatever events will unfold, whether at work, at play and even in the comfort of your own home. After all, we cannot respond properly when we don’t know what’s going on and what’s going to happen.
Basic human instinct causes us to be apprehensive or anxious if we don’t know what’s going to happen. This is true not only in your work place or operating environment but also in your daily activities such as driving, playing a round of golf, and going to the mall or even on a leisurely walk in the park. Your safety and security relies mainly on the high degree of situational awareness you possess, and your ability to respond in the right manner is greatly reduced when you are surprised. And so if you don’t want to be surprised, you have to know what’s coming your way. And this is where situational awareness comes in.
A U.S. Coast Guard lecture hand-out defines situational awareness as “the ability to identify, process, and comprehend the critical elements of information about what is happening.” This applies to what’s happening around us, from our immediate environs to our country as a whole. Situational awareness helps you identify potential hazards before they occur and prepare in advance the courses of action to take once it occurs. When we lose situational awareness, the probability of committing human error increases significantly.
It helps to have a plan of action for any incident you foresee coming your way. Be aware of threat indicators such as conditions or occurrences that are not ordinary, and be prepared to have a course of action. As Jeff Gonzales, in his article for SWAT Magazine, so aptly put it, “You cannot do much if you don’t see them coming.”
Individual Space and Situational Awareness
Mr. Yong Yang of the University of Southampton School of Geography discusses the Hall “distance rules” first published in 1966. It describes the types of distances of an individual in relation to another person or group of persons. Although the distances described were used in simulation models for the transmission of infectious diseases, this concept likewise has its relevant relationships with situational awareness. These distances are categorized as follows:
Public— greater than 3 meters. People in public common areas such as parks, train stations, the community around him/her.
SOCIAL — 3-1.5 meters. People during parties, conferences and other gatherings.
Personal — 0.6-1.5 meters. Office mates, friends, classmates and distant relatives
Intimate — less than 0.6 meters. Reserved for lovers, close friends and family members. This is the most guarded individual distance type among the four distance categories.
No matter what distance, SA is applicable to whatever situation. If one loses SA in any one of these relationships, problems may arise. Therefore, maintaining a high degree of SA in all kinds of relationships will keep you away from potential troubles.
Levels of Situational Awareness
Mica Endsley defines SA as the perception of elements in the environment within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future. This definition outlines the three levels of SA which consists of the following:
Level 1: Perception. This is the most basic level of SA. It involves monitoring, cue detection and simple recognition. There is a basic awareness of multiple situational elements, such as objects, events, people, systems, environmental factors, and their current states, specifically locations, conditions, modes, actions.
Level 2: Comprehension. This involves pattern recognition, interpretation and evaluation. It’s an understanding of the overall meaning of the perceived elements — how they fit together as a whole, the situation at hand, and what it means in terms of one’s mission goals.
Level 3: Protection. The highest level of SA, this now involves anticipation and mental simulation. It’s an awareness of the likely evolution of the situation, its probable future states and events.
Endsley’s SA Model integrates the environmental and individual factors, its relationship with the levels of SA, the decision-making process and the courses of action for the accomplishment of a desired state or system. It is a practical explanation of how an individual decides and what course of action is taken based on the inputs one receives.
Situational Awareness and Knowledge Management
Situational awareness is closely related to knowledge management or KM. KM is broadly defined as a process through which organizations generate value from intellectual and knowledge-based assets. It includes sharing of information among employees or organizations to devise best practices that are beneficial to the organization. Knowing something, or having information, and using it are two different things. You may have the information, but when you don’t use it properly, you may as well not know anything. What good is knowing it may rain if you decide not to bring an umbrella anyway?
But KM is not just about collecting and storing of information. It is also about connecting these data to a wide spectrum of activities to benefit the organization. The information should be evaluated and assessed on how it impacts on the organization and making a decision to optimize the use of information. While KM is often facilitated by information technology (IT), it is not in itself KM.
Situational Awareness + Security = Security Awareness
In the corporate world, security managers and directors always emphasize security awareness training in their respective companies. Security awareness simply means situational awareness focused on security and safety. Creating a safe and secure working environment among employees is one of the most important aspects of corporate security management. It involves not only protecting company assets and employees but ultimately contributing to the meeting the organization’s business goals. This effort may come in the form of seminars, lectures or written company policies. Whatever method is used, the importance of security awareness cannot be taken for granted.
Let’s use a military example. Security surveys and inspection (SSI) units are tasked with identifying the security gaps and recommending corrective measures. The Command or a Unit is informed of the deficiencies and advised on the measures needed to mitigate the perceived threats from these deficiencies. The process of identifying the deficiencies and recommending corrective measures form part of situational awareness for the Command. Whether the Command accedes to the recommendations or not, the bottom line is that they are informed of the deficiencies and the possible risks arising from the deficiencies.
Security units will always recommend the complete correction of the deficiencies. But it rarely, if ever, is as simple as that. Corrective measures will entail additional costs for the Command. Expenses need to be rationalized and the Command may not have the resources to completely comply with the corrective measures. When this happens, the unit security officers must draw up the most practical risk reduction techniques that will fit the budget and be acceptable to both the Command and the security unit.
The Command is now fully appraised of the threats posed by the deficiencies. If the Command still opts to ignore the findings for whatever reasons, then it is again a classic example of having the information and not using it properly. It is a dilemma for the security unit, and it must be made clear to the Command that the security unit is not anymore liable to any losses that may be incurred as a result of the Command’s non-compliance with the corrective measures that have been recommended.
Barriers to Situational Awareness
Achieving 100% situational awareness is never easy. There are many distractions along the way. The US Coast Guard hand-out identifies several barriers that reduce our ability to understand the situation. Recognizing these barriers and taking corrective action is the key to maintaining situational awareness in our daily activities.
Miscommunication. Communication is the most critical component to maintaining situational awareness among individuals in any organization. Shared SA cannot be achieved without proper communication. A simple miscommunication may lead to disaster. The military saying “Keep your commander always informed” should also be applicable to subordinates. It must be a two-way street. This is to ensure that everybody in an organization is updated of the current developments affecting the organization’s tasks and eventually share the same frame of mind. If everybody is informed of the current situation, the chances that everybody is working towards the same objective increase dramatically. Some organizations practice the “need to know basis” level of communication, and in such cases it is important that individuals are given only the necessary information to carry out their tasks efficiently and effectively. Any other information can be withheld provided that it is not necessary for that individual to know and does not affect his/her work output.
Perception based on Faulty Information. False or faulty information will eventually lead to a wrong decision, which in turn will lead to a wrong course of action that could be disastrous or fatal to an organization or an individual. One crucial factor that needs to be considered when filtering faulty information is the existence of individual and institutional biases or wrong perceptions. We need to accept that each person has his/her own biases against the many social, cultural and religious issues. This can be remedied by proper education and training of individuals on any organization. Mission and functions of an organization must be clearly defined and placed above personal and institutional biases.
Complacency. The phrase “I’ve done this a thousand times” is dangerous and oftentimes becomes famous last words. Doing the same things so many times is not a guarantee of accomplishing a task safely. A checklist should be kept handy no matter how experienced the individual is in performing a given task. A clear example is the pilot’s checklist. Although these procedures can be memorized by heart by the flight crew and done so many times, pilots still read these checklists before doing anything.
Work Overload. This happens when an individual finds himself in a multi-tasking environment, and is faced with so many things to do. It can be addressed by a task allocation scheme and defining the responsibilities of each individual or a group. It is necessary to emphasize the importance of teamwork in a multi-tasking environment.
Fatigue. This could arise from stress as a result of work overload or personal and family problems. Individuals should be given enough time to rest and recover, especially after a grueling task. U.S. Air Force safety policy requires all aircrew to have adequate crew rest before flying another mission. Managers and supervisors should be educated not to treat their subordinates as robots. Although work accomplishment is necessary to optimize productivity, the welfare of the employees should not be set aside either. Managers and supervisors should have the skill in striking a balance between organizational and individual needs. A person suffering from fatigue may not have the same comprehension level of a well-rested and motivated team member and is more likely to commit mistakes that may lead to a chain of events detrimental to the individual and the organization.
The term SA is a shorthand description for keeping track of what is going on around you in a complex, dynamic environment. From a simple concept of “being aware of your situation”, SA has evolved into a more complex subject that has its applications in almost every fields of endeavor today. Indeed, SA has come a long way from its humble beginnings in military aviation, initially intended to ensure the safe and successful accomplishment of a mission, to a concept with practical use for individuals, families, organizations, corporations and nations. •