By: Dr. Richard B. Gasaway, Fire Chief (ret.)
It’s not something any of us want to hear. But it’s something that may need to be said to an incident commander at an emergency scene when things are not going well. But how do you tell someone with power and authority they may be making decisions that are putting responders in harm’s way? It can be a very touchy situation.
In fact, some responders see too much risk to even speak up. Thus, no one tells the commander that things are going bad. This makes a terrible assumption that the commander can see the things going bad and knows what he or she is doing. The fact is the commander may not be able to comprehend what is happening. There are over 100 barriers to situational awareness and commanders are as susceptible to them as any of us. Being experienced helps, but it does not create complete immunity.
Some responders will speak up, but they do so in such a confrontational and abrasive way that it may cause the commander to go on the defensive. This happens because instead of feeling the advice is helpful, the commander feels as though he or she is under attack.
The solution comes with having an established procedure or protocol for how a commander is to be addressed when bearing a concern. Fortunately for us, such a process exists in aviation. It’s called the Five Step Assertive Statement Process. Here are the steps:
Step 1: Acknowledge the person in authority with reverence.
Step 2: Use a trigger phrase to alert them. In aviation, it’s “I have a concern.”
Step 3: State the concern or issue.
Step 4: Offer a resolution to the problem.
Step 5: See their concurrence to the resolution.
Before you use this process it is very important that all responders are trained on what it is, how it works and how to use it. Otherwise, if a firefighter approaches a commanding officer and says “I have a concern.” The response may not be what the firefighter is hoping for. But if the department adopts “I have a concern” as a trigger phrase, much like “mayday” then that single statement can put an entire process into motion that requires the commander to reassess the situation.
If you’d like to learn more about the Five Step Assertive Statement Process or more about the barriers to situational awareness for first responders, please consider visiting the Situational Awareness Matters website.
Dr. Gasaway is widely considered to be one of the nation’s leading authorities on situational awareness and decision-making processes used by first responders. In addition to his 30+ year career in the fire service (including 22 years as a fire chief), Dr. Gasaway has a second passion: Uncovering and applying research in cognitive neuroscience for the benefit of the first responder community.