Situational Awareness

The definition of Situational Awareness, is having developed sufficient observational skills, and assessment competency that the person will not be surprised by any dynamic in the environment.   Situational Awareness considers all the ‘sources of energy’ which could have an impact, internal (inside our minds and bodies) as well as external.

1.  Observation is the first step – identifying potential sources of energy

2.  Assessment is the second step – Understanding the meaning and significance of those energy sources.

Professionals in high-stakes professions, like pilots, firefighters, doctors, police officers, soldiers, nuclear plant workers train to have high levels of situational awarenesss so that in a fast-moving dynamic situation, they are aware of and can counter the ‘sources of energy’ or forces causing changes in the dynamic.


Mistakes by professionals can cost them their own lives, cost the lives of others, and cost millions of dollars in damages paid out by insurance companies.  Pilots have hundreds of lives entrusted to their care, including their own, not to mention the people on the ground, over whom they are flying.

A pilot wrote:

“I use to fly airplanes. Flying airplanes is pretty serious business. I can relate it to this saying:

“If at first you don’t succeed, then skydiving is not for you…”

“Flying an airplane is the same. The margin for error is very small, and the consequences potentially lethal to you and your passengers.

“Within that context most all pilots intensely follow NTSB investigations of airplane crashes so as to learn everything that they can vicariously. There is no such thing as learning from your mistakes in flying. What I learned by doing just this was that there is rarely if ever a single causal factor in an air accident. There is always a trail of small mistakes and errors, including ones not necessarily made by the pilot in command, that pile on top of one another until the progression reaches a point of no return. At that point you are done, there is no escape, no turning back, just the grim realization that you are in a no win situation from which you will likely not emerge alive. It must be a horrible feeling.

“That’s why it is so important to study these tragic events and connect the dots. You must train yourself to be able to detect early on when the progression of events starts going south on you, and you must act immediately to break the chain of events, lest you suffer the  consequences.

Professionals develop situational awareness through practice and training, and by studying tragedies.   Because mistakes can be so costly, industries carefully study these “never” events – outcomes so terrible, the goal is for them “never” to happen.

“Why did the doctor cut off the wrong leg?”

“Why didn’t the pilot put down the flaps on the wings, causing the plane to crash?

“Why didn’t the firefighters sense that the floor was about to collapse?”

“Why did the soldiers miss the boobie-trap in the doorway?”

“Why was an undocumented person allow access to the nuclear facility?”

“How did the person at a traffic stop wrangle a gun away from the police officer and use it against him?”

Tourists in Thailand stood on the beach watching something strange in the distance, that only some of them thought might be a wave.  They had witnessed the water pulling out from the beach to reveal fish flopping around on the sea bed.  At that point, these doomed tourists had poor Situational Awareness – insufficient knowledge, poor observation of the nature of the wave – in this case a tsunami, and poor understanding of what that would mean to them if they stayed on the beach.

FACT: The wave was a 20 foot wall of water, moving towards them at 600 mph., as fast as an airplane.

One little girl on the beach, Tilly Smith 10, had studied the 1946 Hawaiian tsunamis in her geography class two weeks prior.

“What Tilly described as happening was exactly the same as I’d shown on a video of a tsunami that hit the Hawaiian islands [in 1946],” said Andrew F. Kearney, Tilly’s geography teacher. “She saw the consequences of not acting when something strange happens.”

That day in Thailand, she watched the tide rise and began “sizzling and bubbling” creating froth.  With a sense of foreboding, remembered the video, she warned her parents than a tsunami was coming (unfolding.)

” “I saw this bubbling on the water, right on the edge, and foam sizzling just like in a frying pan,” she (Tilly) remembered. “The water was coming in, but it wasn’t going out again. It was coming in, and then in, and then in, towards the hotel.”

“Tilly turned to her mother, Penny, “and I said, ‘Mum, I know there’s something wrong, I know it’s going to happen — the tsunami.'”

“The beach was getting smaller and smaller,” said (mother) Penny Smith, 43. “I felt compelled to look, but I didn’t know what was happening. Then Tilly said she’d just studied this at school—she talked about tectonic plates and an earthquake under the sea. She got more and more hysterical. In the end she was screaming at us to get off the beach.”

” Penny Smith added, “I didn’t know what a tsunami was, but seeing your daughter so frightened made you think something serious must be going on.”

The father ran to informed the staff at their hotel which evacuated their lower floors.  Tilly ran towards the people on the beach warning them of the tsunami.  100 people immediately left the beach, their lives saved by a young girl who subsequently gave all the credit to her teacher back in England for teaching her about underwater earthquakes and tsumanis.  Tilly’s situational awareness saved lives.

Tragedies don’t just happen; they unfold.

Whether it is a toddler drowning in a pool, or a father backing over his toddler in the driveway, these things don’t “just happen” as some news reports indicate.   There is almost always a series of events leading up to the “accident.”  The report will sometimes say that the mother looked away “just for a moment.”  The question is why did she look away.  In one story, a toddler drown when family members were dealing with the medical emergency of another family member.   Depending on someone to have their eyes on the toddler “at all times” is completely unrealistic and impractical.

More to come…..


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