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Monday, January 14, 2008

Situational Awareness

In the course of reading about military training practices, I frequently come upon the term, "situational awareness." Though one can infer from the phrase itself, and from context, basically what it means, I've been frustrated at not being able to locate a good definition.

Source: Tailhook Daily Briefing

I finally came upon such a definition at the website of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, a part of the US Department of Health and Human Services:
Situational awareness refers to the degree to which one’s perception of a situation matches reality. In the context of crisis management, where the phrase is most often used, situational awareness includes awareness of fatigue and stress among team members (including oneself), environmental threats to safety, appropriate immediate goals, and the deteriorating status of the crisis (or patient). Failure to maintain situational awareness can result in various problems that compound the crisis. For instance, during a resuscitation, an individual or entire team may focus on a particular task (a difficult central line insertion or a particular medication to administer, for example). Fixation on this problem can result in loss of situational awareness to the point that steps are not taken to address immediately life-threatening problems such as respiratory failure or a pulseless rhythm. In this context, maintaining situational awareness might be seen as equivalent to keeping the “big picture” in mind. Alternatively, in assigning tasks in a crisis, the leader may ignore signals from a team member, which may result in escalating anxiety for the team member, failure to perform the assigned task, or further patient deterioration.
Finding this definition prompted me to try again to locate a military version. The website of the (US) Army Business Transformation Knowledge Center quotes the definition in the September 2004 edition of the Army Field Manual:
Knowledge and understanding of the current situation which promotes timely, relevant and accurate assessment of friendly, competitive and other operations within the battlespace in order to facilitate decision making. An informational perspective and skill that fosters an ability to determine quickly the context and relevance of events that are unfolding.
It's quite interesting to me how each culture — here the medical and the military — thinks very much of its own activities in explaining what maintaining situational awareness means.

Anyone who really wants to go into the subject of situational awareness in-depth can have a look at "Defining and Measuring Shared Situational Awareness" (pdf), a paper by Albert A. Nofi that the Center for Naval Analyses published in 2000. Nofi's definition:
... situational awareness is: the result of a dynamic process of perceiving and comprehending events in one's environment, leading to reasonable projections as to possible ways that environment may change, and permitting predictions as to what the outcomes will be in terms of performing one's mission. In effect, it is the development of a dynamic mental model of one's environment.

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