Valerie L. Sizelove
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Freelance writer, mom of four.

Have you ever wondered how firefighters and pilots manage to overcome extremely difficult situations?

Are some people are born with a special gene that makes them able to rescue children from fires or control a cross-continental air flight?

It’s not some unreachable character trait that makes these feats possible. It’s a soft skill called situational awareness. High intelligence, fitness and specialized training are certainly important in high-risk jobs. But these qualities can’t complete a job efficiently without strong situational awareness. This skill can be learned, built and refined with experience.

Situational awareness can be a valuable tool for everyday life. We all face challenges, and accidents can happen at any time to anyone. In this fast-paced world, learning to increase your situational awareness can save you from mishaps and accidents.

What is situational awareness?

Situational awareness is a way to describe how you pay attention to your surroundings. It also involves the way you process elements in a situation to make informed decisions. People with high situational awareness are always aware of their surroundings. They pay close attention to the details surrounding them and use that information to predict future emergencies.

Situational awareness gives you the tools to avoid accidents and disasters. Because this skill involves the ability to project future events based on your surroundings, many accidents and mishaps can be avoided.

What are the three levels of situational awareness?

Former Chief Scientist of the United States Air Force, Mica Endsley, has studied situational awareness extensively and created a model to map out the skill. Endsley’s model identifies three levels in the skillset of situational awareness:

1. Perception

Perception is the ability to gather information from everything around you. It means being aware of your surroundings up, down, and 360 degrees around. For example, a pilot needs to continuously monitor weather conditions, equipment function, air traffic control signals and other factors to ensure a safe flight.

2. Comprehension

Comprehension involves the way one understands and analyzes the information around them. When you go on a walk, it’s important to pay attention to passing cars, which could alert you to an accident;  the level of heat and sun, which could lead to dehydration, or, the color of the clouds which could signal bad weather.

3. Projection

Projection is the ability to use information from your surroundings to predict potential outcomes. As a firefighter, it’s important to understand how current conditions could cause a fire to spread in different ways. This skill helps you react to emergencies quickly because you’ve already predicted the outcome based on your surroundings.

What factors affect situational awareness?

Situational awareness is not a permanent, fail-proof skill. There are many factors that can decrease your situational awareness. Some of them are in your control while others aren’t.

Stress and large workloads can limit situational awareness because they leave less brain processing space to sort out current events. Likewise, illnesses and medications can affect the speed at which the brain processes information, also limiting situational awareness.

While projection is important, holding strong preconceptions about a situation could limit your ability to react. Instead of focusing on one or two preconceptions, it’s important to focus on your current surroundings continuously, drawing new preconceptions of events as they continue to change.

How to improve your situational awareness

Now that you’ve heard all about situational awareness and how it can improve your response to situations, you might be wondering how to learn this skill. Here are a few tips to help you refine your situational awareness skills:

1. Begin with level one.

While Endsley’s levels of situational awareness don’t necessarily have to be learned in order, it’s helpful to begin with the first level and work your way through the others, one by one.

Start by practicing perception (level one) skills in your everyday life. Pay attention to your surroundings and ask yourself if there’s anything you might be missing. Use all your senses, not just your eyes. The more you practice awareness of your surroundings, the more it will become a habit.

2. Limit stress and situation overload.

Because these factors limit your ability to process information, be proactive in removing them from your life. If you’re overloaded with work, ask somebody to help you out. Make sure you’re getting efficient sleep each night so your reaction time is optimal.

Remove or limit whatever is causing your stress because you’ll be able to react better in risky situations, which will enhance your life. Take breaks to spend time meditating, exercising or gardening — whatever it is that helps you relax and restore energy.

3. Imagine what you'd do in risky situations.

A good way to work on projection (level three) is to imagine multiple future situations and how you’d react to them. By identifying possibilities, you’ll strengthen your ability to react quickly when current elements are deemed threatening.

Projection doesn’t necessarily mean creating a fire emergency plan with your family (that’s different). Instead, it means taking information from where you are right now, and planning for any near-future events that could happen.

Jobs that require situational awareness:

Any job that involves heavy machinery, protecting the lives of others or operating vehicles requires a high level of situational awareness. These types of jobs come with dangerous environments, fast-paced situations and tasks that require high skill. These are just a few careers in which situational awareness is essential:

  • Aviation. Whether you’re a pilot or an air controller, the aviation field is fast-paced and the success of flights depends on all kinds of constantly changing factors.
  • Law enforcement. Whether you’re dealing with violent criminals or performing an investigation, staying attuned to your surroundings is essential to eliminate risks and gather every piece of data.
  • Firefighting. Becoming a firefighter is honorable, but not everyone can perform the job safely and effectively. Firefighters must critically analyze surroundings during a fire, recognizing that conditions can change quickly.
  • Military. The military highly values situational awareness, realizing that it improves outcomes among servicewomen and servicemen.
  • Construction. Those who work in construction may spend long hours outdoors working with heavy equipment and materials. While monitoring safety protocols, construction workers also need to pay attention to their surroundings to prevent accidents.

Give it a try

Whether you’re looking to start your pilot career or you work in an office setting, situational awareness is a skill worth learning. Remember, emergencies can happen at any point in time. We are human beings with an entire mind to help us solve those problems. Let’s put it to work!

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Valerie Sizelove is a freelance writer of blog posts, career guides and more. Her specialties lie in writing about mental health, administration and parenting. When she's not writing up a storm, you might find Valerie cooking a huge dinner for her family of 6 or tinkering around in her amateur vegetable garden. Books are pretty good, too. You can find her on LinkedIn and Facebook.

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