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Situational Awareness

Updated: Aug 28, 2020




Sometimes we are the penguin, sometimes the photographer.

When I conduct an exercise in the flight simulator at work, we have to deal with a variety of situations. Most of the time it goes well but not always, things can get stressful in there, and deliberately so. When this happens, we begin to feel that we are “getting behind the aircraft”: Our anticipation of what is about to happen has reached a point where events are starting to happen around us.

So, why are we suddenly struggling?

Running out of time

It is very difficult to make time. When we are faced with a crisis situation time seems to slow down in our minds compared with the speed of events around us. We attempt to resolve problems whilst being faced with fresh challenges and wishing the clock would stop just for a minute so we can catch up.

Late last year, the organisation I work for was tasked to an offshore job: a vessel with 4 occupants onboard was sinking, information later confirmed that a P3 Orion had deployed a life-raft and that two survivors had climbed into it and two were in the water.

The vessel had sunk in atrocious weather, water had entered, possibly through a broken window and with the life raft ripped from the deck the crew were at the mercy of the ocean. The helicopter crew recovered them all, however the skipper of the yacht did not survive the ordeal.

If time could have stood still for a while, maybe things would have been different.

My point is that good situational awareness requires time, it is a process of gathering information and formulating a plan all of which occurs over an extended period. It is a rational exercise using parts of the brain best suited to strategic thought. If we shorten this time frame then the human brain attempts to compensate for this.

Two acknowledged pathways occur, one, for the experienced the other for the inexperienced;

o The inexperienced continue to rely on a strategic approach but have to contend with the limits of their working memory. Unfortunately, the working memory is finite and quickly fills with stress leaving very little capacity for processing information.

o The experienced begin a process defined by their ability to retrieve a memory of a similar situation that resulted in a positive outcome. This process is quick; however, it only works when the recalled memory matches the needs of the current situation. When faced with a problem that does not match a suitable memory their mind either fixes on a less than perfect solution (mindset), or loops through various memories without finding a solution (kaleidoscopes).

Missed information



Jason Bourne demonstrating exceptional SA above.

Flying a helicopter in cloud (IMC) without the visual cues that a natural horizon affords requires several important instruments. Without these it is not possible.

The layout of these instruments, their size and colour are all designed to aid with identifying when changes occur. The pilots develop a “scan” of these critical displays and rarely take their eyes off them. Other less important instruments are included in the “scan” only when prompted by a warning message or when completing check lists. It is a good system and works well when things are going as planned.

Developing a “scan” of yacht specific items may look a little like this;

o current and forecast weather,

o collision avoidance,

o serviceability of essential equipment,

o health of crew members,

o sea state and tidal information, etc.

Traditionally this scan has been encouraged by the use of a ships log, supplemented with a verbal hand over during watch changes. Nowadays, digital records detailing all manner of information including the servicing of safety equipment and the frequency of crew training compliments this.

The above method builds on an important concept: that true situational awareness occurs only when all members of the team have become situationally aware.

So, what actions can we perform to help maintain SA?

By freeing-up some band-with prior to departure we create space for some rational thought if required, such as;

o Learn how to use essential equipment without having to think about it.

o Assign each crew member an action to perform in the event of specific emergencies prior to departure.

o Ensure that whatever constitutes good information is readily available to you (a “scan”) and that you have a means to recognise when it is not working.

o Build mental models and increase your experience of dealing with emergencies and making decisions by simulating those activities in a controlled environment.

Whilst as sea;


o Constantly evaluate your own SA and work to maintain it.

o Communicate often with clear instructions sharing your mental model (discussed later) and ensuring that you are understood.

o Recognise when you are losing SA and do something about it, breathe and use your rational brain.

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