Got Situational Awareness?

“Maintain the big picture and think ahead”

It happens all the time.  We go hiking in the mountains and enjoy an casual conversation while watching the ground for good footing.  Occasionally, we will look up to witness a beautiful scene:  a sunrise, a vista, or to read a sign.  In this typical scenario, we have neglected to take full advantage of the opportunity to collect more current information about our planned adventure.  For example:

Where am I on the map?  Can I confirm I’m on the right trail?
What are the landmarks that will help me find my way back?  
Are there clues indicating a deterioration of the weather?
Are we making sufficient progress with the time available?  
Is the water supply as and where expected?  
Is our team/group working well together?  
Are we experiencing any health issues?  

Situational Awareness

The High Peaks are a part of the wild, uncontrollable places, and our safe success there depends upon our ability to collect up-to-the-minute information to use in making quality decisions on how to respond.  Only a fool assumes that everything will just work out well, somehow.  To make high speed, high quality decisions on the trail, we must build and maintain “situational awareness.”

Situational Awareness (“SA”) is the perception of environmental elements within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future.  Situation awareness involves being aware of what is happening around you to understand how information, events, and your own actions will impact your goals and objectives, both now and in the near future. Lacking SA or having inadequate SA has been identified as one of the primary factors in accidents attributed to human error (e.g., Hartel, Smith, & Prince, 1991; Merket, Bergondy, & Cuevas-Mesa, 1997; Nullmeyer, Stella, Montijo, & Harden, 2005). (see wikipedia for more information – Situational Awareness).


So, how do we build Situational Awareness?

The formation of Situational Awareness (SA) has 3 stages: perception, comprehension, and projection.

(1) Perception: The first stage in achieving SA is to look for and be receptive to information about the relevant factors in the environment, such as weather, trail conditions, personal and partner fitness, water availability, availability of navigational clues and more.  

(example, not feeling well today; cannot hike at my normal pace)

(2) Comprehension: The next stage involves processing and integrating the new information to understand how the new information has an impact upon our goals.  Through the processes of pattern recognition, interpretation, and evaluation, comprehension results in the development of a comprehensive and current picture of the world. 

(example, hiking slower means it will take longer to reach the summit)

(3) Projection: The final stage of SA involves projecting the future behavior of the environmental factors. By extrapolating the new information into the next few hours (or days), we gain time to determine how it will affect future states of the operational environment.

(example, at this rate of progress, I’ll have to turnaround before reaching the summit) 



Where to begin?

Situational Awareness starts with a plan.  Planning ahead is important (which everyone knows) for two basic reasons (which everyone doesn’t know):  

(1) Resources: to bring the resources that we cannot find on the trail and that we probably need to achieve safe success, e.g., time, water, food, gear, information, and,

(2) Accurate Mental Model:  so we have an accurate mental model of the important variables and how they interact so we are prepared to react quickly and accurately to new information, e.g., weather changes, trail ambiguity, illness/injury, water availability.  

SA starts and ends with “a plan,” which is simply a model of the factors in play during our adventure. These factors, e.g,. landmarks for staying on course, milestones for monitoring progress, weather, water availability, health, are the things to which we should pay particular attention.  

Our plan also helps us to understand how the various environmental factors relate to our efforts to achieve safe success.  The “comprehension” stage of SA relies on our ability to see how the things we notice may impact our efforts.

Lastly, our study of the various factors that we plan for, e.g., weather, hiking pace, water availability, and more, prepares us to be able to predict how these factors may look in the near future based on what we observe while on the trail.  Our ability to monitor our speed/progress, the approach of poor weather, etc. and be able to project a few hours or days into the future is critical to giving us the information and time to make quality decisions while atop the high peaks.



Example progression from planning to SA to decision-making


3 Responses to “Got Situational Awareness?”

  1. ultranawin Says:

    that’s very interesthing

  2. Liam Bell Says:

    can I ask where you sourced the triangle diagram from? I am referencing it in my thesis but there is no source!

  3. joelavelle Says:

    Sorry for the late reply. I made the triangle diagram. You can use it if you reference my blog.

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