Improving Situational Awareness for Public Safety

This summer marks the two-year anniversary of a derecho that caused widespread damage and left millions of people in the mid-Atlantic region without power during one of the hottest summers on record.  Public safety and public service personnel worked tirelessly to help their communities recover from such a widespread incident, relying on up to the minute information to coordinate their response.  However, obtaining and sharing the necessary information to orchestrate a response isn’t always a straightforward process.  Corner Alliance’s work with the public safety and public service communities has given us insight on some of the biggest obstacles affecting situational awareness, and our experience points to an overarching vision for enhancing this crucial capability.  I believe we can make some great progress in enhancing situational awareness by dividing it into four parts: A Working Definition, Necessary Information, Existing Roadblocks, and The Ideal State. One of the chief issues affecting situational awareness is the fact that there are many competing definitions for the term, even among disciplines and jurisdictions in the same geographic region.  Operating with a working definition encourages multiple paths to the same goal, allowing disciplines and localities to customize their approach based on what works best for them.  Looking across the different interpretations of situational awareness, I believe that it can be accurately summarized as knowing what’s going on around you so you can make decisions and act.  With this working definition in mind, public safety and public service personnel can focus on determining their approach to improving situational awareness based on their particular needs and capabilities.

The different definitions for situational awareness largely result from the distinct kinds of information that each discipline and jurisdiction may need to fulfill their role.  This isn’t surprising given the variety of responsibilities that are unique to each discipline, and it’s vital that organizations determine what specific information they need to share and receive when responding to an incident.  As a starting point, it’s helpful to highlight the most crucial necessary information that needs to be shared among all public safety and public service disciplines in both routine operations and large-scale incidents.  The most important information to have when coordinating incident response are the status and location of the incident, what personnel and facilities are available, as well as the projected scope or impact of the incident.  Ensuring that this baseline information is shared between disciplines and jurisdictions is a great first step to promote situational awareness while localities determine what additional information they need.

Once disciplines and jurisdictions identify the specific information they need, the next task is to overcome the existing roadblocks that impede sharing and receiving that information.  Chief among these obstacles is the fact that public safety and public service personnel only have so much time to devote to tracking down necessary information while simultaneously coordinating incident response.  Additionally, much of the information can only be found through individual connections with trusted people, rather than through institutional relationships with organizations or accurate databases.  There are also issues with forecasting resource and personnel needs when disciplines lack the information they need. We have found many are not always aware of what assets are available in a particular incident or how to quickly obtain them from federal, state, and local partners.  While many more detailed obstacles exist when trying to share and receive information, these four represent the most common roadblocks to improving situational awareness.  Understanding how these obstacles impact the information sharing process and incident response is essential to overcoming them and achieving a better state of situational awareness.

The fourth part of our approach to improving situational awareness is understanding the types of practices that disciplines and jurisdictions should strive to adopt.  Again, it’s important to customize information sharing and receiving processes to achieve greater understanding of what’s going on around you in order to make decisions and act effectively—what works for one locality may not be as successful in another.  Based on our data collection, the ideal state of situational awareness that public safety and public service should strive for includes sharing and receiving accurate information that facilitates timely decision-making and resource prediction.  Additionally, situational awareness should foster a coordinated response among disciplines and jurisdictions, promote community involvement, and result in consistent messaging to the public.

Improving situational awareness can seem like a daunting task to take on, but dividing the process into these four components is a good way to start determining what changes your organization can make to build this capability further.

How is your organization working to enhance situational awareness?

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