Trail Safe Lesson 6 - Situational Awareness
Situational Awareness involves being aware of what is happening around you in order to understand how information, events, and your own actions will impact your goals and objectives, both now and in the near future. Here in Lesson 6, we'll discuss the concept of mental models, and the importance of having a shared mental model when working with others. We'll identify and list individual and team strategies to maintain situational awareness, and we'll describe skill and complacency errors and list personal strategies to combat them.
A mental model is a picture in our mind of the current situation we perceive. We make decisions based on this perception. Mental model is composed from bits and pieces of information we gather and store in our memory. We retrieve the pieces when they're needed to reconstruct the picture. But the mental model picture we construct in our minds is not like a picture from a camera. It isn't an exact representation like a photograph. It's only enough bits and pieces of information to form a mental model that satisfies our perception of the situation.
Our brains fill in the missing parts automatically based upon our past experiences. Mental models are so basic to our understanding of the world that we hardly are conscious of them.
Let's conduct a little experiment that demonstrates the concept of a mental model. I want you to go find a piece of paper and pencil and when I say go, pause this slide show for one minute, and I want you in that one minute, to all draw me the heads side of a penny. No fair going out and finding one to copy from. You have to do this from memory. One minute to draw a penny.. Ready. Go.
And stop. Time's up. How did you do? Let's take a look and see what everybody has there. Well, everybody's got the penny round. Good start. And I see different variations of Abraham Lincoln. Is he facing to the right on your drawing? How many people had in God We Trust across the top of the penny? Not everybody. How about the word liberty off to the left? Even fewer people. What about the year and the designation where the penny was made in front of Lincoln's chest? The little S means San Francisco. That's the mint where that penny was made. Even fewer of you have that. Nobody's got this thing totally right. Why? Don't you all know what it looks like?Why can you not draw a perfect replica of a penny? It's the mental model we have. Our brains see enough key pieces of information to automatically fill in the rest subconsciously to provide us with an answer to something. If we only see a piece of a penny. We can still say, "Hey, a penny." We don't need to see the whole thing because our brains jump in and fill in the gaps. And you know. That can cause us problems in situational awareness. We think we have a full picture in our minds about what we're seeing, but some of the details in reality may be missing.
Let's discuss internal mental models. Just like in our penny drawing exercise, internal mental models are permanently stored pieces of information we have developed throughout life. If internal mental models are incomplete, they work as information filters which cause selective attention. We sometimes call them biases and prejudices. When internal mental models are complete, we use them to make general predictions. Internal mental models usually come from experience and training. Now let's look at situational mental models. Internal models are good for general predictions, but situational models are more useful in a real time environment. Situational models are developed in real time by gathering current information. They give us a more accurate mental model of the situation at hand. More accurate than our own internal mental models.
To create a situational mental model, we first gather real time information about what is happening around us. Our brains process that real time information and compare it with stored mental models from our long term memories. By comparing things we already know with the new real time information we can form a perception about our current situation. By doing so, we have then created a new situational awareness mental model. Lastly, we are now able to make appropriate decisions for the situation at hand. We have based our decisions and actions upon a situational awareness mental model. It's important to understand that each person has their own mental model of the situation. But in order for teams to work effectively there needs to be a shared mental model so that everyone on the team is working toward the same vision or a shared mental model.
Let's do a quick exercise. I want everybody to take just a second and create your mental model of a cup of coffee.
Pretty simple right? Just like the penny drawing exercise we all know what a cup of coffee looks like don't we? It looks like this. Just a plain ceramic mug with black coffee in it right? Oh wait, your coffee always comes in a travel mug? Whoops. Somebody else says that their coffee always comes in a paper cup with a lid. What mocha latte foam in a cup with a saucer. How do you get in this audience? Well, as you can see, something as common as a cup of coffee can have many different mental models.
We always need to share information to ensure that we are working toward a shared mental model.
Now suppose you were asked to skin a grizzly bear. Is the mental model you have of that task always going to match up with other people's mental models.
Let's watch a short video clip from the movie Jeremiah Johnson.
It's. Been oh crap. What are you doing. I think you're shaking.
Oh. Sure. Oh good.
As we can see shared mental models are not automatic. Was the bear in your mental model still alive. We need to discuss with others what are individual mental models consist of. In order for us to collectively develop a shared mental model which provides for situational awareness of the entire team we all need to share information about the task team goals and objectives and team member roles and responsibilities.
So how can we tell if we're starting to lose our situational awareness. Some clues to watch for include poor communications or confusion or gut feeling when no one is watching or looking for hazards. Failure to meet plan targets unresolved discrepancies ambiguity fixation or preoccupation and departure from policies.
So if we notice that we are losing our situational awareness what should we do to correct things. That depends upon our current threat level and low threat environments. Probably won't have significant adverse outcomes. We should gather more information to develop a better mental model and regain our situational awareness. We can probably keep working as we accomplish this but be aware that we are in a danger zone of complacency and must always be watching for new unexpected hazards in moderate threat environments where errors could lead to greater adverse outcomes.
We should slow down. Maybe our bridge building plans are getting off course and to continue any further and may lead to wasted time and materials or the need to remodel the bridge later on. In any case slow down and go back to a familiar point to reassess the situation before proceeding. In high threat environments. The only thing to do when you sense that situational awareness has been lost is to stop. Go back to your team's shared mental model procedures and fully redevelop team situational awareness before.
Volunteer work continues.
Before moving on. Let's mention how complacency affects situational awareness. Complacency happens when we fail to recognize potential threats and operate in a relaxed mode that may not be appropriate to our situation. We don't observe changes in our surroundings and over time we develop unsafe work practices which we consider to be acceptable or the new norm. Ask yourself this question who is generally more complacent and experienced volunteer work. Inexperienced volunteer there is a way to measure the potential for skill air versus complacency here.
Let's review a simple formula that will allow us to predict possible errors based upon skill versus complacency.
The type of air we are likely to experience skill air or complacency air can be calculated by multiplying our task repetition times our level of confidence. Times are years of experience as with the other formulas we've looked at in previous lessons. This formula can only be used for one specific task at a time. The first variable in our formula is repetition. How many times throughout our lives have we performed this task. Let's use another trail volunteer example. Let's say that I am the volunteer and I'm going to
use some power saws to construct brochure boxes for the trailheads in my area. I've been using these saws all my life and I've made these brochure boxes before so I'm going to give myself a rating of four on the repetition part of the formula. Next I need to assess my confidence level. And like I said when it comes to building brochure boxes. Been there done that. I'm positive I won't have any trouble at this time and I'm giving myself a 5.
The last variable of the equation deals with years of experience. And like I said I'm a brochure box builder from way back. I have more than 15 years of experience doing this task so I get a 4.
So to calculate my potential for air and more importantly what kind of air I multiply my number 4 for repetition times my number 5 for confidence times my number 4 for years of experience.
My total score is 80.
So my score of 80 is an indicator that I may have a higher risk of error due to complacency. My skill levels are there but over the years that I allow my situational awareness to weaken if I allowed some short cuts or bad habits to creep into my work practices I need to stop and think about that and make sure my situational awareness is where it needs to be. When I start to do this very familiar and routine task of building brochure boxes as you can see people who are new to a task or unsure of their skills will score more strongly for experiencing skills errors while those who are highly confident with years of
experience are more prone to error caused by complacency. Regardless of which category we may find ourselves in maintaining situational awareness will help us to stay engaged with our volunteer work at the appropriate risk levels and increase our potential for a safe and successful outcome. Thank you for your participation in Lesson 6 of Trail Safe.