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Beyond Situational Awareness: Getting to the Complete Picture

by Greg d’Arbonne
EMA Emergency Management, EMS Emergency Medical Services, FD Fire Departments, Law Enforcement, badges article logo label

   It seems like the buzzword “Situational Awareness” is everywhere. We hear it in the Military, the Intelligence Community, by First Responders’ in ICCs; we even hear it from our political leaders. So if everyone is “aware” of what’s going on during an incident, why does it take us so long to fix things? Because Situational Awareness is only the first of four levels of addressing a crisis situation, and if you ignore the other three you may have a less than complete response. Situational Understanding, Situational Management, and Situational Reconstruction answer additional levels of incident information and provide a way to incorporate lessons learned into future incident responses.

   If you Google “Situational Awareness,” you will see many articles and definitions. There are some very good papers done by people who have researched the subject. Situational Awareness, however, while very much needed, is only a portion of what intelligence and emergency management professionals need to be doing in a crisis. The information needed during an incident is not merely “hey, something is happening;” it is also Situational Understanding, which is the “why is this happening?” In the ICC, or the Emergency Operations Center, or Tactical Operations Center or wherever you are to coordinate the response to an incident, you ultimately must have the information to fix the problem as quickly as possible, not only to save life and limb but to ensure the public will support you in the future when you need their support.

   With Situational Understanding we can determine what is needed to fix a crisis or to counter the moves of an adversary. This understanding, garnered from the resources/equipment (cameras, sensors, etc.) that we gain from Situational Awareness, plus the human input of those responding to a crisis, is a critical piece in the training of First Responders, intelligence professionals, and all those who must respond to an emergency. The use of cameras and capabilities demonstrated by police forces to investigate the Boston marathon bombing was all made possible through use of technologies for Situational Awareness; putting the pieces of evidence together provided Situational Understanding. The time spent on training how to gather this understanding is just as important as learning how to create Situational Awareness. The military uses training events to train a staff that supports a Commander so that they can provide the Commander with both Situational Awareness and Situational Understanding. The training of the investigators, and the collaboration conducted by the investigators working together across agencies and with the public, make it possible for investigators to have Situational Understanding so they can bring the proper resources and personnel to solve and mitigate the crisis.

   Using the Boston marathon bombing as an example, the Incident Command Center (ICC) was the nerve center for the various agencies responsible for not only the running of the marathon event but also for the protection of the public during the event. The function of an ICC/Operations Center is to be the collective brainpower for all the agencies that need to be involved in mitigating a situation so that those who are in leadership positions, be they a mayor, a governor, a fire chief, a police chief, whomever, can get people’s lives back to the way they were before the incident, disaster, etc. Once the bombing occurred, though, the ICC quickly transformed into a nerve center for mitigating the disaster of the bombing and saving life and limb. The ICC now had to manage the situation; I call this Situational Management. This is what an ICC/Tactical Operations Center/Emergency Operations Center is all about; managing the situation for the leadership.

   Additionally, through the ICC/Operations Center’s ability to do Situational Management, they can assist the First Responders in an emergency to provide immediate aid and assistance to those who need it. Those who are tasked with providing resources for First Responders and for the decision makers at the higher levels have this critical function of Situational Management—one that has to be trained as often as possible, in as realistic an environment as possible, with feedback given during and after the training. This can be extremely costly when using actual resources and very time-consuming. This is especially difficult for rural communities in that most of their First Responders are volunteers whose emergency management leadership usually has other duties. Thus they cannot dedicate full-time personnel to train these volunteers in the services or in how to manage these situations.

Situational Management Training Resources

   In this age of technology that allows people to tap into resources from wherever they are and whenever they have time to do so, the Internet becomes a place where people can learn and collaborate with others who are facing or have faced similar situations. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has provided excellent resources on the Internet to learn about Situational Management. Additionally, the National Guard of every state and the military Reserve units across the country, who are often tapped to provide assistance during an emergency, have the experience in operating in Tactical Operations Centers, the military’s equivalent of ICCs. They can help other state/local/tribal agencies in managing their resources during a crisis. The procedures, the techniques, and the lessons they have learned benefit not only the military but also their local communities. In many cases these military personnel are emergency responders in their local communities. We need to recognize and call upon these people during our training, and especially during a crisis, as their training and experience will kick in naturally. They will do Situational Management because they recognize it needs to be done.

   Additionally, equipment and techniques used during a crisis should be as familiar as possible to the responders using them. Training should be closely aligned to how those responding will employ the equipment. This is because there is no funding for a “crisis only” piece of equipment, as opposed to a “daily only use” asset. Dual function and familiar equipment should be thoughtfully purchased in a way that is also as intuitive as possible. All emergency response equipment must be employed as often as possible. For example, a laptop that is used in an office can be quickly disconnected and moved to an ICC, where it can be reconnected and used just as in the office. Arriving at an incident where the First Responders may not have used the equipment for a while, or may have forgotten how it even turns on, is counterproductive to gaining and maintaining Situational Understanding. Local Situational Management Planning has to take all of this into account, as those in the ICC/Operations Center have to understand who is involved in the response as well as what resources are available. Well laid out and documented procedures for a crisis response will ensure that realistic and dependable management of the situation will be one the most powerful factors in the response to the crisis.

Learn to Embrace “Lessons Learned”

   One more aspect that is not always executed, although often talked about, is the after incident review/After Action Review (AAR). It is often recognized that the same mistakes are made over and over during a crisis or incident simply because we forgot to go back and change procedures, get the right equipment made, get the checklist together, etc. Some people call this after incident forensics, some call it incident reconstruction, and others call it after action review. Keeping with my theme of using the word “situation,” I refer to this as Situational Reconstruction. Situational Reconstruction is a critical piece of the post-event actions that need to be done by emergency responders and particularly by the leadership who were in charge during the incident. Every situation is going to be different, but it is crucial to reach back into past incidents to determine which, if any, actions that were taken failed to correct the problem and to identify the actions that actually fixed the problem. Documenting and reviewing the event could help to build for future reference how to fix any new problem that may be presented in another crisis.

   During a disaster, the public expects professional capability, knowledge, and rapid response from the First Responders and their leadership. The First Responders expect their leadership to be professional, knowledgeable, and competent so they can be confident that the leadership will have their safety in mind as well. The leadership during a crisis expects their staff, who will be providing them with information so they can manage a situation, are also professional, knowledgeable, and competent. Situational Awareness is certainly important, but as I have described here, without the “understanding of why” something is happening, Situational Understanding, we cannot begin to have Situational Management that is needed to bring the personnel and equipment to mitigate the damage and save life and limb, and to later do Situational Reconstruction so as to not make the same mistakes again in future crisis. Without the entire process, all the Situational Awareness in the world does you no good. The pre-event training, practice, and collaboration on a daily basis by various agencies, plus building personal relationships, will enhance Situational Understanding, Management and Reconstruction so that in a crisis the public is served properly, competently, and professionally. We owe that to the public and those who serve to protect the public.

Lieutenant Colonel (Retired) Greg d'Arbonne is a graduate of Fordham University, New York City, with a degree in Finance. Commissioned as an Infantry Officer through the ROTC program, he served in a variety of combat units at the Platoon, Company, Battalion, Brigade, Division and Theater Army level, retiring after 21 years of service. Greg currently works for Activu Corporation (, a developer of Intelligent Visualization Solutions. While in the Army and since retiring, Greg has concentrated his efforts and experience in the Operations and Intelligence arena. He has also been an Adjunct Professor, teaching Masters Degree courses in Business Continuity, Counter-Terrorism, Leadership, White Collar Crime, Communications, and Organizational Behavior. Greg can be reached at

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