The officer was sitting at a stop light focused on his mobile terminal when his LT who was out for a casual bike ride, pulled up and grabbed onto the door handle of the squad car. The lieutenant looked into the car as the officer was working on his MDT. After about ten seconds, the LT banged on the window of the squad and the officer almost jumped out of his pants when he saw his LT sitting next to him. The moral of the story is the MDT distracting the officer’s situational awareness had more suction power than a super-charged Binford 2000 shop vac.
What is situational awareness (SA)? Technically defined, 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. Simply stated, it is what you are paying attention to and more importantly what you are not paying attention to. Clearly in this situation the officer’s attention was strictly limited to the MDT. Anything that could have been a threat around him was being ignored short of the bang on his window which interrupted his mental focus.
As officers we see motorists talking on their cell phones and even some text messaging. It is easy to see how others are distracted using these devices. But what about police officers who are expected to be using all this great technology to do the job? Do we as police officers seem to think we are somehow exempt from these distractions?
Situational Unawareness Can Kill
In the not so distant past, the only electronics a police officer had to be concerned with was a two way radio and a couple of switches to turn on a siren and red lights. Today’s squad car comes close to looking like a NORAD control center with an on board computer, dash cam, radar unit, multiple radios, sophisticated lighting and siren controls, car radio, let alone the cell phone, PDA, and other electronics the officer carries on his or her person. Although each of these can serve a valuable purpose, they are all tremendous distracters when it comes to situational awareness. As mentioned in the first paragraph, many of the technological devices being used today have the power to suck your mind into them leaving you situational unaware.
Consider this mnemonic: Situational Unawareness Can Kill. When you use these devices, don’t let them SUCK the life out of you.
We’ve all heard the term “multi-tasking” but it has been scientifically proven that our brains cannot focus on more than one thing at any one time. Yes, we can mentally jump back and forth between tasks, but just try to read the paper and carry on a conversation. Your brain simply won’t let you do that. What we must do is prioritize our thinking patterns. We call this TEMPO.
What, Exactly, is FAST?
It is the inherent nature of most cops that we must immediately respond to any call and respond as quickly as possible. But let’s analyze this overwhelming attitude and desire with some questions:
1.) Will a few seconds delay really make a difference?
• Unless someone has stopped breathing, something is on fire, or shots are being fired, getting there a few seconds earlier is not going to make a difference in the outcome.
2.) Would pulling over to the curb or shoulder to answer a call on your MDT or radio be safer?
• The few seconds for you to respond on an MDT or radio will not affect the outcome and you need to maintain your focus on driving.
3.) Does driving at breakneck speed really get you there that much faster?
• Responding at breakneck speed not only puts you at risk of an accident, but those other drivers who might be on their cell phones or not paying attention to you. High speed driving generally does not save you that much time in response, particularly in metro areas.
4.) During a traffic stop can you take your time in filling out a ticket or paperwork to continually scan your surroundings for threats and danger?
• Trying to only focus on writing a ticket or filling out paper work during a traffic stop can distract you from watching for signs of danger. Remember the violator is on your time schedule, not theirs.
5.) Have you given yourself time to think about how you are going to approach a scene or are you just trying to get there as fast as possible — as in, show up and throw up?
• Often in our effort to get to the scene quickly we not only raise our stress levels, i.e. adrenaline dumps, cortisol level raises, etc., but our awareness of what we are responding to can be altered. We need to slightly slow down our tempo and think as we approach any scenario.
• What am I driving into?
• What threats might exist?
• Could I be ambushed?
• What are my cover and concealment possibilities?
• How can I remain focused and maintain situational awareness of all my surroundings?
Considering these questions — and particularly reacting to them — may generate the notion: “Get Real” or “Are you kidding me? You really don’t know what we have to do!”
Yet, in an officer’s zeal to do the job, if he or she does not get to the scene safely the few seconds of hurry to respond become a moot point. Too many officers have lost their lives due to lack of “FAST” — lack of what I consider to be four core elements of officer safety: Focus, Attention, Situational awareness, and Tempo.
On every call, Think FAST! it could save your life.