Situational Awareness on the Front Lines in the Homeland

Secondary Devices in a Secondary Career


Continuing to serve

Sam Smith always wanted to be a fireman. Like so many seasoned public safety veterans, he talks a lot about giving back to his community and how much serving the public means to him. Having a big heart is a core job requirement. But, there is definitely something else at work here, too. Wearing a big grin, he admits “I have a picture of me at 6 years old with a fire truck.” So many little boys are eager to grow up and drive police cars and fire trucks and speed into the distance with lights and siren blaring to save others who are in trouble. What could be more noble? Maybe there’s a ray of hope in that for our future generations.

Smith, whose real name has been omitted from this article for security reasons, recently retired as an assistant chief from a city fire department in the Southeastern US. He then eagerly jumped on an opportunity to start a second career working in his county emergency management office. “I wanted to stay in public safety,” he says. “That was the route I wanted to continue to serve.” Smith says he has found emergency management to be a broad and varied field. He talks a lot about situational awareness, which is not surprising. “Situational awareness is a buzzword, but that’s what has to happen,” he says. “It has been a heavy focus in the fire service.” For Smith, situational awareness is not just something exercised while on the job, though. “I usually try to get in about thirty minutes each of two different news sources. Not just local news.” Smith says he tries to stay in tune with his environment: “I feel like it’s important to keep up with what’s going on in the big picture. You have to understand what may be a possible threat.”

For Americans working to protect the homeland in 2015, this kind of situational awareness is as important as ever. The recent terrorist attack in in Texas underscores the need for homeland security professionals — whether they are serving their communities as first responders, emergency managers, or transportation and border security officials — to keep their fingers on the pulse of an ever-evolving terrorist threat.

Photo: US Military Personnel Engaged in Explosives Training. Everyday sights, like the vehicle in this photo, may present unique hazards to responders when maliciously used by adversaries.

Terrorism is something Smith has kept on his radar for a long time. “The first professional impact was when the information came out about the secondary devices in Atlanta that were intended to kill first responders at the scene.” On a cold January morning in 1997, Eric Robert Rudolph bombed Atlanta Northside Family Planning Services, an abortion clinic just outside Atlanta, Georgia. Seven people were injured. Rudolph, a terrorist whose modus operandi included deliberately targeting law enforcement officers, had planted two bombs at the clinic. One went off about an hour after the first. For Smith, the Atlanta clinic bombing was the turning point “when we really started looking at homeland security — aspects of terrorist influence — on our responses.” The difference? “Situational awareness,” he says, “bombs hidden in cars and dumpsters.” It made first responders look at their world differently. “Everyday objects” like cars and dumpsters were now, to Smith and his comrades, imminently important. It wasn’t just the explosion or the fire that could kill him. It was also the trash can he passed on his way into the building.

Being a first responder is supposed to be about getting your hands dirty and taking care of problems head-on. For professionals trained to rush into danger, second-guessing yourself is not part of the equation. After the Atlanta bombings, first responders like Smith were forced to take a step back and think about what could be laying in wait for them. “It made you less secure,” he remembers. “You could pull up to any kind of building. Your thoughts are getting in, getting the fire out, doing rescue. Now, this added more to what your thought process had to be. What are you surroundings? Do we know if this has been an explosion or not? Am I parking the truck next to a dumpster or empty vehicle sitting by itself in the parking lot? It added a whole new level of stress to a response situation that wasn’t there before.” Maintaining situational awareness now meant holding a healthy amount of suspicion about ‘unknowns’ even when things may have seemed clear.


“It added a whole new level of stress.”


Still, though, the equation for emergency response was a balancing act designed to aid victims, protect first responders, and, in deliberate attacks, find and punish the bad guys. The general public was usually taken for granted as being out of harm’s way. Terrorism was something that happened to other people in other places. “Until 2001, it wasn’t a factor,” Smith says. September 11, 2001 changed how first responders — and everyone else in America — viewed the world. No longer were abortion clinics and first responders being singled out — now everyone was a target. The reality of this new terrorism meant that routine situations were somehow turned upside-down. A new paradigm was born to make help sense out of this confusing new world: homeland security.

Staying ahead of the curve

For Smith and other first responders, the 9/11 attacks changed the culture of emergency response. “2001 made us think, as responders, about how we respond to a significant event,” he says. There was an urgent need to learn about the new enemy — the new threat of terrorism. “As a first responder, I didn’t have an avenue to find out about threat levels or information about what kind of events could happen in-country, or out-of-country. Large events made the news, but never gave a thought to smaller events.” Suddenly, what had previously been seen as happening ‘over there’ was relevant here at home. There were lessons to be learned from every attack. Homeland security was to be the country’s teacher, in a sense, helping to open the eyes of first responders in America about what everyone now understood could happen here, hopefully saving lives along the way.

The key for situational awareness is staying ahead of the curve. Situational awareness keeps you from being blindsided. In today’s environment, terrorists change and adapt tactics seemingly in lockstep with law enforcement and government officials. Technology is providing new challenges, especially in terms of keeping up with social media. It is natural for a fireman or police officer to sense something abnormal just by listening to the variations in someone’s voice, such as when a person is injured and in pain. Public safety officials rely on this kind of instinct to guide their actions and to help protect themselves. Unfortunately, the same skill cannot be used when analyzing Twitter messages.

Researchers are continually grappling with the task of maintaining situational awareness in spite of the increasing challenges of modern technology, especially social media. One recent study in Romania, for example, examined how a computer system might detect emotion in social media communications from a disaster affected area, with the goal of better informing response decisions. For homeland security professionals, better situational awareness means less stress — and, hopefully, better service to the public.


“You can’t stop responding just because there’s a threat out there.”


For any first responder, stress and anxiety come with the job. In a sense, homeland security may represent America’s anxiety writ large. Smith remembers what he thought homeland security would focus on as America recovered from the 9/11 attacks: “At first, homeland security’s definition was to secure ‘here’ (America, the homeland), translate information, get it out to the public.” Today, Smith thinks most folks in his community in rural Southeast feel like it should focus on a single, critical mission: “Keeping the bad guys out.”

But, for DHS, ‘not knowing’ what the future held in store for America inevitably meant that the agency’s focus was destined to be unclear. As an assistant fire chief, Smith’s focus was on his city. “You’re in a bubble, worried about your municipality,” he says. Firefighters spend a lot of time in the buildings they protect, learning about their community and its hazards. Most of the players are known: local officials, major industries, and extensive pre-planning for emergency responses.

Now, as an emergency manager, Smith says he must keep up with a more complicated set of issues and events than what he dealt with in the fire service. “Here, it’s a lot more about what’s going on across the country. It’s influential across a broad spectrum, not only first responders, but the community as well.” The key difference for emergency management, he says, is the audience. “There’s not a limit to just one geographical area. It’s the county as a whole, from politicians to everyday people.”

Emergency management offers different challenges, he says. “There’s more of a variety. It’s not always an ‘emergency.’” But, despite the broader focus, Smith emphasizes the critical role the emergency manager plays in maintaining that “broader focus” and making his community more resilient to disaster impacts. “If we don’t do what we do, who’s going to do it? It can be slow and boring. It’s a lot of planning. But you have to have those plans so you can execute when you’re in need.” There are always unknowns, he says. Maintaining situational awareness means not just understanding the local community and its hazards, but also keeping up with the latest information from DHS and current events on the news. Nonetheless, he says the requirement to rush into danger and save lives is always the order of business: “You can’t stop responding just because there’s a threat out there.”

“Blanket information sharing”

A broad focus, and too many issues to keep up with, has also been a concern for DHS. In the months after 9/11, and still today, we find many words in the media devoted to discussion of how federal agencies like CIA and the FBI and their counterparts face continual challenges communicating among themselves and sharing information adequately. The magnitude of what DHS has become is hard to comprehend. “Originally, I thought about DHS as a big border patrol agency, with a grand scheme to protect borders — not just the southern border but all points of entry,” Smith says. Now, for Smith and many who work in the homeland security enterprise, DHS is “a large government agency that has taken on its own life, and maybe lost a little of its initial tasking, that has its fingers in so many pies that it would be really hard to define what the entire goal may be.”

Being tasked with a mission of sharing information and getting the message out to both first responders and to the public means DHS regularly issues all kinds of reports, guidance, and documents covering topics ranging from the Coast Guard, to border security, to bioterrorism, to tsunami preparedness. Homeland security is everywhere. “Like anything where you put so much out there, you get desensitized to it. Now it’s on everything. Before, when it was new, it would catch your eye.” For Smith, this means crucial information can sometimes be lost in a fog of overwhelming amounts of information. “Sometimes, its hard to discern what’s really important from what may just be blanket information sharing.”

How should we sort through the fog and ensure critical homeland security information stays relevant — and ensure the people who need the information are actually receiving it? We are constantly bombarded with information. Emails and updates from state and federal officials. The 24-hour news cycle. Social media. Smith draws on his years of experience exercising situational awareness to help deal with the stress of information overload and the high stakes of homeland security and public safety operations, a skill he hopes others will continue to exercise. “The only thing you can do is better educate the responders,” he says, “to make them aware that they need to take an overall snapshot of what’s going on.”

A 2007 paper authored by Harrald and Jefferson of The George Washington University entitled “Shared Situational Awareness in Emergency Management Mitigation and Response” examines some of the historical influences on how situational awareness is understood in the homeland security enterprise. The authors point out that a heritage of top-down, military-style “command and control” models of information sharing underpin how emergency management and homeland security activities are organized today at the local, state, and federal level in the US. They go on to point out that true situational awareness will inevitably be unique for each participant in a large-scale emergency or disaster.

Significant among the authors’ observations is that transmitting “semantic meaning” — the unique meaning a piece of information holds for a specific person—is difficult, if not impossible, in a disaster. Pushing raw information ‘up-the-chain’ or using an information-sharing technology platform is not the same thing as sharing knowledge. In a nutshell, it’s common sense: the same information will have different meanings for different people. One person may see a flooded house and call it ‘destroyed,’ while another may say it is merely ‘heavily damaged.’

For first responders — and especially those who are supervisors — the Harrald and Jefferson paper is an interesting read, and it would make for a great 15-minute training in the firehouse or at roll-call in the police station. The paper identifies five key problems that hinder our ability to share situational awareness in a disaster. These problems, when rephrased as questions, make a great checklist for responders to keep in the backs of their minds when taking in information when in the office, in the field, and in the EOC or command post. These key points are paraphrased and summarized below:

  1. What does it mean to them, and what does it mean to me? “Them” includes both (a) whomever is sending you the information, and (b) whomever is going to eventually receive the information from you. Keep in mind the ‘information’ in question could be as simple as surveying cars in a parking lot. Paying attention to spot something that is out-of-place or that may (or may not) have special meaning is the key. The same information will mean different things to different people. If you hear someone say “the building has major damage,” does that mean the structure is completely demolished and no longer recognizable, or that the power is off and there are a few roof leaks?
  2. How good is the information? Quality control. Do you have all the information, or only bits-and-pieces? How old is the information? Is this information corroborating what you already know, or is it taking you in a different direction entirely?
  3. Does it matter to me? This is a tricky one. Scanning the environment means you are constantly taking in new information, at least some of which will be irrelevant. But, you may need to refer back to that irrelevant information in the future if your responsibilities change or if the incident circumstances change. Additionally, it’s critical to know what is important to the people you will be working with and communicating with. Think of this in terms of the old office parable: “You need to know how to do the jobs of the people two levels beneath you and one level above you.” Strive to know not only what is relevant to you, but also what is relevant to the key partners with whom you are working.
  4. What is the perception of the information? This is where context and bias come into play. If you hear someone excited on the radio screaming about a major fire, ask yourself: does this person usually get excited, or is the behavior out-of-character? Has anything happened recently to make this person change the way she normally perceives things? Are there cultural or educational issues at play? Think about the difference between a radiological IED (a dirty bomb) and a nuclear weapon. In a disaster, how might people perceive the word “radiological” differently depending on their training and education?
  5. Is everyone on the same page? Sometimes, it is helpful to do a group ‘reality check.’ This may mean taking a step back and checking to see that everyone’s actions match up with how you think things should be going — and, if not, asking yourself where the disconnect is. It may also mean holding a briefing in an EOC to ensure everyone has a chance to offer information and ask questions, or taking time out on a conference call to offer perspectives from each level of a response on how an incident is progressing — and where it should be headed.

“Ever changing and always challenging.”

Sam Smith’s bottom line is simple: “Keep educating yourself on situational awareness.” The environment is “ever changing and always challenging,” he says. “It’s important to make sure we are aware of what’s going on around us.”

For homeland security professionals, whether you’re sorting through tons of email, driving a fire truck, driving a desk, or just driving the kids to a game, those are words to live by.

This article is Part One of a series on Situational Awareness and Decision Making in the homeland security enterprise. Stay tuned for Part Two.

References and Links:

Teodorescu, H.-N. “SN Voice and Text Analysis as a Tool for Disaster Effects Estimation #x2014; A Preliminary Exploration.” In 2013 7th Conference on Speech Technology and Human — Computer Dialogue (SpeD), 1–8, 2013. doi:10.1109/SpeD.2013.6682650. http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/xpl/articleDetails.jsp?tp=&arnumber=6682650

Harrald, John. “Shared Situational Awareness in Emergency Management Mitigation and Response.” In Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, Big Island, Forthcoming. Society Press, 2007. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/summary?doi=10.1.1.123.1409

Bragg, Rick. “2 Bomb Blasts Rock Abortion Clinic at Atlanta; 6 Are Injured.” The New York Times, January 17, 1997, sec. U.S. http://www.nytimes.com/1997/01/17/us/2-bomb-blasts-rock-abortion-clinic-at-atlanta-6-are-injured.html.

Chandler, Adam. “A Terror Attack in Texas.” The Atlantic, May 4, 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2015/05/a-terror-attack-in-texas/392288/