Inattentive Blindness

Page Last Modified / Reviewed: 
Oct 2021


It’s logical to think that you can see when your eyes are open but are you noticing everything in your field of view? Attention plays a crucial role in our ability to see what is happening around us.

Inattentive blindness is a failure to notice unexpected things in a visual field because focus is on something else in that same field of view. This blindness can visually distract us from what else is happening in our environment. Inattentive blindness can cause you to see what you expect, rather than what is actually there.

Inattentive blindness can occur in any setting. Have you ever been so focused on cutting fireline that you failed to see a plane make a retardant drop nearby? Has an unresolved issue at home distracted you from a routine morning task like engine inspections?

The fire environment is full of distractions that require proactive engagement to maintain focus. A core competency of emergency responders is the ability to direct attention on a deliberately chosen target and sustain that attention even when it’s unpleasant.

Noisy chainsaws, helicopters performing bucket operations, dozers clanking around the hillside, and the constant chatter over the radio create distractions within our fire environment. As leaders it’s our responsibility to maintain awareness of our area of operation. The nature of our dynamic environment requires a collective effort of engagement and the repeated actions of situational awareness (SA) and communication.

To increase our odds of processing our environment, we need to empower those around us. Whether you’re the Division Supervisor, Single Resource Boss, Squad Boss, or Firefighter Type 2, foster a healthy command climate that allows for open communication both up and down the chain of command.

Span of control is another tool that helps in the battle of inattentiveness. Being able to delegate tasks helps our mental capacity and provides us with different viewpoints within the fire environment.

Discuss these questions:

  • What situations in your daily work are likely to result in inattentive blindness?
  • What situations on a fire are likely to result in inattentive blindness?
  • How can you prepare for and mitigate this condition?
  • How do you maintain awareness of your own attention?

Additional Resources

Incident Management Situation Report (IMSR)
Incident Response Pocket Guide (IRPG), PMS 461
NWCG Standards for Helicopter Operations, PMS 510
RT-130, Wildland Fire Safety Training Annual Refresher (WFSTAR)
Interagency Standards for Fire and Fire Aviation Operations (Red Book)
Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center

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