National Wildfire Coordinating Group

2015 WOR Day 4: Situational Awareness

Ribbon symbol for WOR next to Wildland Fire Lessons Learned logo.Week of Remembrance June 30-July 6, 2014

Q: What is Situational Awareness (SA)?

Often the response goes something like this “being aware of what’s going on around you and/or understanding the situation you’re in.”  The wildland fire environment is complex; firefighters are constantly adapting strategies and tactics to address problems. Information is gathered and communicated across multiple channels.  Observations are made to interpret the complex environment; generating an approximation of reality. How we interact with our environment will depend on our experience and the accuracy of our interoperation of reality. 

Q: Does SA get reduced to a catch phrase or used in a passive sense? “Make sure you keep good SA out there today!”

Situation Awareness is the foundation for decision making. Developing and maintaining situational awareness is a deliberate act; requiring energy and practice to improve its accuracy. Maintaining SA is difficult in the complex wildland fire environment. The closer our SA matches reality the more informed decisions we can make. Moreover the more accurate our SA, the greater our capacity is to increase margin into our tactics, thereby increasing our ability to be proactive rather than reactive.

Q: How good is your SA?

Have you ever found yourself thinking, “Nothing is going to happen today, we’re just mopping up” or “today is a big fire day”? These examples illustrate two very different levels of Situational Awareness and have a direct effect on the quality of our SA. Retired Marine Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper developed a system to classify awareness he called Cooper’s Color Code. Cooper’s Color Code allows firefighters to quantify their Situational Awareness and a specific target level. The intent is that each person becomes more cognizant of the quality of their SA. Cooper’s Color Code provides us with a language and imagery to describe our level of awareness at a given time. If we identify our level of awareness, we can deliberately move towards a higher quality of Situational Awareness.


Unaware and unprepared. In Condition white you will more than likely be surprised by changes in the environment.


Relaxed alert. No specific threat. Your mindset is that "today could be the day". You are simply aware that the world is a potentially dangerous place and you are building margin into your tactical decisions. You use your eyes and ears. Yellow is your target level of awareness you can remain in Yellow for long periods of time. In Yellow, you are "taking in" surrounding information in a relaxed but alert manner.


Specific alert. Something is not quite right and has your attention. Your radar has picked up a specific alert. You shift your primary focus to determine if there is a threat (but you continue to scan the larger environment). Your mindset shifts to focusing on the specific target which has caused the escalation in alert status. In Condition Orange, you set a mental trigger: "If the fire does "X", I will need to do “X”. Staying in Orange can be a bit of a mental strain, but you can stay in it for as long as you need to. If the threat proves to be nothing, you shift back to Condition Yellow.


Condition Red is fight. Your mental trigger (established back in Condition Orange) has been tripped. The “If the fire does "X", I will need to do “X” has happened. X has caused you to shift from your Primary or Alternate plan to activate your Contingency or Emergency plans (PACE). Red requires more energy and effort to maintain.


Begins to lose awareness of the surroundings, can no longer cognitively process information and may shut down completely.

Learn more about Situational Awareness on the Wildland Fire Leadership website and Leading in the Wildland Fire Service page 31.

Week of Remembrance
Page Last Modified / Reviewed: 
Jun 2023

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