National Wildfire Coordinating Group

2016 WOR Day 4: Situational Awareness and Mindfulness

Ribbon symbol for survivor next to the Wildland Firefighter Lessons Learned logoWeek of Remembrance June 30-July 6, 2016

Applying Situational Awareness (SA) – an on-going process of perceiving what is going on around you, comprehending the meaning of what we are noticing, and projecting and predicting this comprehension forward in time – can often be challenging. Research has indicated that three-fourths of SA errors can be traced to something important happening in our environment, and we missed it (Jones & Endsley, 1996). In a high risk world like wildland fire, missing important cues or events can lead to catastrophic outcomes. The practice of mindfulness can help.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is paying attention, on purpose, and in the present moment (Kabat-Zinn, 1990). In wildland fire, research has shown that when we are operating at our best we are often engaging mindfully (Lewis & Ebbeck, 2014). Through practicing we can become more mindful or “mentally fit” to catch more errors more of the time.

How to Practice:

Mindfulness is training your awareness to be where it is most useful in the moment. To practice your attention needs to be focused in the present moment, and hold a non-judgmental attitude of what you perceive. Here are a few exercises to try for one minute each:

  • Focus on the breath coming in your nose, into your lungs, and pushing back out, watching the breath move; if your mind wanders gentle refocus it back on the breath.
  • Walk around very slowly and pay attention to the feeling of the foot making contact with the ground with each step; if your mind wanders gently bring it back and refocus.

Day to-Day:

  • When driving, avoid multi-tasking. If you need to make a phone call, talk on the radio, eat, or look for something inside the vehicle, pull over if possible and complete that task.
  • Mindset: when doing something you’ve done a lot, or that is “routine”, see if you can notice 2-3 new things about what you are doing rather than doing them on autopilot.
  • When engaged in these routine behaviors (brushing your teeth, sitting in traffic, eating) practice being in the moment as much as possible. The more often you practice it in these situations, the more able you will be to utilize this skill in the dynamic environments in which we work.

graphic of mountains with mile markers of physical capacity in various locations.

The topics for the NWCG “Wildland Firefighter Week of Remembrance” have been drawn from the Human Performance Optimization course taught as a part of the USFS Apprentice Academy in cooperation with the Missoula Technology and Development Center (MTDC) and is rooted in the desire to prepare wildland fire personnel to optimally manage themselves and others at any given time. Review and resources have been contributed by the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center, NIFC External Affairs, the Wildland Fire annual refresher group, and the Wildland Fire Leadership Subcommittee.


Week of Remembrance
Page Last Modified / Reviewed: 
Aug 2023

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