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Dr. Richard B. Gasaway leads a seminar on situational awareness for first responders in Denver on Saturday.

Firefighters and other emergency services personnel frequently attend training seminars in order to learn new skills to both help them do their jobs better and to stay safe. On Saturday, Lincoln County and other first responders attended a seminar taught by Dr. Richard B. Gasaway, entitled, “Flawed Situational Awareness: The stealth killer during high-risk decision making.”

A former firefighter himself with over three decades of service, Gasaway became perplexed by how it was that so many smart, talented and experienced first responders were making so many bad decisions in high stress environments.

“To help me to figure out why that was happening, I went back to school and did research in cognitive neuroscience,” he said. “I was trying to understand what happens to people when they’re in high stress, high consequence, time pressed environments when the conditions are changing around them. How does it change their brain function and their ability to think through and make good decisions?”

It was through that research that Gasaway’s questions were answered. He was able to take what he learned and put it into a program that he shares with first responders worldwide.

“I never thought when I was on that journey that it would have resulted in what it has turned into today and all the opportunities it has created to share this information,” he said. “It’s very humbling and rewarding to know that I’m helping them to learn about something that we, as first responders, aren’t ever really taught. It seems odd, but we’re not. We’re taught how to pull a hose line off a firetruck and set a ladder up, but we’re not taught much about how our brain works and how we’re going to think our way through all of that.”

Approximately 100 individuals attended the seminar which was held in Denver. In opening up the seminar one of the first things that Gasaway told the attendees was that “this job will kill you so fast you won’t even see it coming.”

Sometimes these individuals, Gasaway explained, aren’t thinking when they’re in a stressful situation. They’re doing things automatically based on habits that they developed in training.

“When you’re under a great deal of stress, you become a creature of habit,” he said. “You start doing things automatically without conscious thought and without critical thinking. Unfortunately, some of the ways that we’re training first responders is perpetuating them to do unexplainable things. While they’re doing it in training, it makes sense, but the training is not aligned to the real-world circumstances they’re going to face.”

Training is controlled in order to make it safe for the individuals, which Gasaway said is a good thing, but some of the things that they do in training are unrealistic. Once they arrive at real emergencies with conditions that aren’t the same as training and do the same thing that they do in training, it doesn’t always work out so well. Best case scenario is that they’d be criticized for doing the wrong thing, but as Gasaway said above, it could kill them.

In his seminars, Gasaway helps the attendees to understand situational awareness and how to maneuver through some of the barriers which may reveal themselves to them when they’re in stressful environments.

This program is suited for anyone who works in a high risk, high consequence, time-compressed environment, which includes police officers and firefighters but also people who work in industry, surgical teams, pilots and military personnel.

One of the things that Gasaway includes in his seminars is a process of how to predict future events.

“There’s no guarantee,” he said. “Nobody has canned the guaranteed future prediction abilities. Fortune Tellers would like you to think they have, but they haven’t. It’s a way of thinking and self-questioning and being inquisitive about what’s happening and where it’s going – trying to anticipate people’s actions, environmental matters, putting in the context of time and what can proactively be done to prevent an event or get out of the way of it.”

Situational awareness, as Gasaway teaches it, is in three parts; perception, understanding and prediction, with prediction being the hardest to teach.

Gasaway frequently gets emails and telephone calls from past attendees saying that what they learned in his program saved their lives. Many attend multiple times.

“I had no idea when I first went to school that I would end up doing seminars like this,” he said. “It was not my motive. I wanted to understand how I could be better at making decisions. It morphed into writing six books, traveling all over the world, and speaking on stages of national conferences. I don’t say that to brag – I just can’t believe it.”

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