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Situation Awareness in Fire Emergencies

Last Updated: 12 October 2017
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A study conducted by the University of Sydney investigated the effects that situation awareness has in fire emergencies. 

The study conducted looked at human behaviour in the event of a fire emergency and the effect of situation awareness (SA) of building occupants on pre-movement times in an emergency fire evacuation. Two evacuation drills were conducted in two calendar years with fire wardens from each floor of the facility belonging to either the control group or experimental group. The outcome of the study showed no improvement in the pre-movement times between the two groups however there was a reduction in pre-movement times for fire wardens. The study also highlighted the importance of having an accurate training programme on workplace emergency response.


The 1980's saw John L Bryan challenged the assumption that people will panic in a fire and epople will move directly to an exit. What John discovered that people will, in fact, be more considerate of others when caught in a fire and panic phenomenon is rare in fire emergencies. Further to this, it was discovered that there was a delay between the discovery of fire by occupants to their movement out of the building. 

The issue surrounding the delayed movement of occupants have preoccupied many researchers ever since and the associated questions are sitll relevent today:

  1. What information do people need so they are able to make correct decisions to evacuate quickly, if not immediately?
  2. What is the benefit of training and can it be quantified in relation to pre-movement times?

Currently those two issue of training and the provisions of timely and appropriate information are still unresolved. In recent time, the discussion on human behaviour in fire has been reframed in terms of 'situation awareness'. It is believed that situation awareness by building occupants will have a direct impact on their decision making in an emergency. Poor situation awareness is likely to lead to incorrect and/or inadquate behavioural responsed while good situation awareness is regarded as a critical factor in good decision making.

What is pre-movement in the event of a fire emergency?

Pre-movement is defined as the interval between the time at which a warning of fire is given and the time at which the first move is made towards an exit. This consists of the time required to recognise the emergency and then carry out a range of activities before travelling to exits.

What is situation awareness?

Situation awareness is the perception of environmental elements and events - in this case fire emergencies. Key attributes of situation awareness (SA) are the ones that enable a person to perceive a situation, comprehend it, predict likely outcomes and determine an appropriate response based on these predictions. There are three levels of complexity within SA:

Situational Awarness Endsley STAN Institute

  • Level 1: perception of the situation;
  • Level 2: comprehension of the situation; and
  • Level 3: prediction of what will happen in this situation.
Key Attributes of Situation Awareness in Fire Emergencies

Key attributes of SA are the ones thatn enable a person to perceive a situation, comprehend it, predict likely outcomes and determine an appropriate response based on these predictions. These attributes are summarized below:

  • Knowledge of building information (Level 1 SA)
  • Knowledge of characteristics of fire and smoke (Level 1 SA)
  • Knowledge to assist wardens to respond immediately, take control and implement emergency procedures (Level 2 - Level 3 SA)
  • Knowledge to assist decision making in an emergency (Level 2 - Level 3 SA
Maintaining situation awareness in an emergency

The ability to maintain good SA in an emergency will be enhanced or hindered by the communication that occurs at all levels. The training programme discussed the importance of good communication. It also looked at occupant behaviours that wardens might be encounter and how the wardens’ SA can influence the response of others.

  • Communication within the warden team
  • Communication between warden and other occupants
  • The social aspect of an emergency response

Bishop, C., He, Y., & Magrabi, A. (2016). Report on Situation Awareness and Occupants’ Pre-Movement Times in Emergency Evacuations. Retrieved from http://www.fpaa.com.au/media/230358/d2-fse-p11-bishop.pdf.pdf