Do you know what is going on around you most of the time? Are you aware of the smells, the sounds, and the sights around you at all times? Can you tell me what is the color of the car that is driving behind you (without looking in the mirror)? Or are you one of those people that tends to float down the street with your nose in your cell phone... trusting that others will step out of the way for you? When you ride your horse, are you blissfully unaware or are you paying attention to their footfalls, their rhythm, their ears turning, and their focus?

Situational awareness (SA) is originally a military term for a person's ability to perceive the dynamic elements around themselves and how your actions can change that, and being able to estimate how those factors and influences may transform with the changing of variables such as time, people, space, etc. In the emergency services, this is the gift of wisdom that comes with years of exposure to situations of many types, and the added complexities of human, politico-social, environmental, stress and leadership factors. Generally, SA is a highly-valued trait in leaders, managers, and decision makers--especially for people who work in jobs that have a lot of information flowing into the situation (disaster management and emergency scenes are a good example) or a high probability that something tragic will happen if you fail (nuclear power plants, pilot of an airplane, combat medic, etc.).

Interestingly, you have some level of SA, too--if you have ever driven a car, ridden a horse, or played an instrument with any level of skill. To perform any task, whether difficult or seemingly easy, requires SA of your vicinity, of the changing conditions around you, and of what can happen if you don't keep the car on the road, etc. Olympic-quality athletes and ace pilots have very highly developed skills of SA. Heck, even signing your name requires command of a multitude of tasks and intense concentration by your brain. Best of all, SA is a skill, implying that it is something that with practice you can IMPROVE!

Jockeys and eventing riders have to have excellent SA to prevent injuries in their riding pursuits... or is it luck?

For all of us it can be obscured at times and we "daydream"--how often have you jerked awake while driving and realized that you don't remember the last mile (or 50 miles) of roadway? That is a good demonstration of a loss of SA. In accidents and incidents that are commonly attributed to human error, many times the person's lack of SA is a contributing or defining factor to the tragedy that follows (and chemical involvement in the form of drugs, lack of sleep, or alcohol is a common depressor of SA).

Although it is unknown in this wreck who was at fault (subscription required to view article), it is probable that some combination of lack of SA by at least one of the drivers contributed to the incident.

Situational awareness is crucial to emergency responders, and one of the ways that you can assist on an emergency scene with your horse is by giving all the needed information about the incident to the dispatcher at 911 when you first make the call for assistance. You are the "eyes and ears" for the dispatcher. For example, telling her "there has been a trailer wreck on the road" is a lot different from "I'm southbound on I-85 at the 26 mile marker, and there is an overturned horse trailer with at least 6 horses in it. One is loose." The more details you can share, the better and more efficient will be their response.

The same idea works with your veterinarian. Telling him "one of my horses is sick" is very different than "my aged mare just came back from a trail ride this morning, she has a temperature of 102 deg F, minimal gut sounds, and she isn't interested in her food this evening." Details allow the responder of any type to better be prepared to deal with the incident when they arrive.

When you get involved in a team, SA becomes even harder to achieve because it requires intense good communication of the objectives and goals, or rules of engagement, along with each member of the team achieving their responsibilities and remaining within their role on the team. Furthermore, sorting through the "noise" of incoming information and filtering for that which is relevant, and that which must be shared, is a huge challenge to overcome and maintain safety. Whether the team is a sports team, a squad of Soldiers, or a fire truck responding to a barn fire, the challenges are inherently similar.

Measuring SA is very difficult to do in a quantitative or qualitative manner - but all of us know people personally that have these characteristics - many times they don't even seem to realize it. You instinctually have SA of those around you who have that "sixth sense" or ability to predict what is going to happen. Now, go practice to make it your own skill!