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Situational awareness, its related heuristics and frameworks is singularly the most important concept and skill set in managing safety. It is worth an entire training program for companies and expedition staff.

Situational awareness as defined by Endsley, 1988 is “the perception of elements in the environment within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future”.

Beyond the dry, academic language, and relative to what we do in the polar regions, my interpretation for educational and/or training purposes is this: keeping constant watch and awareness of the environment, or ‘situation’ you are in currently and using all senses available to perceive what is happening, what is about to happen or develop in the near future and make decisions based on this.

None of this speaks to any action but you are ‘aware’ – situationally aware.

Situational management is what you do about it.

Countless investigations across industry, recreation and even the military identify that human error is the main cause of incidents and accidents – period. One of the dominant beliefs about human error is that it is caused by poor judgement or poor decision-making. The flaw in this logic is that when we look more deeply at the cause and causal factors involved with poor judgement and resultant human error, they are not primarily caused by poor judgement but rather a lack of situational awareness. Poor judgement, therefore, is most often a result of lack of, or misinterpretation of, situational awareness. In addition and very importantly anything that decreases your situational awareness markedly increases the likelihood of incident or accident.

If we understand situational awareness the resulting alteration of any situation becomes our situational management. Everybody has some level of situational awareness – it is how we manage life. Developing it to a higher level and formulating more sophisticated and effective strategies for managing safety (situational management) is a skill just like learning to drive a zodiac or deliver a good briefing – it needs education, training, practise and feedback by skilled practitioners.

Consider a simplified scenario of how it works in the field or how it might look watching the seamless management of a range of risks by an experienced professional:

You are leading a group on a hike. You have a group of 10 people with you of mixed ability. Old dogma says hike leaders must lead from the front. You travel a while and start hiking up a snow slope in soft easy to plug snow, suddenly you step on a harder, slippery piece of snow. You ascertain it is about 8ft across and beyond that the snow is soft again for the foreseeable future. You decide that the risks of this slippery section are far worse than the risks of people being in front of you. You disclose the risk, explain the precautions and you place yourself in a good position in the middle of the slippery section to ‘spot’ and help people across [you have just ‘comprehended the meaning of certain elements in time and space and projected their possible meaning in the near future’ that could have considerably more impact on your groups safety than giving up your place in the front]. Having managed that spot ‘according to the situation’ you move up overtaking your line of people who have continued moving upslope as instructed. The slope steepens a little and one of your clients (John) is struggling with the section but everybody else is showing no signs of apprehension or stress. You assign one of the group, who has shown competence and ability, the front position and let the group walk by. You are now at the very back and assisting John [the new situation] with the steeper section as he has become your key situational concern. Once back on easy terrain John is fine. You see the group ahead is about to crest the ridge into a very strong wind [the next situation], you call for them to wait and you hustle up to the front, now you are in a position to comprehend first what impact the near gale will have on your groups footing and safety. And so it goes…..

In this simplified example you can see that the leader has moved all over the group in position but kept things moving along. S/He has been ‘situationally aware’ of slipping hazards, personal ability issues and changing environmental conditions and chosen correct management styles to deal with each one BUT keep the process for the clients moving.

Rules and regulations, SOP’s and policies can never be ‘situationally aware’ in constantly changing environments which is why these things will never surpass human technical competence, operational experience and review of lessons learned. It is up to companies and expedition staff to identify this and ensure competent education and training is available and learning opportunities taken.

Have fun out there – be safe.