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Situational Awareness Onboard & Ashore

Wayne Britton

Part 12: Perspectives on Safety in Yachting
To see the full schedule click here.

As we’ve already heard earlier in this series on safety in yachting, around 80% of incidents and accidents at sea are caused by human error, often due to a loss of Situational Awareness.  Could these have been avoided? Absolutely. We must also consider the near misses and situations that go unreported; we all have our own stories to tell. 

I have engaged with many yacht crews and sometimes I’m astonished by the level of responsibility they undertake with training unfit for purpose and, in some cases, no training at all.  Crew are often required to look after the boss’s children for the day, to collect large amounts of cash from a bank or to provide protection for guests. 

Equally, considering the diversity of destinations visited by yachts, there is very little planning or orientation when it comes to the personal safety of crew ashore.  Yet most crew will have experienced opportunistic theft, muggings and pickpockets, and sexual assault, express kidnapping and serious assault are on the rise.

I’ve delivered personal safety and security training in many destinations around the world and when I ask crew simple security questions relating to their current location, or general questions around travel safety, recent news, terror threats or cyber security, often they cannot answer. 

At the same time it’s a misconception that some people are ‘naturally’ more aware of their surroundings than others. How each of us responds to an incident or situation depends on many factors.  Firstly, our body assesses a situation and decides whether or not it is stressful. This is based on sensory information (what we see and hear) and on memories (what happened the last time we were in a similar situation or recalling training input). This conditioning directs our adrenal response and ultimately how we react to a situation. 

Situational awareness can be defined as having an accurate understanding of what is happening around you and what is likely to happen in the near future. It involves three processes:

  • The perception of what is happening (Level 1)

  • The understanding of what has been perceived (Level 2)

  • The use of what is understood to think ahead and act appropriately (Level 3) 

This can be simplified into three key words:  Look - Think - Act.

flight path shutterstock 600Perception of What is Happening (Level 1)

The first step in achieving Situational Awareness is to perceive the status, attributes, and dynamics of relevant elements in the immediate environment.  This means gathering all the sensory information currently available to us. How often do we hear ‘I knew that was going to happen’ or ‘I had a feeling’?  We talk about the sixth sense or a gut feeling, but sometimes we can’t fully process this information because we have no experience or training on which to base a response. 

Following the Brussels airport attack people reported seeing two men, each with a gloved left hand.  This was registered as strange based on their perceptions and knowledge about gloves which are used to keep hands warm - so why only one?  For those of you who don’t know, the gloves were the detonation devices.

So how do our senses provide the key to situational Awareness and our responses, and which sense is the most important at keeping us safe?  As sight-driven creatures, we gather a lot of information with our eyes. As much as a third of our brain’s processing activity relates to visual input, and most of us feel we’d rather lose our hearing than our sight.

Hearing is also more essential than we realise in keeping track of and understanding what’s going on around us - especially when it comes to staying safe. Our hearing is finely attuned to our surroundings and it functions as our brain’s first response system, shaping our perception of what’s happening around us and alerting us to possible threats.

Our sense of smell is perhaps the most overlooked as we tend to associate its survival value more with animals than ourselves.  However, ingrained, smell-induced memories serve the same purpose in humans, helping us to identify family members, find food, or become alert to possible threats. Our sense of smell can distinguish blood kin by scent, identify danger through the scent of smoke, gas and death, and also pick up on fear, stress and disgust in fellow human beings.

Of all the senses we tend to rely less on touch and taste in assessing a situation, although touch becomes important when navigating a pitch black space or establishing unusual vibrations or heat.

Understanding What has Been Perceived (Level 2)

Comprehension of the situation is based on a synthesis of disjointed elements at Level 1. Level 2 goes beyond simple awareness towards an understanding of the significance of these elements to the task in hand. Sensory observations are combined with knowledge and experience to form a mental picture of the current situation.
Using What is Understood to Think Ahead & Act Appropriately
(Level 3)

The ability to project the future actions of elements in the immediate environment is the third and highest level of Situation Awareness. Based on knowledge and understanding of the status and dynamics of the situation this means anticipating what will happen next and using this expectation to make decisions. This is where appropriate training, experience and knowledge kicks in.

Katie 4 SAFactors Affecting Situational Awareness

Abilities, Experience & Training
When you have trained for a situation, you are more likely to execute the correct actions when it occurs in real life. If your training is current it is also more likely that this will create an automatic response, which is why drills and repeat exercises are so important where a critical response is required.

Often when we have a preconception about what is going to happen we try to match information to this idea instead of seeing what is actually going on. If we do not have a full level of situational awareness this can lead us to carry out incorrect and potentially harmful actions.

Stress & Workload
It is well documented that stress levels affect our ability to process information. In a high stress/high workload situation our ability to process information is diminished which can significantly impair our situational awareness. It is therefore important to actively manage your stress levels, both short term and longer-term.

Physiological Factors
Factors such as fatigue, illness and medication can all negatively affect our ability to process information and therefore our level of situational awareness.

How can Captains and Crew Develop their Situational Awareness?

  • Provide fit for purpose training

  • Set clear objectives

  • Set priorities

  • Prepare for anomalies

  • Make risk assessments

  • Inform, train and ask, “What if?”

  • Use games to improve your senses

  • Manage your workload

From a crew perspective, the situation onboard a yacht is typically familiar but not without its risks when it comes to safety. A developed sense of situational awareness may help to prevent an accident or an incident from occurring in the first place but, if it does, it may help to prevent its escalation to a crisis. One thing is sure, without appropriate training and practice with these skills we may not invite trouble but we’re certainly raising the odds.

About the Author
Wayne Britton spent the first 18 years of his career in public service, firstly in the Royal Marines and then in the Fire and Rescue Service as a member of the Fire Service’s Major Incident Response Team. Here he was responsible for mass and major rescue, including major aircraft incidents and CBRN (chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear) response specifically linked to terrorist incidents.  Wayne has also worked in the private security sector for a number of years including maritime, surveillance and close protection roles.

Securewest International has been a market leader in global risk management and security since 1987. Securewest delivers fully integrated solutions for both Land and Maritime Travel Risk, Security, Training, Intelligence, QHSSE and Response Teams. QHSSE is an essential and measurable component of our service offering and we have invested significant time and resources in developing a market leading standard. Securewest is LRQA ISO 9001; ISO 14001, OHSAS 18001 and ISO 28000:2007 certified.

Related Articles:
Personal Safety Ashore
Personal Safety Ashore: Aide Memoire
Mediterranean Migrant Update
Drone Operations: Aide Memoire for Yacht Crew
Safe Travel in the Age of Small Terror
Piracy Reports

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