Monday, July 4, 2011

Is there a link between golf and firefighter safety?

Could playing golf improve your fireground situational awareness? One study seems to suggest so. While playing golf with his son, a neuroscience researcher began to contemplate the nexus between what it takes to achieve success on the golf course and how that might apply to firefighters.

After all, the principles of situational awareness should be universal, he hypothesized. What would this look like? Based on previous research he had conducted with firefighters, he already knew that situational awareness was developed and maintained on three levels:

Level 1: Capture the most critical clues and cues (not ALL… just the most critical ones).

Level 2: Process those clues and cues (perhaps melded together with some less important things that are being observed) to form an assessment of the current situation.

Level 3: Make predictions of future events, by running mental models (mental movies) of various outcomes. Pick the one that has the best possible outcome and put that plan into action.

He was on the third tee box when he had this revelation. Consciously he thought to himself: “What are the most important clues and cues I need to gather for this shot – Length of the hole, hazards to avoid, wind direction, best landing spot to set-up the next shot. That’s the short list he thought as he surveyed the landscape. (Level 1 Situational Awareness: Capture clues and cues).

Then he began to contemplate what all of those clues and cues meant when they were put together. The hole was a par 4 which meant it was too long for him to reach with his first shot so driving the green was out of the question (option eliminated). There was a lake running down the left side of the fairway (hazard to avoid). The right side of the fairway was relatively open with a few trees that could present a challenge if the ball were to land behind one of them. The wind was coming from right to left at about 5 mile-per-hour. This was valuable information because a high shot (with a lot of hang time) might cause the ball to drift toward the left (where the water hazard was). Based on these factors and the green/pin location, he determined the best landing spot would be somewhere on the right side of the fairway. (Level 2 Situational Awareness: Putting together all the clues and cues from Level 1 to assess the current situation.

Finally, a club selection had to be made based on all the previous factors. Would it be the driver? No, too risky. Would it be a 9-iron? No, not enough distance would be gained to allow for the green to be reached on his second shot. The researcher settled on his 5 iron and he took a couple of practice swings. For each practice swing, he imagined the club striking the ball perfectly and the trajectory of the ball leading it right to the intended landing zone. He had ran a mental model – making a prediction of the future (Level 3 Situaitonal Awareness: Projecting future outcomes).

As he was in the middle of his backswing… “FOOOOORRRRE!” came echoing across the fairway. But it was too late, he was mid-swing and while he heard the scream and knew that it meant there was an incoming ball from another golfer on the course, he could not stop the momentum of his swing (even though he knew he should). But the yodel, nonetheless, drew his conscious attention to the possibility of being struck by the wayward shot. He had been, effectively, distracted… one of the leading causes of lost situational awareness on the fireground had reared its ugly head on the #3 tee box.

{{{ Plunk }}} was the awful sound made as his ball landed in the lake on the left side of the fairway, just as the erratically struck ball from the other fairway rolled right up on to the very tee box the researcher stood on. The golfer/researcher was overwhelmed with frustration, both at himself and with the other golfer who had been so discourteous as to yell right in the middle of his backswing.

Once I calmed down... er... once he... HE calmed down, he realized that developing and maintaining situational awareness on the golf course is more like situational awareness on the fire scene than he had ever previously imagined.

If there were ever a reason to play more golf, this is it! Happy Independence Day.

Fire Chief (ret.), Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, EFO, CFO, MICP
Chief Scientist, Public Safety Laboratory
Executive Director, Center for the Advancement of Situational Awareness & Decision Making

P.S. I picked the ball up off the tee box, put it in my pocket, and considered it just compensation for my pain and suffering.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Rich, Great article. I just sent this to my Chief to see if i could get credit for missed drills while out on the course:)