Maintaining “The Bubble”

Simplified Situational Awareness to Protect Teams, Preserve Data, and Enhance Mission Results

How to optimize the OODA Loop — Observe, Orient, Decide, Act — for optimal situational awareness using basic baseline data and a comprehensive communications technology platform.

Situational Awareness and the OODA Loop

The success of any mission — be it a law enforcement investigation, military operation, public security activity, or commercial project — requires field agents and supervisors to maintain a heightened sense of situational awareness.

The U.S. Coast Guard defines situational awareness as “the ability to identify, process, and comprehend the critical elements of information about what is happening to the team with regards to the mission. More simply, it’s knowing what is going on around you.”

Pew and Mavor (1998) extend this explanation to include “the up-to-the-minute cognizance or awareness required to move about, operate equipment, or maintain a system.”

The OODA Loop was created by Air Force fighter pilot and military strategist John Boyd. This  learning system and decision-making process includes four distinct stages: Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. In a confrontation, the team that can cycle through the OODA Loop the fastest typically comes out on top.

Although awareness starts with the individual, true situational awareness is a team concept that depends primarily on comprehensive, unfettered communications between field agents and supervisors.

Field Operations: Observe + Orient

For the purposes of discussion, we identify the agents in the field as the origin of operations. Despite the fact that success or failure is shared by all, field personnel typically bear the brunt of confusion, ambiguity, and miscommunication.

For field agents, the first two stages of the OODA Loop are Observe and Orient — which begin in a state of relaxed alertness. Assuming that there is no specific threat situation, remaining relaxed and alert encourages open focus on the task at hand. Also, an agent in a state of relaxed alertness won’t bring any unnecessary focus on him or herself.

Observation begins as agents scan the environment, taking in various information through sight, sound, and smell. Position is everything in the observation stage — preferably heightened positions in unobstructed locations.

Orientation sets a baseline. Agents know what they’re looking for, putting the information they’ve gathered in a workable context that has meaning. This includes situational anomalies, expectations of human behavior, and acceptable reactions depending on observations.

Landscape Familiarity

In The Art of War, Sun Tzu dedicated an entire chapter to terrain and situational positioning — explaining the need to “be aware of the terrain and its affect on your soldiers, as well as the enemy,” as “this will allow you to fight with advantage.” Supervisors and field agents will be quick to explain that this maxim still holds true today.

Landscape familiarity doesn’t just apply to the war concept. Law enforcement, first responder, public safety, and commercial operations depend on the ability of field agents and supervisors to know and strategize to terrain elements using modeling applications.

Common terrain elements that can influence operations considerations include elevation, depression, water, and man-made structures. Advances in mapping technology have enhanced the ability of teams to recognize and strategize for multiple terrain factors.

Team-Centric Communication

Communications between teams is perhaps the most critical element of safe and successful operations. Advances in technology have improved the ability for teams to communicate; however, there are still barriers to even the most recent solutions that prevent true, real-time communications between field agents and command control personnel.

  • Push-to-Talk Devices. PTT radios can inhibit operations by requiring manual operation of the device with each transmission sent.
  • Radio Wave Reliability. Terrain elements, wave interference, and distance can hamper common radio transmissions and leave field agents on a communications island.

With respect to budget, outdated communications devices are prohibitively expensive and can require frequent maintenance and repair.

Finally, communications devices with cords and battery packs are cumbersome for field agents to wear, slowing down movements and taking up body and vehicle space that can be better allocated to other needed equipment.

Information Exchange

Timely and secure exchange of data is the fuel that powers proactive and reactive operations. Images, streaming audio and video, and instant messaging between field agents and supervisors comprise the mission atmosphere, dictating agent positioning and resource control.

This is another area where outmoded communications equipment falls short of contemporary project demands. Radio devices transmit sound only — with no image, video, or texting capabilities. Supervisors must rely solely on verbal descriptions from the field to create situation reports.

More department need assessments are including requests for a Skype-like system — known as over-the-top (OTT) technology — that enables quick conference calls and to send and retrieve information through a wireless network.

Distress Notification

Officers in distress present unique challenges to agencies across the board. Unless the agent is using an open-ended communications device, situations of distress most likely prevent officers from accessing push-to-talk communication pieces in requesting assistance.

A dedicated emergency notification feature represents the ideal solution. The emergency call is one-touch activated and reveals the agent in danger as well as that agent’s precise location — allowing for a swift assistance from monitoring parties.

Command Control Monitoring: Decide + Act

On the command side, supervisors make up the second half of the OODA Loop — Decide and Act. The professionals operating in fixed headquarters or mobile command posts are charged with big-picture assessment and resource allocation.

Command and control operations almost always make decisions with imperfect information — or at the very least, with a disconnect between the environmental information gathered and the mental model arranged pre-mission.

Movement Tracking

Movement tracking is a common barrier to comprehensive situational awareness. Traditional tracking of agent location and movement via radio broadcast can be uncertain at best — often painting an incomplete picture of operations scenarios and leaving much to guesswork and chance.

GPS tracking devices are a step up the awareness chain, but are typically restricted to vehicles or certain special-function agents. Once a member of the team leaves the vehicle, that places him or her on an island with respect to supervisory knowledge of location and status.

True situational awareness mandates real-time movement tracking of all team members — and, having that information made available to both operations supervisors and all mission-involved personnel. This omniscient capability has the potential to enhance situation assessment, decision-making, and response reaction at all levels.  

Resource Management

Smart resource allocation pre-, during, and post-mission is another critical operations factor, particularly for organizations with limited supplies or personnel. Add in missions taking place in larger environments, against numerous adversaries, or with strict time constraints, and resource allocation becomes an even greater influence on outcomes.

A communications solution that keeps supervisors and teams in the real-time loop with respect to fluid activity can optimize operations.

  • Human Resources. Supervisors can position field agents to take advantage of target movements, terrain varieties, and safe zones
  • Vehicle Resources. Personnel transports and supply carriers are situated to support field personnel and remain secure from threats
  • Special Resources. Extraction apparatus, mobile first aid stations, and evidence collection teams are kept close to points of activity

While resource management tactics are an integral part of any pre-mission strategy, the ability to make adjustments during operations based on incoming data is sure to be a hallmark of operations in the future.

Debriefing and Strategic Planning

Every mission is an opportunity to learn from mistakes, build on successes, and better prepare the team for another challenge. Most debriefing sessions are guided by supervisor notes and field agent reports — perhaps supported by transmission recordings.

Powered by a real-time communications platform that records streaming data — including images, audio/video, instant messaging, GPS-tracked movements — debriefing sessions take on an entirely new purpose.

Supervisors now have the power to examine all activity, separate elements into timestamps and teams, and produce reports that can be used to assess overall and individual performance.

The data now becomes an indispensable tool for future planning and strategizing.

Guest post by: Kelly Richardson



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