Blauer - Tactical Clothing & Equipment

Avoiding “Look at It” Syndrome in Public Safety

Every single time, on every single scene, you’ll find it happening at least once. Maybe it’s you, maybe it’s someone else, maybe it’s all of you. Someone will go to make a radio transmission, and they will turn to look off into the distance in the general direction of their portable’s lapel mic.

The reasons for this are still unknown to modern science. Perhaps we’re pining for a simpler time when it was just us and our lapel mic, with no calls to get in the way of our silent and happy partnership. Maybe we’re directing our speaking chi to help our radio transmit more powerfully. Or perchance we saw the Ghost of Dispatch Future lurking in our peripheral vision, ready to show us all the things we're going to miss during our shift. Like getting food, probably.

While we can’t fathom the true cause of this mystery just yet, we can make some fair deductions about it, the most important of which is this: it’s unnecessary and dangerous, and is the auditory version of tunnel vision, which is a well-documented issue when it comes to missing important things that we should have noticed that are not meal-related.

It is also part of a more general group of distractions that many people in public safety have made routine, simply because most of us have never had anything bad happen while doing them. Yet. Also among that category are: assuming that you have a Bubble of Invincibility on a MVC scene on the highway because of the flashing lights on your vehicle, believing that a calm individual does not have the potential to suddenly turn violent, thinking that you don’t really need PPE for a given scenario, and one of the most dangerous, living under the impression that your badge or uniform will protect you on its own simply because you are public safety.

We can lump all of these into something I’ll call “Look at It” syndrome, where the most pressing stimulus in terms of your current actions, or the scene itself, combined with assumptions about the present which are based upon the past, are the ones that command your attention the most. While this is a normal reaction, and helped our caveman ancestors to turn their attention to the rampaging predator about to make them into lunch, as opposed to their current task of whittling a better version of their club, it’s one that we must consciously try to train out of ourselves to a degree when it comes to how we conduct ourselves on scene.

Part of understanding your true role in public safety is the acknowledgement that you are part of your calls as more than just an authority figure there to perform a job. You are also another one of the human beings present, and are just as subject to the actions of nature and other human beings as anyone else there with you.

Physics does not care that you are on a scene wearing a hi-vis vest and standing in front of a vehicle with lots of warning lights – to the driver of the vehicle that hits you, “Look at It” means you or your vehicle, and their car will apply Kinetic Energy = Mass x (Velocity²) to you regardless of anything else you may believe. The gunshots which you assumed were firecrackers, just like all the other calls you’ve ever done for gunshots, will still kill you. And the suspect who you weren’t aware of, because you thought they were just a bystander, is waiting for you to be distracted by the Gaze O’ Communication as you commune with your lapel mic before they make themselves known by attacking you or fleeing unnoticed.

So how do we fight this, in terms of our training and how we conduct ourselves? One suggestion would be to incorporate “peripheral” elements into scenario-based training on a regular basis and base the evaluation of personnel performance partly on how well they take in everything that was going on. These elements can include things or people which could be threats, additional victims who might have otherwise gone unnoticed, and anything else which would be material to the fullest possible picture of a given scene and its needed response. (The act of bonding with one’s microphone could be used as an opportunity to introduce new elements into the mix, for example, to try to help wean away from the practice.)

On our actual scenes, we can perhaps try to see how many details we can remember about not only the primary focus of the call, but everything that was going on around us, when we look back on it, and then use that as a reminder to be as observant as we can. During an FTO period, the trainer has the luxury of standing back a bit and being an observer – so if that's you, find out what your trainees didn’t see which you did.

If you’re the second or third in on a call, you can do the same type of thing, since the first responding unit is most likely already engaged in the primary reason for your being there, but even if you’re the first guy, it should become part of a regular practice to look “around,” and not just “at it,” wherever and whenever you find yourself out performing the role that you were meant to do. And please, for your own safety, reconsider your relationship with your lapel mic and whether a tender, loving gaze into the distance is in fact always needed when reaffirming your connection with it, and by extension, Dispatch.


Greg Bogosian is certified as a Reserve/Intermittent Police Officer by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and spent twelve years working as an EMT-Basic, including four years as a field EMT and dispatcher for the City of Boston EMS. He was additionally a member of a Federal medical disaster relief team for ten years, with experience responding to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the pre-deployment of resources for Hurricane Ike. Greg currently has a passion for educating public safety professionals about matters which impact their lives every day, and welcomes feedback and suggestions in the spirit of ensuring that best practices make it out there for all to benefit from.

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