From Multitasking to Task Overload
For firefighters, the ability to do many things at once is crucial, but it’s easy to take it too far
By Billy Schmidt

Firefighting-360 (FF-360) is a continuing series of articles that takes a broad look into the concept of crew resource management (CRM) and how it can improve and enhance training and operations in the fire service. The purpose of the FF-360 column is to inform and encourage emergency responders to use a full circle—all 360 degrees—of available resources to prepare crews to operate safely and effectively at any intensity level, anywhere, anytime, and to return home alive.

Since it’s been a while since the last FF-360 article, I thought you might appreciate a refresher.

•The first article, “Getting to Know CRM,” showed that managing multiple sources of input is the key to safer and more effective operations. CRM was defined as “the effective use of all of our resources: communication, follower-ship, leadership, teamwork, situational awareness and workload management.”

• Human error causes injury and death every day. In “To Err Is Human,” I noted that all operational resources available during an emergency event, including the equipment and systems, are operated or controlled by people. Their performance will determine how well the equipment and systems, and the overall operation, will work. Although human error is a part of life, adopting and practicing CRM will help the fire service effectively manage errors, reducing injuries and deaths.

• Error is everywhere, and the key to operating safely is to effectively management it. “Where Error Lives” (link unavailable right now) described the nature of human error and the conditions that can lead to error. Incorporating error management through intervention and prevention builds layers in operational actions, and practicing the supporting principles of CRM will improve personnel training and skills, leading to a safer and more effective fire service.

• Several cultures form fire service operations. These sometimes competing cultures strongly influence the level of risk of emergency operations. “Counter Culture” illustrated the positive and negative aspects of the culture of the fire service as a whole, department culture and personal culture.

• CRM is an instrument for managing risk and effectively using all resources available. “Human Tools” explained the principles, procedures and training needed to create a CRM culture. Most important, it emphasized that the fire service must recognize that a CRM culture is dynamic; it is constantly growing and changing.

“It Starts With SA” identified that the lack of situational awareness (SA) is the highest contributing factor to near misses in emergency operations. Whether fighting a structure fire, driving an emergency vehicle or defibrillating a patient, knowing what’s happening in the surrounding environment is the most important aspect of any operation.

• “Managing SA” (link unavailable right now) highlighted the importance of seeing, hearing, feeling and understanding SA, or the big picture, to make sound decisions. The article reviewed the causes and symptoms for the loss of SA, such as fixation and task overload and underload. It explained how to build SA before the call, and how to maintain and recover it during an emergency operation.

Now, on to today’s topic: What happens when we go into overload? Does multitasking muddle our brains?
As you read this column, are you listening to music or watching television? (I usually listen to blues music when I write.) Are you surfing the Internet, e-mailing or responding to an instant message? Maybe you’re reading this column on your phone as you walk down the street.

In the last two decades we’ve learned, either voluntarily or by force, to multitask. Most jobs require it, and many of our families demand it. But are we effective when we multitask?

For emergency responders, multitasking means more than just walking and talking on the phone at the same time. They must be able to observe their environment, orient themselves to it, make appropriate decisions and act quickly. Fire officers must be able to successfully manage several tasks that may alter the course of action based on new information, while maintaining composure in a stressful environment and adapting to external changes. How can we do that? First, we must understand and accept that work overload exists.

The Gorilla in The Room
It’s amazing what we can miss when we fixate on one detail. In a psychology study at Harvard University, students were given the task of watching a video where people in the video were passing a basketball around. Half of the participants were dressed in white shirts and the other half were wearing black shirts. The students were instructed to pay close attention to the people in the white shirts as they passed the ball to each other, counting how many times they passed the ball. After watching the video, the students were asked if they saw the person dressed in a gorilla suit walk across the screen while they were concentrating on counting the passes that the players in the white shirts made.

Most of the students failed to see the gorilla. Despite what many of us think, we cannot simultaneously divide our attention like that. We will miss something, and in an emergency operation, that is unacceptable.

Are We Computers?
Computers are productive and efficient (most of the time). They have a central processing unit, or CPU, where information comes in and is decoded, then used by the computer to perform tasks, usually several at the same time. The CPU is the brain of the computer and it can perform many functions simultaneously. It’s designed to multitask.

Are human beings attempting to act like computers when we multitask? In general today, we’re given more tasks to do with less time to do them, making each task harder to do. Multitasking dims our brain power—our CPU—which is required to complete those tasks. It causes us to focus on one element over another, or maybe no elements at all.

But with so many pressing demands on our lives, multitasking has become a way of life. How does this multi-tasking mentality affect our safety and performance in the fire service?

Multitasking, Task Overload & Task Underload
Even as we’re forced to multitask, we can’t afford to lose focus of our most important priorities on the emergency scene: protecting ourselves and saving lives.

Picture this: You’re at a fire scene. Many things are pulling you in different directions. Occupants are at the windows screaming for help. Units are calling for assignments on the radio. The building needs a size-up. The news media wants a comment, and law enforcement is on scene trying to enter the burning building. All of these factors are working to shift your focus, causing task overload. Task saturation, or task overload, is when we have too many things to do, with too little time and too few resources to get them done.

Task saturation leads to a loss of situational awareness (SA). Military pilots, trained in high-performance aircraft to handle complex procedures, use the expression “helmet fire” to describe this mental state of unusually high stress and task saturation that leads to the loss of SA. They say the pilot is undergoing so much stress that his head is on fire and smoke is coming out of his ears.

The bottom line: The combination of all of these tasks has exceeded the pilot’s capability to handle them effectively, which can rapidly lead to an unsafe situation. How often do we experience “helmet fire” when operating at the emergency scene?

The Art & Science of Multitasking
Workload management is the art and science of understanding and controlling our ability to respond to and handle multiple tasks in a challenging environment. Everyone’s ability to do this is different, and it changes from day to day and event to event. Members of the fire service must learn to recognize the signs and symptoms of task and information overload, develop strategies to prevent it, and practice ways to recover from it. Find out more about the art and science of multitasking in the next FF-360 column.

Until next time, get prepared, be ready and stay safe!

Billy Schmidt is a district chief assigned to the 3rd battalion with Palm Beach (Fla.) County Fire Rescue. An adjunct instructor for the department’s Training and Safety Division, he has a master’s degree in Organizational Leadership, a bachelor’s degree in Human Resource Management and an associate’s degree in Fire Science. He’s a member of FireRescue magazine’s editorial board.

Suggested Reading
Hamilton, J. (2008, October 2). Think you’re multitasking? Think again. National Public Radio. Retrieve at

To do two things at once is to do neither.
—Publilius Syrus, Roman slave, first century B.C.

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Comment by Rusty Mancini on September 30, 2009 at 1:23pm
Being a volunteer department and being short handed sometimes on a critical scene, multitasking can lead to a disaster. There are some things you can muti-task, but it could compromise safety. I've been there trying to be IC, pump operator, set up dump tanks, etc... etc... you simply get over whelm. You cant manage effectively. Then what follows is the the stress factor. I recommend not to place yourself in the muti-task situation, the positive out come could be out of reach.
Comment by Art "ChiefReason" Goodrich on September 30, 2009 at 11:12am
I think many of us were exposed to multi-tasking when we were attending school and teachers found it necessary to assign us homework. You would work from one subject to the next, finishing the paper that you would hand in the next day. How much time and thought you devoted to a subject would show through in the quality of your completed assignment.
And that would be a question here when we multi-task; what is the quality of the decision-making for the many tasks that you attempt to manage?
Most of us can multi-task, but how many can do it consistently and with success?

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