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Situational Awareness In The Correctional Environment
By Gene Atherton, NLECTC - Rocky Mountain - Institutions Program Manager
Published: 07/18/2011

Payattention Why it is important and how we can utilize it

It is amazing to me that the phrase ‘situational awareness’ has taken so long to find its way into literature related to correctional staff. It is amazing only in that the shift has been long overdue and, in fact, such a term has been a long-standing concept in the military to help soldiers and pilots emerge victorious.

In corrections, situational awareness is an aspect of staff performance in the face of emergency. It has become increasingly important as we rise to meet the challenge of prison population explosions and the shift towards violent and organized groups of offenders. We want correctional officers to have situational awareness that protects them and allows them to be safe in the face adversity. This immediately begs the question: How do we get there? The following are some ideas for achieving that goal.

Clear leadership messages

Leadership must clearly express the performance levels they expect staff to achieve, particularly when faced with a critical incident where emergency systems and decision making must be employed.

In the ACA’s Guidelines for the Development of a Security Program, Atherton and Phillips note, “One strategy for eliminating divisiveness is for operating security and emergency management systems to unify their command and accountability.” In other words, one person should be in charge of operations and all persons in the institution are clearly responsible to that person for training and actual performance under emergency conditions.

A clearly communicated emphasis keeps all persons in all departments focused on the mission of safety, providing a supportive environment for staff to remain focused and stay prepared with high levels of situational awareness.

Mission-related training in corrections

I recall a story told by a hostage crisis survivor during an interview with the media after the incident. When asked what the most important aspect of his survival was, his immediate response was "training." He indicated that his hostage survivor training simply took over and greatly influenced a safe outcome.

We all agree that good training promotes situational awareness. Since adults learn the least in traditional classroom settings where they are lectured (and learn best in hands-on activities), agencies and managers should develop performance-based learning activities where experiences closely mirror the real world. As a result, interactive, reality-based training makes it easiest for students to acquire knowledge and skills and transfer them to real world experiences. Many correctional training agencies have broken new ground in the last several years by introducing this form of learning experience to various levels of officer training and systems performance.

Assistance of technology

Too often in the aftermath of a crisis in corrections we hear comments like, “I knew it was coming” or, “It was only a matter of time.” In some cases officers had critical information that was not shared that may have avoided the crisis.

In corrections, with inmate population increases and the multitude of demands on officer resources, situational awareness is often reduced. We must work to combat this by increasing the amount of current information and knowledge staffers have of their working environment.

Technology advancements in communications equipment in terms of radios and "man-down" emergency reporting systems, improvements in cameras systems, software and data-gathering system development for tracking classification, strategic threat groups, finance records, visitation and criminal investigations are all growing significantly to give the system a clearer view of the risks in the correctional environment.

It is my opinion that the “fusion” concept of all critical information related to corrections is not far away. All of this technology helps us see more and understand more to achieve a higher level of situational awareness.

Corrections.com author Gene Atherton is the Institutions Program Manager for the National Law Enforcement and Corrections Technology Center – Rocky Mountain Region. He served 27 years for the Colorado Department of Corrections. After promoting through the ranks, he became Director of Prisons for the Western Region in Colorado until retirement in 2004. For the last fifteen years Mr. Atherton has served as a technical assistance consultant and trainer for the National Institute of Corrections on a variety of topics related to corrections. He has served as an author of numerous ACA publications. He has provided evidence in Federal Court as an expert witness on a variety of correctional issues, including conditions of confinement, use of force, unlawful discrimination, and management of high risk offenders. He currently serves as a member of several committees for the American Correctional Association.

Other articles by Atherton


  1. Eugene on 07/25/2011:

    The advances in technology and real life situational training has improved staff safety concerning reaction to developed situations;but,in my openion more attention should be given to training staff to recognize and appropiately react to developing daily situations. This type continual training would greatly enhance the ability of staff to head off situations before they have time to develope. Staff knowledge of the coulture of individuals incarcerated should be information all staff with inmate contact have as part of their training. An example would be housing of inmates, that are largely urban in background, in facilities largely staffed by individuals from a rural community or vice versa. The inclusion of institutional idealogy for all staff coupled with advances in techology and real life situational and operational training would greatly inhance the quality and professionlism of all staff, inhance the probability of fewer staff assaults and the flow in information between staff. Additionally supervision of daily facility operations should be under one office as well as operations during emergencies. It sounds like a lot of training, but, necessary training that somehow gets lost after basic training.

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