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Human factors analysis reveals ways to reduce friendly fire incidents

February 23, 2007

SANTA MONICA, CA -- One of the most tragic consequences of war is "friendly fire": casualties that result when warfighters mistakenly fire on their own or allied troops. The causes and possible mitigators of friendly fire are being studied by a group of human factors/ergonomics researchers at the University of Central Florida and at the Air Force Research Laboratory. Their findings, to be published in the April issue of Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, include a taxonomy by which troop teamwork could be strengthened to reduce confusion and error.

Although precise figures are hard to pin down, it has been estimated that 17% of deaths during Operation Desert Storm were attributable to friendly fire. "Whatever the absolute numbers," the researchers say, "friendly fire incidents occur and will continue to occur." But they believe that human factors research and analysis can provide information and methods that can reduce the likelihood of such incidents.

They began their investigation by examining the literature on friendly fire, then used a human-centered approach to understand errors and create the taxonomy. It contains a list of questions that draw attention to ways in which teamwork breakdown could occur. They concluded that in the absence of adequate shared cognition - the sharing of information about the dynamic, ambiguous, and time-stressed battlefield environment - warfighters can have problems interpreting cues, making decisions, and taking correct action. "The battlefield is one of the most difficult operational environments within which to perform cognitive tasks," the researchers state. "[T]herefore, breakdowns in shared cognition are inevitable."

Although technological solutions, such as combat identification systems (e.g., Blue Force Tracker), have been implemented to enhance shared cognition and prevent friendly fire incidents, other factors, such as sleep deprivation and visual misidentification, can still lead to human error. In addition, these technologies can fail or simply be unavailable. What's needed, the researchers say, is a better understanding of specific failures of teamwork, including information transmission, team behavior, and team attitude. "Human solutions cannot be ignored, such as better teamwork...and training to improve communication, coordination, and cooperation."

The researchers believe that this taxonomy can help in the analysis of trends in friendly fire incidents or near misses, leading to recommendations and solutions to improve teamwork in order to minimize risk.
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To obtain a copy of the full article, "Errors in the Heat of Battle: Taking a Closer Look at Shared Cognition Breakdowns Through Teamwork" by Katherine A. Wilson et al., contact HFES Communications Director Lois Smith (310/394-1811). This work is part of a special section in the April 2007 issue, titled "Classifying and Understanding Human Error." The full issue will be available by April 1.

The Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in September 2007, is a multidisciplinary professional association of more than 4,700 persons in the United States and throughout the world. Its members include psychologists and other scientists, designers, and engineers, all of whom have a common interest in designing systems and equipment to be safe and effective for the people who operate and maintain them.

Human Factors and Ergonomics Society

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