A comprehensive guide that covers the fundamentals of Situational Awareness. A practical resource for beginners and security professionals alike.
Introduction to Situational Awareness
The ability to go about your day, absorbing crucial information about your surroundings so you can make rapid, logical decisions is a significant skillset that is becoming more and more rare, due to life’s ever-growing distractions. How often do you witness people who are completely unaware of their surroundings, as they walk aimlessly, distracted by the activity of their phone? Or the idiot driver who slams on their brakes as a result of the sudden appearance of traffic, despite the adequate visibility available? We’ve all seen it and you know what? We’ve probably all done it at some point. The complexity of the modern urban environment, with all its moving parts, far exceeds our capacity to comprehend it. This confrontation of extreme complexity forces us to filter out specific details. Situational Awareness is not simply the tireless process of gathering the most information about your environment – But rather, the art of choosing the right details to pay attention to.
Situational awareness is often portrayed in film, TV and books as a useful ability for some of fiction’s most capable characters, as a countermeasure against the most severe threats one can face. Some of my personal favourite portrayals of situational awareness include Jason Bourne’s bemusement upon the realisation that he has mentally registered all the licence plates in the car park, observing the waitress as a left-hander, and concluding that the 215lbs guy at the counter knows how to handle himself. Another applaudable display of fine situational awareness is the training scene in the movie Spy Game, starring Brad Pitt. Tom Bishop (Brad Pitt) finds himself being tutored inside a restaurant – Mr Bishop’s training demands a thorough analysis of his immediate surroundings along with a methodical breakdown of some of the restaurant’s patrons in tremendous detail. (Video below)
Today we will be discussing some field-proven tips to enforce effective situational awareness within your life – Note: This guide will be covering situational awareness within a high-threat context. We’re fundamentally looking at an approach that is utilised by military, law enforcement and security professionals alike. For those of you who already grasp the fundamental elements of this skill, this guide will provide you with the necessary principles to supplement your current strategy and to refresh your memory along the way.
Perhaps you’re not a security professional and you’re thinking that this mindset does not apply to you? Don’t be so sure in your assumptions. You are ultimately responsible for your own protection and perhaps that of your loved ones. Taking personal responsibility for your environment is a strong step towards becoming self-sufficient and dependable. Leaving your awareness to chance is lazy and allowing fate to dictate your situation is a fool’s game. Some of the upcoming hypotheticals are statistically extreme and are not typical situations encountered by those of you who are privileged enough to live in a safe, western society. The high-threat context that this article chooses to use, is to illuminate the biological factors in play when your body is faced with ferocious, dangerous situations and to allow you to question your own strategies in the event of the worst. We learn from the extremes, so we’re ultimately capable of dealing with all situations across the spectrum.
Complexity of Situational Awareness
The immediate issue that we all face when employing situational awareness into a modern urban environment is the countless moving parts at any given moment. Information overload is a real problem, and our brain often struggles to deal with this appropriately – especially if you are engaging in other activities when you’re walking down the street for example (Talking, listening, performing a task etc.) It also doesn’t help that our brain often falls victim to its own cognitive biases during its hasty efforts to get a handle on the situation. The brain isn’t exactly proficient in modern tactical operandi and may resort to beastly, outdated methods.
[Read our Cognitive Bias Field Manual for further reading on the psychological factors in play.]
One such example is Normalcy bias. If you’re frequenting a certain area in your city each day, knowing fully well that nothing bad has ever happened to you during each visit; these experiences would influence your mindset into thinking “Hey, nothing bad is likely going to happen here in the future.” Even if subtle warning signs begin to establish themselves within the area, it’s highly possible that normalcy bias will cloud any rational inputs. Thus it is important to be conscious of your normalcy bias (aware that it exists), forcibly attempting to overcome it when practising situational awareness – with the end goal in mind to form a new natural baseline of awareness within common environments. A bit heavy I know, but it’s important to be aware of such an important cognitive factor that can easily give us a false sense of security.
The first step to performing effective situational awareness is establishing your baseline. What is the baseline you ask? The baseline is the equilibrium state of what things look like, sounds like and feels like at any given moment within the normal state of affairs. Each area has its own unique baseline. For example, simply think of where you live. I am sure you are quite aware of the types of people that frequent your area, the clothes they typically wear, the eye contact that is deemed socially acceptable, all without little thought, every single day. So when we are out and about on our adventures, our brains continuously create mental notes forming the baseline – The people, the type of vehicles, the noise levels, and the activities. So, we’re very interested in establishing an accurate baseline for the area we wish to manoeuvre within and recognising any variations to our baseline to assist us our situational awareness.
The Alert State: Understanding the different levels of situational Awareness
It’s important to note, while you are performing these mental exercises to develop effective situational awareness, your alert state shouldn’t be resembling a frightened child. We don’t want to be scaring the living crap out of people on our coffee dates. To help us with this troublesome obstacle, Jeff Cooper (Legendary gun-fighting expert) laid out a handy colour code system to help soldiers gauge their mindset for combat scenarios. While this system was developed for combat applications, it is fundamentally a mindset guide and each colour represents a person’s potential state of awareness and focus when accessing their environment:
It is generally accepted that the optimal state of awareness is Condition Yellow. Condition Yellow is described as the “relaxed alert.” There’s no specific threat situation going on, but you have your head up and you’re taking in your surroundings with all your senses. These alert states can typically differ for each person based on prior knowledge of their surroundings. For example – If you are aware of multiple muggings that have taken place recently in this ghetto crap hole you currently find yourself in, you would certainly heighten up the alert state, right? A change would also be warranted from any threats that manifest at any given moment requiring a sudden shift in your attention.
Even though your senses are slightly heightened in Condition Yellow, it is also important to stay relaxed. Staying relaxed ensures that you are focused, allowing you to take in more information about your surroundings and what is going on around you. Humans aren’t very effective at dealing with threatening situations when nervous or stressed and we’re naturally prone to making more errors as a result. However, this is a problem that can be overcome by training under duress, a successful strategy that soldiers are more than familiar with. Former USAF officer L/C Vaught breaks down this concept in this highly valuable article: Success under Duress.
Positioning: Choosing the best spots
Good positioning is essential to effective situational awareness. The objective is simple here, aim to position yourself in the place that allows you to take in the most of your surroundings while minimising obstructions or blind spots. For example, upon seating yourself in a restaurant, you would ideally like to situate yourself with your back to the wall, eliminating potential goings on behind you that would otherwise prove troublesome to observe. Take note, Mr Soprano.
A good little exercise that can be employed by those who wish to enhance their situational awareness is the SA-game. Oh, it’s a marvellous game, worth introducing to stale social moments. The game is simple, prior to entering an establishment call out the SA-game to a friend. This is the cue that the game is on – both people are now creating mental notes on their surroundings. After leaving the establishment each person gets to fire off a set number of questions. For example, How many men were in the room? Did the woman sitting next to us go to the toilet at any point? What colour was the car that was parked outside the window to our right? Simple but effective at learning to absorb the little details around you. Offers us a good chance to get one over your significant other also, for those glorious bragging rights! (Warning: May backfire)
Being present: The Moment of Recognition
Using our colour system above, you have now acknowledged a high-level threat. It’s time to apply the most effective mindset during an alert state that would allow you to deal with the situation in the most capable way. You must now become fully present in the moment – every thought in your mind that is outside of this threat is now a burden that you must remove. Imagine your mind is being pulled elsewhere during this moment with trifling distractions, for each obstruction that is pulling you away from this present moment, is a step away from the threat. This is more distance that your mind will have to cover to return to the threat, assess the entire situation, and come up with a viable response. In the economy of situational awareness, this is costly and potentially fatal.
Sever the edge between before and after.
— Taken Soho, Zen Master, Author of the Unfettered Mind 1600
A day to forget
So, you’re enjoying a coffee at a popular cafe downtown, absorbing the surroundings when suddenly an armed male enters the building. You’re the first person to make note of the incoming threat. Good, you may stand a chance. Now what? Situational awareness can become pretty useless if you’re incapable of performing the necessary actions under intense stress upon detecting a threat. Be aware, this isn’t a process that you can bank on working if you have never tested yourself operating under duress. This is a lesson that many men have learnt the hard way. Please ensure that you’re fully aware of your abilities when operating under duress. Learn how your body responds to threatening situations, understand exactly what happens to your muscles, vision, memory, heart rate and judgments. Then become accustomed to operating within this altered state. Those who fail to grasp the importance of this concept will find it truly frightening how ineffectual the body becomes within a high-stress environment. I can only compare it to being drunk. Your senses become tenuous and your judgement becomes ineffective.
Next, it is necessary to have a basic plan of action upon witnessing a threat (SOPs for our military folk) upon establishing your presence in any given area. This mental hypothetical I’m speaking of should enter your mind periodically, establishing miniature waypoints in your head that will be used as your go-to actions upon observing a threat. Stay with me here. So let’s say you are enjoying that coffee and your friend is momentarily playing on their phone – instead of following your buddy into the mindless realms of social media for the next 2 minutes, create a hypothetical question within your head. “If I encountered a sudden threat in this room, how would I react, what are my options?” While your buddy continues to giggle at cats, now you must answer the question. Let’s begin:
Does the cafe display its fire evacuation plan blueprints on the wall? Yes? Good. Check that out, it seems you can take a good look at this plan as your barista preps that large Cafe latte. So it seems if you proceed through the kitchen, we have a fire exit that takes you onto the street behind the building, great! I guess you should sit next to that table near the kitchen door once you’ve gotten that coffee. See what we’re doing here? We’re formulating mental exercises that give us options in the event of a sudden threat. This takes practice, but these little mental steps become eventually routine and with time, you will find your subconscious taking over the work.
Employing the above principals of situational awareness into your daily routine connects you with your environment in many helpful and thought-provoking ways. Employing this mindset not only allows you to react to threats with furious efficiency, but it provides a more intricate and comprehensible view of your world. The finer details begin to appear that you have never seen before. You’ll spot a picture on the wall in your favourite restaurant that you have never noticed, perhaps you’ll question the origin of that unusual symbol on the building that you have passed frequently for the previous two years? Suddenly a new vibrant world appears, enjoy it you fuck. This world is so detailed and vibrant and we’re walking aimlessly past exquisite structures, intriguing people and fascinating events without a thought in the world. The time to stop that nonsense is now. Be sure to additionally execute effective travel planning when you’re heading into foreign, unknown environments to assist with your situational awareness in unexplored territory.
Finally, the practice of situational awareness also projects your alertness to those who observe you. The people of this world, who’re seeking easy targets to exploit others for their own gain, are typically looking for weak and vulnerable victims – Being robbed is the most probable danger that one will encounter in their life that can be prevented by good situational awareness decorum. The person who doesn’t seem aware or capable of reacting when the shit goes down is often the type of person that will be hunted. The capable man must enforce a mindset that is relevant to their own personal environment. My readers will be situated all over this planet, living in areas that bring their own unique dangers that warrant their own methods – ranging from the extremes to the mundane. It is ultimately up to you how much you wish to embrace such a mindset into your everyday routine. However, do pay attention as Normalcy bias will typically weigh in on this decision – If you’re fortunate enough to have a track record that lacks social conflict, it may convince you that this whole concept is worthy only for the paranoid. It’s not. It’s a mindset for those who understand the many forces of this world that operate outside of one’s control. It’s a step towards taking responsibility for your own security and becoming comfortable in dealing with the adversity of life.
-  Wikipedia – Cognitive Bias – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_bias
-  Wikipedia – Normalcy bias https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Normalcy_bias
-  Wikipedia – Jeff Cooper – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jeff_Cooper
-  Interpol – Stress and Decision Making – Interpol – https://www.interpol.int/content/download/14097/99302/version/1/file/Stress%20and%20Decision%20Making%20-%20Norris%20(Public%20Release).pdf