What is Situational Awareness and Why Should I Practice it?

Situational Awareness is the ability to identify, process, and comprehend the critical elements of information about what is happening around you.

You may think the elements around you are not critical, but at any moment they could become meaningful to the situation at hand if things turn in a negative direction.  As a comparison, think about driving and how quickly accidents occur – which is why defensive driving is so important. Situational Awareness is much like defensive driving but applied to your everyday life.

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None of us want to think about the possibility of a hostage situation when we go to the bank to cash our check or a gunman opening fire at the grocery store, but these things happen and practicing situational awareness is a key element to keeping you safe in dangerous situations.

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Here are 5 Steps to practicing situational awareness in your day to day life:

OBSERVE – What we view is what we typically think of when we think of observation yet what our mind sees may not always be accurate.  Our vision does not work in the way a camera does when a photo captures every element.  Our vision, instead, only sees what is of interest or in action.  For example, if you are at a baseball game you are only viewing the players in action even though the people around you are all doing things as well.  2 rows in front of you a guy may pick – pocket the gentlemen in front of him right before your eyes but at the same time as a historic home run that you were focused on. For this reason, true observation takes practice! 

Put yourself in a position for optimal observation. So whenever you enter an environment, put yourself in a position that will allow you to see as much as you can without obstructions. Locate all exit possibilities.  Take a mental note of the people around you to the best of your ability.  Try to memorize their sex, race, attire, build, and behaviors as well as the quantity of people (the brunette in the pink dress is busy on her phone, the bald guy third in line in a black hoodie looks antsy, there were about 10 people in line with me). Take a mental note in the parking lot to the best of your ability, for example: the parking lot was about 50% full, the car parked to my left was a black van with a NV license plate and to my right was a red hatchback with a CA license plate and there was a yellow truck parked at the loading dock running without a driver.  The take away point in observing is to try to absorb as much as possible that could be relevant to your situation – people, vehicles, exits, signs, issues, etc.

LISTEN – Our hearing is attuned to our surroundings and functions as our brain’s first response system by notifying us of things to pay attention to and fundamentally shaping our perception of what’s happening around us. The quickness and sharpness of our hearing evolved from its survival advantage. (Think about when you are in darkness, what senses do you rely on first: Hearing, feeling and smelling) But just like with sight, your ears can be listening to tons of sounds without your brain really registering them.  You can tune into more sounds than you usually hear by concentrating and trying to distinguish and pull out noises you’re usually “ear-blind” to.

Practice training your hearing by closing your eyes to isolate your senses to sounds and play an active video you are not familiar with.  Make a mental note of the sounds you heard while listening.  Open your eyes and note all of the sounds you heard and try to note what you believe was happening then watch the video to determine how well you did.  Keep practicing until you realize you have picked up all of the sounds. When you learn to isolate your senses, your senses become more in tune.

SMELL – In comparison to our senses, smell doesn’t get much attention but when you think of wild animals this sense is usually the key to their survival.  Granted we do not rely on smell to survive the way animals in the wild do, we have likely all encountered moments that our sense of smell may have saved us from danger – think of smelling smoke or a gas leak for example. As you know, your sense of smell has a memory.  You automatically recognize the scents of your favorite meals as well as fire.  These key memories can aid you in times of trouble.  When you smell something that alerts you, trust that instinct! 

TOUCH – This is the last sense required for situational awareness and truly only useful after you’ve observed and are suddenly in the dark or find yourself in the dark. So, when you are observing take note of textures and surfaces – particularly ones that could lead you to the exit.  For instance, if the floor changes from tile to carpet before the exit or if there is a glass top table near the exit.  Use these memories to aid you in feeling your way around should you find yourself in the same location but in darkness at any point. 

RECOGNIZE THE SIGNS – Once you’ve followed the first 4 steps it’s time to ask yourself some questions; What is going on? What is the general atmosphere or mood surrounding me? Does everything seem to be the natural activity and scenery for this place? Are people conducting themselves normally or is someone standing out?  

Some key behavioral signs to recognize are:

  • Most people are walking with purpose, have keys in their hands, are carrying items to and from somewhere. When none of that is going on, question the person’s presence and actions.
  • Look for people shifting their vision around the room or area. They could be determining target value, looking for police or anyone who might intervene, CCTV cameras and where their escape route is.
  • Watch for unnatural movements such as hidden hands or quick motions that appear unusual such as reaching behind one’s back, into their book, into their waist band etc.
  • Recognize predatory movements or actions used to gain a dominant position. For instance, if two people approach you apparently to ask you where something is and one steps to your side that’s a predatory move. If someone hovers at your 4-8 o’clock relative to you, question it. Be sensitive to any positioning that makes you feel vulnerable. If you’re walking and someone impedes your movement, take a quick step back to keep the person in sight and check your surroundings.

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Situational awareness is a mindset that you have to purposefully harvest. The goal is to reach the point that it’s a natural behavior. To get to that point, you have to practice it regularly. Starting today, remind yourself to look for entry/exit points whenever you enter a new building. Begin observing people and settings in public places and asking yourself the important questions for recognizing what stands out. Also, start creating action plans on what you would do if you see a possible threat. Don’t be paranoid, just conscious.

Practicing situational awareness goes a long way in keeping you from appearing like or becoming an easy target. So, pay attention, stay alert and be prepared!

To learn more about Situational Awareness, check out professional situational awareness trainer Patrick Van Horne’s blog here: http://www.cp-journal.com/blog/ 

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Author: Close Range Safety Tips

Close Range Safety Training Academy was created to promote safety and protection service through training. Our staff is dedicated to instructing our students in all facets for the purpose of safety, security and defense to better serve their community....

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