We’re Living in a Different World Now – Let’s Talk About Situational Awareness

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By Gideon Joubert

Situational awareness is perhaps the single most important component of personal security. Yet it is also perhaps the fundamentally most misunderstood and malpracticed one.

Thousands of people become crime victims every day because they aren’t situationally aware. They unplug themselves from their environment, and don’t pay attention to what’s going on around them. And criminals, both opportunistic and otherwise, take full advantage of this situation.

Criminals aren’t Invisible, Victims are Oblivious

Don’t believe me? Just take a look around the next time you drive down any public road. At every red light you’ll see people sucked into their smartphones, completely oblivious to what’s going on around them. Others walk with ear buds in, unconcerned with the myriad strangers who enter and exit their immediate personal space as they walk down the street. And others still are so preoccupied with their own thoughts and concerns, they wouldn’t notice a bomb going off right next to them.

Inevitably when these people become victims of a smash-and-grab robbery, or get mugged in the street, they will say something like “It happened so fast! One moment and they were just there – in my face!”

Now, criminals are many things. But they are not supernatural and do not possess the capacity to instantly teleport themselves. And even though they may move fast and act aggressively when they have selected and locked-on to their intended target, they certainly telegraph their presence and intent. Chances are that the victim would not only have observed their assailant’s presence before the attack, but would also have registered them as a potential threat. That is if they were actively scanning their environment and knew what to look for.

That said, you cannot avoid or evade something you do not see. And you will not see a threat if you are not scanning for it. Which is where situational awareness comes in.

Situational Awareness is Alertness to Threats and Environment

So, what exactly is situational awareness?

Ed Lovette – co-author of Defensive Living, a superb little book – defines situational awareness as “a state of General Alertness which allows you to take the element of surprise away from the threat.”

Kelly McCann expands the definition somewhat: “Situational awareness is a cumulative alertness to threat and your environment. It enables you to notice pre-incident indicators, which are odd movements or anomalies given the situation. Cumulatively, pre-incident indicators create a visual unlikely circumstance consistent with either a contrived situation or predatorial behavior.” (I highly recommend you get a copy of Kelly’s Combatives for Street Survival. It is a must-read in my opinion.)

Sardaka, CC BY-SA 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Both these definitions describe situational awareness as a state of alertness for the purpose of pre-incident threat recognition.

Hence you are actively scanning your environment for individuals whose presence and behavior (and not solely their physical appearance) are inconsistent with the baseline of the environment, and so-doing identify them as potential threat actors.

How should you scan your environment? A good rule-of-thumb is to maintain awareness of what is going on in your 10/360. That means a 10 meter circle all around you. Obviously these dimensions will change with circumstances – good luck maintaining 10/360 while stuck in an elevator! But the general application of the 10/360 scan remains valid whether you are on foot or behind the wheel of your car.

Recognizing Pre-Incident Indicators

However, in order to identify a potential threat when you see one, you need to develop attack-recognition skill: the basic aptitude of understanding the subtle pre-incident indicators that flag an imminent or evolving attack. The following are common pre-incident indicators. If you spot two – the situation requires your attention. If you spot three or more – then you are probably in an immediate threat situation that requires you to take action.

  1. No Cover for Action, No Cover for Status: anyone who doesn’t appear to have a reason for being where they are and doing what they appear to be doing. They don’t fit the baseline of what belongs in the environment, and their presence is “off”. This is the person loitering near you in a parking lot with no car keys in their hands. They’re just standing there and looking around with their head on a swivel while touching their waistline.
  2. Sudden Change in Someone’s Status: the person loitering near you in the parking lot closes in on you as soon as your hands are occupied by opening your car door. Nothing else has changed. Be wary if your presence suddenly causes any person’s status to suddenly change.
  3. Correlation of Movement: the person is following closely behind you, and takes every turn you do. They cross the street with you. If you stop and suddenly turn around – they slow down or stutter step, and then hold off while maintaining their distance.
  4. Hidden Hands Causing Unnatural Movement: people swing both their hands naturally when walking normally. When someone hides their hands behind their leg, in their armpit, or under their arm – it will affect the way they move and make their movements appear unnatural. Hidden hands is a potential indicator of a hidden weapon.

This is not an exhaustive list of indicators. Predatory glancing and predatory movement (like flanking you or boxing you in) are also potential threat-indicators. What is important is that if your gut feeling tells you someone or something is wrong – you better learn to listen to it.

Early Threat Recognition Saves Lives

It’s obviously desirable to identify a potential threat early, while they are still some distance away, as opposed to only noticing it when it is in your personal space with a knife against your throat. This is one of the reasons why we talk about scanning 360-degrees out to 10 meters.

It’s a reasonable distance that most situations allow, but it is also provides a slight buffer. A relatively fit person (or criminal) can cross a distance of 7 meters (21 feet) in a mere 1,5 to 2 seconds. If you are caught unaware and unprepared, that’s only about enough time to say “Oh shit!” and do very little else.

Susan Jane Golding from New York City, United States, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Which is why Mr. Lovette refers to situational awareness as “tak(ing) the element of surprise away from the threat”. Which is advantageous for numerous reasons.

  • Removing the element of surprise from the threat means that you will be less affected by the physiological and psychological effects of a startle response in the event of an attack. And you will be able to manage it far better. Which in turn enhances your ability to effectively respond.
  • By identifying a threat earlier, you can plan your response and have time to choose an effective response measure. Most obviously, this may give you the opportunity to remove yourself from the situation and avoid the incident altogether. Which is the best win you can possibly ask for. Equally, if avoidance isn’t an option, you can choose a method with which to evade your assailant. If neither of those are on the table, then you can choose a method with which to counter, decide if a pre-emptive action against the impending aggressor is possible, and pick the right tools for the job.
  • Seeing the threat early gives you a moment to psychologically switch on maximum aggression and get ready to fight. Maybe you are lucky and this observable change in posture and focus is enough to give your potential attacker significant second thoughts. But even if it doesn’t, you are still primed and ready to cook-off. Which places you in an incomparably better situation than someone who is simply taken by surprise and completely on the back foot.

What should stick with you from the above, is that time equals choices. And unless you are subjecting yourself to paralysis-by-analysis, choices are a good thing. But don’t expect your assailants to give you time – they’re probably more interested in stealing your watch anyway. You will have to earn the time by being situationally aware.

Take Ownership of Your Situational Awareness

Now, when it comes to dealing with potential violent aggressors, your priority pertaining threats should always be as follows:

  • Avoid them at all costs. Avoidance is the key element to completing your mission of always going home to your loved ones in one piece.
  • If you cannot avoid, then evade your attacker(s). The New Balance Defence works. It’s better to win your fights by 100 meters than to take a blade to the aorta. You don’t want an epitaph saying “Here lies Mike. He could run, but sure sucked at fighting.”
  • If you cannot evade, then counter explosively and with maximum aggression. Which is why you should be physically fit and know how to fight. Or at the very least be proficient with your defensive tools and train with them regularly. Because you are now fighting for your life.

So, what can you do now? Apart from getting copies of Kelly and Ed’s books, here are some basic things you can start practicing right now to enhance your situational awareness:

  • Whenever you leave a secure location (like your home), consciously do a mindset shift and switch your awareness on.
  • Constantly scan your 10/360 when you are out and about.
  • Practice verbalising what you see to yourself to help you get into the habit of not only seeing, but actively observing and registering.
  • Leave the smartphone alone until you get to a secure location. Your car is not a secure location.
  • If you have to check your phone, position yourself with your back against a wall and lift the phone to your eyes so that you keep your head up. But keep this brief.
  • Always leave enough space behind the vehicle in front of you so you can get past them and escape. A good rule of thumb is that if you can see their tyres contacting the tar, you have enough room.
  • Never assume a situation is OK: if you see something / someone that sets your alarm bells off – avoid them! Turn around, change course, or otherwise remove yourself from the potential situation.
  • Use reflective surfaces in the environment to help you scan what’s behind you, as well as what is around corners ahead of you.

As you can see, none of this is rocket science. It is all very straightforward, simple, and sensible. Which is probably why so few people actually practice it. With this borne in mind, go out there and unsuck yourself from your phone and plug yourself into your environment. Observe your environment and the people in it with intent. Every threat avoided is a fight won. And above all, be an active and enthusiastic participant in your own rescue.


Gideon Joubert is the owner and editor of Paratus. He holds a Bachelors Degree in Economics from the University of South Africa, is a qualified firearms instructor, and does the odd security industry gig once in a while.

This article originally appeared at Paratus and is reprinted here with permission. 

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