Situational Awareness: How To See Danger Before It Sees You

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image: large group of pedestrians crossing a white-striped crosswalk

We often think of situational awareness and connect it to a James Bond or Jason Bourne movie. Those are perfect for a Friday night, a bowl of popcorn, and a cold drink. (And at least one Hollywood show does yield some realistic survival lessons.)

But what about real life? What about your life? After all, you’re not a highly trained spy trying to save the world from international villains with constant vigilance. Do you still need to be situationally aware?

You bet you do.

Your life and the lives of the people you love may depend on it.

What is situational awareness?

Situational awareness is just a fancy way of saying you know what is going on around you, the possible implications, and what actions you might need to take if you feel threatened. Many refer to it as keeping your head on a swivel, always looking around to see what’s what. I like to think of it as taking the blinders off.

From traffic controllers to first responders, to parents at the park or the bus stop with their kids, to the concertgoers, to the businesswoman walking through a parking garage at night, situational awareness is critical to safety.

It’s just as critical in familiar locations as it is in foreign ones, in crowds at public events, or in a hotel room when we’re on vacation or traveling for work.

It’s going to be especially important if your home is your car for a season.

Let’s take a look at why it’s so important.

Why is situational awareness important?

According to the FBI website, there were 538,203 violent-crime incidents in 2020. This is an estimated statistic based on data from 85% of the country’s law enforcement agencies.

How many of these incidents might have been avoided if individuals had been assessing their environment while out and about? How many people would today be safer if they had been looking around, highly aware, and not immersed in their smartphones?

Please understand. This is not victim-shaming. Victims don’t deserve what happened to them.

In the eyes of a perpetrator, however, if I’m walking with my head down as I’m fumbling in my purse for my car keys or checking my email, I’m a much better mark than if I stride to my vehicle, scanning the area, keys at the ready. (And for the record, I’ve been both.)

If you were the bad guy looking for an easy opportunity, who would you choose?

Muggers and other ne’er do wells like to choose victims who look timid, afraid, or unaware of their surroundings. Those who are surveying their environment appear to be none of those things.

Body language plays a big role, my friend, and we must be mindful of what we are saying via our posture, stride, facial expression, and even our eye contact.

We must also be aware of the information we share that we may not realize we’re sharing. As my husband has told me, “It’s not so much who YOU tell. You can tell trusted friends all kinds of personal information. The problem is who THEY tell.”

Entirely too many people are rather oblivious to the world around them. Either their eyes are glued to their phones or they are just lost in thought, sort of drifting through their day. Given the earbuds that are often in place as well, these people may as well be blind and deaf.

In other words, they are easy targets.

I know I don’t want to be an easy target. I’m guessing you don’t either.

Exercising situational awareness, on the other hand, gives off an air of confidence. And by lifting your head and watching the world around you, you’re in a much better position to not only detect and avoid possible threats but react to them quickly and efficiently.

In other words, we do sometimes have some control over whether we’re in the wrong place at the wrong time. And we do have control over our response when something threatening, dangerous, or deadly begins to play out.

The level of control we have, or at least that we have control over having, comes through incorporating three levels of situational awareness.

What are the 3 levels of awareness?

Psychologist Mica Endsley developed this model of hierarchical stages of information processing. There are other approaches, such as Cooper’s Color Codes and the OODA Loop, but we’ll use Endsley’s model as the framework for our discussion.

The three levels are Perceiving, Comprehending or understanding, and Predicting.

Level 1: Perceiving

Where are you right now?

Home? Work? Car?

Maybe the grocery store or the park?

Are you alone? With kids? Hanging out with friends?

Stop reading this article and look around you, then come back. I’ll wait.

Okay, who did you see? What is the person’s or people’s appearance and behavior? What is your environment? Where are the entrances and exits to your location? What do you hear? Smell? Feel? What is happening?

The first level is all about recognizing the important details. You’re basing future decisions, perhaps the very near future, upon the information you collect. And now that you’ve gathered it, you must process it, which takes us to the next level.

A key point to Level 1 is that it’s so easy to teach to children. Turn this into a game by asking questions like, “How many people are in the lobby?”, “What color shirt is the doctor wearing?”, or “How many trucks are in the parking lot?”

Kids love to be quizzed, and while this might seem to be a game to them, they are actually learning and practicing important observation skills.

Level 2: Comprehending or understanding

You’re not gathering information just so you can impress your friends with your Holmesian powers of observation. Once you’ve observed your surroundings and the people in them, what does all that information mean?

You must interpret the data and decide what it means and whether or not any of it poses a possible danger.

For example, is the man near the playground passing the time while his kid plays, or is he loitering looking for an opportunity–a child with a distracted parent?

Hopefully, your observations reveal he’s here with one of the children on the playground. Perhaps he’s a helicopter parent who is hovering. This interpretation will lead your predictions of what might happen in a different direction than if you judge the person to be a potential predator.

Level 3: Predicting

Because of your judgment about the man and your conclusion about his behavior, you’ll predict, or anticipate, the possible outcomes and possible actions you’ll take.

This thought process positions you to have the best chance of achieving the most favorable outcome if, indeed, there’s a potential and realistic threat.

It’s important to remember that these levels are also not 1-2-3 and done; in dynamic situations, new information emerges which must be incorporated into the framework. It’s more of an iterative process.

How do you develop or improve your situational awareness?

My eldest recently received his learner’s driving permit, also known as his “temps” in these parts. When you’ve been driving for almost 30 years, there’s a whole lot of stuff that is just second nature, and as I’ve been watching him learn driving skills, I was reminded by how much has become automatic to me.

As an experienced driver, you don’t give any real, conscious thought to looking both ways before proceeding into an intersection, lighted or otherwise. And keeping one eye on the traffic coming your way to ensure none of those cars are veering into your lane — it’s just a matter of routine.

There’s a word for that: automaticity. Wikipedia defines it as, “the ability to do things without occupying the mind with the low-level details required, allowing it to become an automatic response pattern or habit.”

To a new driver, it’s going to take a long time for all those driving skills to reach the level of automaticity. It’s all new and can be confusing. How do I keep an eye on the road in front of me, the cars around me, the speedometer, and the fuel gauge, while keeping track of where I am and where I’m going, all at the same time?

Yikes!

After a while, though, all of it becomes second nature, right? It just takes some time and some practice to develop the appropriate habits.

The same can be said about situational awareness.

To become more situationally aware, we need to develop the right habits, and practice them purposefully.

Practice these 6 behaviors to develop a mindset of being aware

Since this is learned behavior, anyone can improve their situational awareness. To do so, intentionally and persistently practice the following:

  1. Be aware of your surroundings
  2. Notice other people — their body language, eye contact, posture, stride
  3. Identify entry and exit points
  4. Practice prediction
  5. Stay vigilant
  6. Trust yourself

A higher level of situational awareness can be developed, improved upon, and practiced by anyone with the will and discipline to do so.

That includes kids. Teach them to be attentive to current and future situations by playing the ‘What if…?’ game with them and also some ways to defend themselves.

What factors influence how situationally aware you are at any given moment?

The mindset of perceiving, comprehending, and predicting is negatively impacted by certain conditions, such as:

  • Fatigue
  • Stress
  • Biases/attitudes
  • Distractions

Even people who are proficient in the habits of situational awareness must be wary of the influence of these factors.

What are some clues that you’ve lost situational awareness?

Any condition that diminishes your level of situational awareness increases the risk of inadequate decision-making, and therefore, mistakes. Some of these include:

  • Confusion – That is, do you feel uncertain or uneasy?
  • Ambiguous information – Are you receiving conflicting information from multiple sources?
  • Focalization or tunnel vision – Has your focus narrowed to a very few things or one thing, and you have lost sight of the big picture?

When you realize you’re experiencing any of these, take immediate action to correct them.

Will situational awareness prevent terrible things from happening to you?

The sad truth is that sometimes you can’t see the danger until it is too late. I can’t imagine the horror of being in a place like Charlie Hebdo, the Twin Towers, or the Route 91 Harvest music festival in Las Vegas. Any signs of danger were possibly visible to those outside, not inside, if at all.

Nonetheless, some people were better situated to survive than others.

Consider the account of one man who was able to escape from terrorists in a crowded Paris concert hall while the gunmen reloaded. First of all, he had the presence of mind to act while they were reloading.

Secondly, he had a seat that was near the front of the theater – near an exit door. He helped at least one injured person escape with him. Some of his friends managed to find a small room in the building to hide in.

Their quick thinking and action may have saved their lives.

So while it may not keep bad things from happening, situational awareness can affect the outcome.

READ MORE: Learn what you can do to increase your chances of surviving an active shooter event.

How situationally aware are you?

How attentive to your surroundings do you think you are?  Test yourself with this video:

 

How’d you do? Here’s another one.

Keep track of your progress in real life with this simple exercise:

  1. With a friend, go somewhere with a lot of people, like a park or a mall.
  2. Take a few minutes to observe what is going on around you.
  3. Then, have your friend ask you questions about what you saw, heard, smelled, and possibly felt.
  4. Repeat this under different circumstances, such as going to a quieter place.
  5. Keep practicing until it becomes second nature.

You could even do this exercise as you walk your dog. What do you discover about the area in which you live, that you’d never noticed before?

What Situational Awareness Is Not

To be clear, the idea here is not to behave as though every trip to the post office is a dangerous mission deep behind enemy lines.

Rather, it is just to keep your eyes focused on what’s around you, instead of watching for the latest Facebook status updates or Tik Tok video.

We live in a beautiful world. And while it’s not the world of spies and espionage, for most of us anyway, it still has its dangers. Learning about and practicing situational awareness is a skill we should all practice and use in our daily lives because if something bad happens, it can help you survive.

How has situational awareness kept you safe?

 

This article was originally published on November 14, 2015, and has been updated and revised. Thanks to Jim Cobb for providing insights for this article.

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Bethanne is an eclectic writer who lives in the exurbs (that's what comes after the suburbs) with her husband, sons, and cats. She has been writing for The Survival Mom since 2010. You can learn more about her books, including the "Survival Skills for All Ages" series, at BethanneKim.com.

13 thoughts on “Situational Awareness: How To See Danger Before It Sees You”

  1. Stephen Clay McGehee

    Situational Awareness is a skill that can be learned. Some who were raised in a high threat environment (such as a major urban area) develop those skills naturally. Those of us fortunate enough to have been brought up in peaceful surroundings need to study and practice to learn those skills.

    The best resource that I have found is the book, “Left of Bang – How the Marine Corps’ Combat Hunter Program Can Save Your Life” by Patrick Van Horne and Jason A. Riley. They also have a web site that can get you started (cp-journal.com). Get the book. Read it. Practice it. It should be on every Prepper’s reading list.

    Another facet of Situational Awareness that may not be obvious is that once you start to develop that skill set, it becomes sort of a game; yes, it can be a fun part of your daily life. “Left of Bang” teaches you some very specific skills and has exercises to help you practice those skills. The web site features a set of cards that you can print out to take with you when you are practicing those skills out in the real world. Part of their training method is teaching you some very specific terminology to describe what you are seeing. That takes it out of the realm of “gut feel” and into quantifiable factors that help you build and retain good Situational Awareness habits.

  2. I tell my students all the time to avoid wearing earphones while walking or in public transportation. Some haven’t gotten that message yet, sigh.

  3. My DS23 failed his recent road test. The Drivers Ed teacher recommended the following: Traffic Check: on approaching an intersection; Blind Spot Check: whenever changing lanes. We both started saying the words and doing the action when either was driving. He passed his next road test! And I improved my driving too. I liked saying the words while doing the action. It helped cement it in our brains.

  4. A couple additional comments:

    1) Avoid “obviously” dangerous/sketchy situations, whenever possible. How many news reports have you seen that read something like “I got mugged when I was buying gas and a 6-pack of beer at 2AM..” ? Duhhhhh… Maybe shopping at a different time might cause fewer problems if you’re not travelling interstate….

    2) “Listen to your Gut”. We are all carrying DNA that dates from when “Fred Flintstone” didn’t go outside because “it sorta feels like a sabertooth night”. You have inherited neural connections that you don’t understand, but kept your ancestors alive, or else you wouldn’t be here. If a situation “feels” bad, make it a point to be elsewhere. You will not always be right, but you’ll still be breatihng.

  5. Pingback: Prepper News Watch for November 16, 2015 | The Preparedness Podcast

  6. Pingback: Situational awareness applies to both your surroundings and your mind.

  7. Pingback: Preppers need to develop situational awareness skills – Examiner.com – Darwin Survival

  8. I also highly recommend the book: The Gift of Fear, which goes into greater detail on situational awareness and related topics. Can be found at your public library.

  9. Pingback: Situational Awareness – It Could Save Your Life…or Someone Else’s | Blog – Deb Mills

  10. We have a close knit group of friends who use the following exercise to keep our situational awareness skills honed.
    Each individual selects a 3 digit number as our SA code. When we see the number out in public (license tag, fuel price, phone number), we try and take a quick photo with our phone, if safely possible. You will find, over time, the numbers seem to be attracted to you when in reality you are simply being more aware of your surroundings. The one with the most photos at our next social gathering is recognized and/or rewarded (extra beer etc.). Helps to keep us watching…….

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