Building Blocks of Personal Security: Situational Awareness

9 MINS READSep 16, 2014 | 09:00 GMT
Building Blocks of Personal Security Part Two: Situational Awareness

Editor's Note: Although the world can be a dangerous place, one does not have to passively wait for acts of violence to occur. This is part two of a four-part series that provides the tools to help anticipate, avoid and respond to danger. Part 1 explores the mindset needed to respond to a dangerous situation, Part 3 covers establishing an environmental baseline and Part 4 will cover reacting to danger.

It is important to note that situational awareness — being aware of one's surroundings and identifying potential threats and dangerous situations — is more of a state of mind than a hard skill. Because of this, practicing situational awareness is not something that can be done only by highly trained government agents or specialized corporate security teams. Indeed, it can be exercised by anyone with the will and discipline to do so. Situational awareness is useful for recognizing and avoiding terrorist threats, distinguishing criminal behavior and identifying other emerging dangerous situations.

People typically operate on five distinct levels of awareness. There are many ways to describe these levels. Cooper's colors, for example, is a system frequently used in law enforcement and military training. At Stratfor, however, we have found that the most effective way to illustrate the differences between the levels is to compare them to the different degrees of attention people practice while driving. For our purposes here, we will refer to the five levels as "tuned out," "relaxed awareness," "focused awareness," "high alert" and "comatose."

Building Blocks of Personal Security – Situational Awareness

Stratfor's Situational Awareness Scale

Stratfor's Situational Awareness Scale

The first level, tuned out, is similar to when a person is driving in a very familiar environment or is engrossed in thought, a daydream, a song on the radio or even by the kids fighting in the backseat. Increasingly, cellphone calls and texting are also causing people to tune out while they drive. A person experiences tuned-out driving when they arrive somewhere without really thinking about their trip.

The second level of awareness, relaxed awareness, is similar to defensive driving. This is a state in which one is relaxed but is also watching the other cars on the road and looking ahead for potential hazards. For example, if one is approaching an intersection and another driver looks like he may not stop, tapping on the brakes to slow down is a good defensive move. Defensive driving does not make a person weary, and one can drive this way for a long time if they have the discipline to keep themselves from slipping into a tuned-out mode. While practicing defensive driving, one can still enjoy the trip, look at the scenery and listen to the radio, but they cannot allow themselves to get so engrossed in those distractions that they ignore everything else. Although relaxed and enjoying the drive, one is still watching for road hazards, maintaining a safe following distance and keeping an eye on nearby drivers.

The next level of awareness, focused awareness, is akin to driving in hazardous road conditions. One must practice this level of awareness when driving on icy or slushy roads — or the pothole-infested roads populated by erratic drivers that exist in many developing countries. When driving in such an environment, one needs to keep two hands on the wheel at all times and have their attention totally focused on the road and the other drivers around them, never taking their eyes off the road or letting their attention wander. There is no time for cellphone calls or other distractions. The level of concentration this type of driving requires makes it extremely tiring and stressful. A drive that would normally seem routine is exhausting under these conditions because it demands prolonged and total concentration.

The fourth level of awareness is high alert. This is the level that induces an adrenaline rush, a prayer and a gasp for air all at the same time when one sees a car run a stop sign and pull into a busy intersection. High alert can be scary, but at this level one is still able to function — they can hit their brakes and keep their car under control. In fact, the adrenaline rush one gets at this stage can sometimes aid their reflexes.

The last level of awareness, comatose, is what happens when one literally freezes at the wheel and cannot respond to stimuli, either because they have fallen asleep or, at the opposite end of the spectrum, because they are petrified. It is this panic-induced paralysis that is most important for situational awareness. The brain ceases to process information and one simply cannot react to the reality of the situation, risking shock. Many times when this happens, a person can go into denial, believing "this cannot be happening to me," or the person can feel as though he or she is observing the event rather than actually participating in it. Often, the passage of time will seem to grind to a halt. Crime victims frequently report experiencing this sensation and often note they were unable to act as a crime unfolded.

Finding the Right Level

Now that we have discussed the different levels of awareness, we can focus on identifying which levels are ideal at a given time. The body and mind require rest, so we have to spend several hours each day at the comatose level while asleep. When we are sitting in our homes watching a movie or reading a book, it is perfectly fine to operate in the tuned-out mode. However, some people will attempt to maintain the tuned-out mode in decidedly inappropriate environments — for example, when they are out on the street at night in a Third World shantytown. Other times, they will maintain a mindset wherein they deny that criminals can victimize them, thinking, "That couldn't happen to me, so there's no need to watch for it." This attitude tunes them out to any potential threats.

If one is tuned out while driving and something unexpected happens — say, a child runs into the road or a car ahead stops quickly — one will not see the problem coming. This usually means that one either does not see the hazard in time and hits it, or they totally panic, freeze and cannot react to it; neither is good. These reactions — or lack of reactions — occur because it is very difficult to change mental states quickly, especially when the adjustment requires moving several steps, say, from tuned-out to high alert. It is like trying to shift a car directly from first gear into fifth, making it shudder and stall. Many times when people are forced to make this mental jump they panic and stall, going into shock and actually freezing up, rendering them unable to take any action — they go comatose. This happens not only when driving but also when a criminal catches someone totally unaware and unprepared. While training does help people move up and down the alertness continuum, it is difficult even for highly trained individuals to transition from the tuned-out to high-alert stages. This is why law enforcement and military personnel receive so much training on situational awareness.

It is critical to stress here that situational awareness does not mean being paranoid or obsessively concerned about security. In fact, people simply cannot operate in a state of focused awareness for extended periods, and high alert can be maintained only for very brief periods before exhaustion sets in. The fight-or-flight response can be very helpful if it can be controlled. When it gets out of control, however, a constant stream of adrenaline and stress is simply not healthy for the body and mind, and this also hampers awareness. Therefore, operating constantly in a state of high alert is not the answer, nor is operating for prolonged periods in a state of focused alert, which can also be demanding and completely exhausting. The human body simply is not designed to function under constant stress. All people, even highly skilled operators, require time to rest and recover.

Because of this, the basic level of situational awareness that should be practiced most of the time is relaxed awareness, a state of mind that can be maintained indefinitely without all the stress and fatigue associated with focused awareness or high alert. Relaxed awareness is not tiring, and it allows one to enjoy life while rewarding one with an effective level of personal security. When people are in an area where there is potential danger (which, in reality, is almost anywhere), they should go through most of the day in a state of relaxed awareness. If they spot something out of the ordinary that could be a threat, they can "shift up" to a state of focused awareness and take a careful look at that potential threat while also looking for others in the area. If the potential threat proves innocuous or is simply a false alarm, they can shift back down into relaxed awareness and continue on their way. If, on the other hand, the potential threat becomes a probable threat, detecting it in advance allows a person to take action to avoid it. In such a case, elevating to a higher alert may become unnecessary because the problem was avoided at an earlier stage.

However, once a person is in a state of focused awareness, they are far better prepared to handle the jump to high alert if the threat does change from potential to actual — if the three thugs lurking on the corner do start advancing and look as if they are reaching for weapons.

Of course, when a person knowingly ventures into an area that is very dangerous, it is only prudent to practice focused awareness while in that area. For example, if there is a specific section of highway where many improvised explosive devices detonate and ambushes occur, or if there is a part of a city that is controlled and patrolled by criminal gangs — and the area cannot be avoided — it is prudent to practice a heightened level of awareness when in those areas. An increased level of awareness is also prudent when engaging in common or everyday tasks that present increased risk, such as visiting an ATM or walking to one's car alone in a dark parking lot. When the time of potential danger has passed, it is easy to shift back down to a state of relaxed awareness.

Honing situational awareness skills can be done by practicing some simple drills. For example, one can consciously move one's awareness level up to a focused state for short periods during the day. Examples of this can include identifying all the exits when entering a building, counting the number of people in a restaurant or subway car, or noting which cars take the same turns in traffic. One trick that many law enforcement officers employ is taking a look at the people around them and attempting to figure out their stories — in other words, what they do for a living, their mood, what they are focused on and what they are preparing to do that day, based merely on observation. Performing such simple focused-awareness drills will train a person's mind to be aware of these things almost subconsciously when the person is in a relaxed state of awareness.

This situational awareness process also demonstrates the importance of being familiar with one's environment and the dangers that are present there. Such awareness permits some threats to be avoided and others to be guarded against when one must venture into a dangerous area. The process of constructing a baseline understanding of one's environment will be the next building block we will discuss.

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