Tips: Situational Awareness

One of the ideas that pops up in almost every lesson in military training is that extreme attention to detail matters. That in every situation, focused and unbroken awareness matters. That, in the worst cases, it is the difference between life and death. And so this level of attention to detail is stressed at every turn.

— Patrick Rhone: Situational Awareness

If you make it a habit to stop looking at your phone while you're walking, remove the earphones when you go from place to place, lift your head from that device and look around, observing the world around you, paying attention to sounds, smells, and movement of people, that’s when you begin to notice things. You realize there are lots of little details everywhere.

You don't need to be Jason Bourne for this. You only need to pay attention to the details. Really be part of the reality unfolding in front of you.

Situational awareness is that. It’s paying attention to your environment and to what your senses are telling you. The more you do it, and train your senses to pay attention, the more you will be able to detect things that are out of place, that don’t belong. And this is key to safety.
Every place has its own pace, and patterns of life. The locations you visit during your commute have a “normal”, and the sooner you can learn that, the sooner you’ll be able to detect things that deviate from this normal, making them a threat or something to pay more attention.

Observe. That is the key.

I make it a point to not check my phone or listen to music as I commute, especially when I’m walking on the street, or entering the subway. You’ll be surprised the amount of stuff you miss when you disconnect from the environment. Even the simple act of being on the phone with someone, or taking 5 minutes to text someone, can cause you to miss something important, or fail to read something in the environment that is telling you to cross the street because something bad is about to happen.

Observe. Listen. Sense.

I learned a lot of things in my past life, but one of constants across the different trainings I took, was the focus on situational awareness. Some good tips that were given over the years:

  • Be aware that there is always a threat. The target of that threat can be you, or it can be the person next to you. It doesn’t matter if you don’t see it, the threat exists. Once you are aware of this, you can prepare yourself to deal with it mentally and physically, so when it happens you’ll now what to do. This is where the power of visualization comes in. Imagine the things that can go wrong, and imagine what you’d do. Rehearse in your head the steps to understand how you’d detect things going wrong, and what you’d do. Make this into “muscle memory”. Bad actors can have a lot of reasons to target you: you might have something they want, they are mentally ill, they have the intent to hurt people, and many other reasons. Regardless, you cannot allow yourself to think that it will not happen to you.

  • Make the environment work for you. Controlling the environment is one of the most important aspects in physical security, and your safety during the commute. Be aware of your surroundings, understand what’s normal during your commute or travel, and what’s not. Remain focused on the people around you, the cars, the sounds, and the “electricity” in the air. People react to things, and if you can read the cues, you’ll be able to be left of bang. By knowing your environment baselines, you can react to changes in it (however subtle they might be) and spot the potential (or actual) threats quickly and decisively. By knowing your environment, and proactively creating defensive measures you make it harder for the attackers to target you.

  • Change your habits. Habits play against you. A bad actor can build and plan an attack based on these habits. If you always commute at the same time, taking the same train, try changing the routes you walk, or the car you sit in. Always try to vary something in your commute. Change the patterns, change the way you do things. Don’t allow people to learn how and when you do things.

  • Test yourself. This is the fun part: put yourself in the attacker’s shoes. See yourself as a bad person would. If you were to try to rob you, or disrupt you in anyway, how would you do it? If you can find a way to do this, so does a bad person. Once you’ve done this, try to observe other people and see if you could “attack” them. Learn what looks out of place, and what other people’s patterns are. Make this work for you.

When things begin to unfold, and you are confronted with something you were not prepared for, always repeat this: when in doubt, develop the situation. Seek a safe location, and let the situation develop to see how you can react to it.

Observe and be aware of your surroundings. Lift your head from your phone.

Do it.