A Primer on Situational Awareness
By Scott Stewart
The world is a wonderful place, but it can also be a dangerous one. In almost every corner of the globe militants of some political persuasion are plotting terror attacks — and these attacks can happen in London or New York, not just in Peshawar or Baghdad. Meanwhile, criminals operate wherever there are people, seeking to steal, rape, kidnap or kill.
Regardless of the threat, it is very important to recognize that criminal and terrorist attacks do not materialize out of thin air. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Criminals and terrorists follow a process when planning their actions, and this process has several distinct steps. This process has traditionally been referred to as the "terrorist attack cycle," but if one looks at the issue thoughtfully, it becomes apparent that the same steps apply to nearly all crimes. Of course, there will be more time between steps in a complex crime like a kidnapping or car bombing than there will be between steps in a simple crime such as purse-snatching or shoplifting, where the steps can be completed quite rapidly. Nevertheless, the same steps are usually followed.
People who practice situational awareness can often spot this planning process as it unfolds and then take appropriate steps to avoid the dangerous situation or prevent it from happening altogether. Because of this, situational awareness is one of the key building blocks of effective personal security — and when exercised by large numbers of people, it can also be an important facet of national security. Since situational awareness is so important, and because we discuss situational awareness so frequently in our analyses, we thought it would be helpful to discuss the subject in detail and provide a primer that can be used by people in all sorts of situations.
First and foremost, it needs to be noted that being aware of one's surroundings and identifying potential threats and dangerous situations is more of a mindset than a hard skill. Because of this, situational awareness is not something that can be practiced only by highly trained government agents or specialized corporate security countersurveillance teams. Indeed, it can be exercised by anyone with the will and the discipline to do so.
An important element of the proper mindset is to first recognize that threats exist. Ignorance or denial of a threat — or completely tuning out one's surroundings while in a public place — makes a person's chances of quickly recognizing the threat and avoiding it slim to none. This is why apathy, denial and complacency can be (and often are) deadly. A second important element is understanding the need to take responsibility for one's own security. The resources of any government are finite and the authorities simply cannot be everywhere and cannot stop every criminal action. The same principle applies to private security at businesses or other institutions, like places of worship. Therefore, people need to look out for themselves and their neighbors.
Another important facet of this mindset is learning to trust your "gut" or intuition. Many times a person's subconscious can notice subtle signs of danger that the conscious mind has difficulty quantifying or articulating. Many people who are victimized frequently experience such feelings of danger prior to an incident, but choose to ignore them. Even a potentially threatening person not making an immediate move — or even if the person wanders off quickly after a moment of eye contact — does not mean there was no threat.
Levels of Awareness
The first level, tuned out, is like when you are driving in a very familiar environment or are engrossed in thought, a daydream, a song on the radio or even by the kids fighting in the backseat. Increasingly, cell phone calls and texting are also causing people to tune out while they drive. Have you ever gotten into the car and arrived somewhere without even really thinking about your drive there? If so, then you've experienced being tuned out.
The second level of awareness, relaxed awareness, is like defensive driving. This is a state in which you are relaxed but you are also watching the other cars on the road and are looking well ahead for potential road hazards. If another driver looks like he may not stop at the intersection ahead, you tap your brakes to slow your car in case he does not. Defensive driving does not make you weary, and you can drive this way for a long time if you have the discipline to keep yourself at this level, but it is very easy to slip into tuned-out mode. If you are practicing defensive driving you can still enjoy the trip, look at the scenery and listen to the radio, but you cannot allow yourself to get so engrossed in those distractions that they exclude everything else. You are relaxed and enjoying your drive, but you are still watching for road hazards, maintaining a safe following distance and keeping an eye on the behavior of the drivers around you.
The next level of awareness, focused awareness, is like driving in hazardous road conditions. You need to practice this level of awareness when you are driving on icy or slushy roads — or the roads infested with potholes and erratic drivers that exist in many third-world countries. When you are driving in such an environment, you need to keep two hands on the wheel at all times and have your attention totally focused on the road and the other drivers. You don't dare take your eyes off the road or let your attention wander. There is no time for cell phone calls or other distractions. The level of concentration required for this type of driving makes it extremely tiring and stressful. A drive that you normally would not think twice about will totally exhaust you under these conditions because it demands your 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 — "Watch out! There's a deer in the road! Hit the brakes!" This also happens when that car you are watching doesn't stop at the stop sign and pulls out right in front of you. High alert can be scary, but at this level you are still able to function. You can hit your brakes and keep your car under control. In fact, the adrenalin rush you get at this stage can sometimes even aid your reflexes. But, the human body can tolerate only short periods of high alert before becoming physically and mentally exhausted.
The last level of awareness, comatose, is what happens when you literally freeze at the wheel and cannot respond to stimuli, either because you have fallen asleep, or, at the other end of the spectrum, because you are petrified from panic. It is this panic-induced paralysis that concerns us most in relation to situational awareness. The comatose level of awareness (or perhaps more accurately, lack of awareness) is where you go into shock, your brain ceases to process information and you simply cannot react to the reality of the situation. Many times when this happens, a person can go into denial, believing that "this can't be happening to me," or the person can feel as though he or she is observing, rather than actually participating in, the event. Often, the passage of time will seem to grind to a halt. Crime victims frequently report experiencing this sensation and being unable to act during an unfolding crime.
Finding the Right Level
Now that we've discussed the different levels of awareness, let's focus on identifying what level is ideal at a given time. The body and mind both require rest, so we have to spend several hours each day at the comatose level while asleep. When we are sitting at 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 (e.g., when they are out on the street at night in a third-world barrio), or they will maintain a mindset wherein they deny that they can be victimized by criminals. "That couldn't happen to me, so there's no need to watch for it." They are tuned out.
Some people are so tuned out as they go through life that they miss even blatant signs of pending criminal activity directed specifically at them. In 1992, an American executive living in the Philippines was kidnapped by a Marxist kidnapping gang in Manila known as the "Red Scorpion Group." When the man was debriefed following his rescue, he described in detail how the kidnappers had blocked off his car in traffic and abducted him. Then, to the surprise of the debriefing team, he said that on the day before he was abducted, the same group of guys had attempted to kidnap him at the exact same location, at the very same time of day and driving the same vehicle. The attackers had failed to adequately box his car in, however, and his driver was able to pull around the blocking vehicle and proceed to the office.
Since the executive did not consider himself to be a kidnapping target, he had just assumed that the incident the day before his abduction was "just another close call in crazy Manila traffic." The executive and his driver had both been tuned out. Unfortunately, the executive paid for this lack of situational awareness by having to withstand an extremely traumatic kidnapping, which included almost being killed in the dramatic Philippine National Police operation that rescued him.
If you are tuned out while you are driving and something happens — say, a child runs out into the road or a car stops quickly in front of you — you will not see the problem coming. This usually means that you either do not see the hazard in time to avoid it and you hit it, or you totally panic and cannot react to it — neither is good. These reactions (or lack of reaction) 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 your car directly from first gear into fifth and it shudders and stalls. Many times, when people are forced to make this mental jump and they panic (and stall), they go into shock and will actually freeze and be 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 for even highly trained individuals to transition from tuned out to high alert. This is why police officers, federal agents 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 your security. It does not mean living with the irrational expectation that there is a dangerous criminal lurking behind every bush. 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 "flight or fight" 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 or the mind. When people are constantly paranoid, they become mentally and physically burned out. Not only is this dangerous to physical and mental health, but security also suffers because it is very hard to be aware of your surroundings when you are a complete basket case. 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 overly demanding and completely enervating. This is the process that results in alert fatigue. The human body was simply not designed to operate under constant stress. 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 you to enjoy life while rewarding you with an effective level of personal security. When you are in an area where there is potential danger (which, by definition, is almost anywhere), you should go through most of your day in a state of relaxed awareness. Then if you spot something out of the ordinary that could be a potential threat, you can "dial yourself up" to a state of focused awareness and take a careful look at that potential threat (and also look for others in the area).
If the potential threat proves innocuous, or is simply a false alarm, you can dial yourself back down into relaxed awareness and continue on your merry way. If, on the other hand, you look and determine that the potential threat is a probable threat, seeing it in advance allows you to take actions to avoid it. You may never need to elevate to high alert, since you have avoided the problem at an early stage. However, once you are in a state of focused awareness you are far better prepared to handle the jump to high alert if the threat does change from potential to actual — if the three guys lurking on the corner do start coming toward you and look as if they are reaching for weapons. The chances of you going comatose are far less if you jump from focused awareness to high alert than if you are caught by surprise and "forced" to go into high alert from tuned out. An illustration of this would be the difference between a car making a sudden stop in front of a person when the driver is practicing defensive driving, compared to a car that makes a sudden stop in front of a person when the driver is sending a text message.
Of course, if you know that you must go into an area that is very dangerous, you should dial yourself up to focused awareness when you are in that area. For example, if there is a specific section of highway where a lot of 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 you cannot avoid these danger areas for whatever reason — it would be prudent to heighten your level of awareness when you are in those areas. An increased level of awareness is also prudent when engaging in common or everyday tasks, such as visiting an ATM or walking to the car in a dark parking lot. The seemingly trivial nature of these common tasks can make it all too easy to go on "autopilot" and thus expose yourself to threats. When the time of potential danger has passed, you can then go back to a state of relaxed awareness.
This process also demonstrates the importance of being familiar with your environment and the dangers that are present there. Such awareness allows you to avoid many threats and to be on the alert when you must venture into a dangerous area.
Clearly, few of us are living in the type of intense threat environment currently found in places like Mogadishu, Juarez or Kandahar. Nonetheless, average citizens all over the world face many different kinds of threats on a daily basis — from common thieves and assailants to criminals and mentally disturbed individuals aiming to conduct violent acts to militants wanting to carry out large-scale attacks against subways and aircraft.
Many of the steps required to conduct these attacks must be accomplished in a manner that makes the actions visible to the potential victim and outside observers. It is at these junctures that people practicing situational awareness can detect these attack steps, avoid the danger and alert the authorities. When people practice situational awareness they not only can keep themselves safer but they can also help keep others safe. And when groups of people practice situational awareness together they can help keep their schools, houses of worship, workplaces and cities safe from danger.
And as we've discussed many times before, as the terrorist threat continues to devolve into one almost as diffuse as the criminal threat, ordinary citizens are also becoming an increasingly important national security resource.