Situational Awareness 101: The First Line of Self Defense
How can you prepare for an unthinkable event? By doing what you can with what you have. Here are few tips that will help you avoid "normalcy bias."
Normalcy bias. It’s why grown men and women respond to acts of terrorism with a combination of “it’ll never happen to me” and “this isn’t really happening to me.”
It’s what leads people to stand still amid life-threatening chaos rather than taking steps to protect or defend their lives. It’s a deep-rooted desire for a safe, quiet status quo; many flat-out ignore warning signs. “It will never happen to me” could be a dangerous way to think in a world where one never knows where or when a lethal act of terrorism will occur.
This quote from a New York Times story about the recent mass shooting in Las Vegas perfectly illustrates that:
“‘Hey, you guys, get down,’ one officer shouted at bystanders between volleys of gunfire. ‘Go that way. Get out of here. There are gunshots coming from over there. Go that way.’
“But some people did not believe they were under attack and rebuffed orders to evacuate. ‘That’s fireworks,’ one bystander shouted at officers. Another yelled expletives when told to take cover.”
We could approach this problem analytically with the Hegelian dialectic, a method dating back to the 19th century and a philosopher called Heinrich Moritz Chalybaus. The Hegelian dialectic has three stages: thesis, antithesis, and synthesis.
The thesis would be preparedness, its antithesis is normalcy bias, and one major component of its synthesis is situational awareness. Or we could ask a Marine.
According to prior-service USMC Field MP Ken Whitmore, situational awareness (SA) was “a mantra spoken on a daily basis” during his time in the Corps. He also addressed the realities of SA both in combat and in civilian life:
“Obviously you can’t always identify a threat before the threat unveils itself, but there are ways to mitigate casualties by having plans in place should a certain situation arise. In simple binary terms, ‘If X happens, I will do Y.’ This brings me to two quotes always spoken by Marines: ‘situation dictates’ and ‘complacency kills.’”
Situational awareness is exactly what it sounds like: your perception of your environment, the events taking place, and what those events mean (or could mean).
Rather than assuming life will always exist within a constrained set of parameters, acknowledge that terrible things happen, and with little-to-no warning. So how does being situationally aware help if an attack occurs with no advance notice?
Having a Plan
“Failing to plan is planning to fail.” —Author Alan Lakein
As Ken Whitmore stated, you cannot always see a threat coming, but having a plan reduces the casualties that take place in its wake. When you enter an area, take note of the various elements of your environment.
First, notice potential threats, and then mentally acknowledge people or things that appear non-threatening. Remember, not all threats are readily identifiable.
Take note of all exits and decide the best routes —yes, routes, plural—to those exits from your location. You may find one or more exits blocked, so it is imperative you identify multiple points of egress.
Additionally, make a concerted effort not to turn your back on doors or other possible entry points such as large windows.
Taking those steps, and others, helps you formulate a simple plan. If “X” happens, I will do “Y.” That way, if an aforementioned unforeseeable event occurs, you can and will react accordingly. You won’t be frantically searching for an exit as people stampede around you; you won’t be part of the panic, you will be part of the solution.
Situational Awareness Training
Situational awareness saves lives by keeping you prepared. One day, the fight you are training for may indeed be at your feet, which brings us to our next topic: training.
“Safety is something that happens between your ears, not something you hold in your hands,” said Col. Jeff Cooper.
Yes, you can and should actively train for improved situational awareness. Whether you’re out to dinner with your significant other, or shopping at your local superstore, you can practice the elements of awareness:
When you walk into a room you should immediately catalog potential threats. Although the left-leaning media screams “profiling” at even a whiff of LE making certain assumptions, stereotypes exist for a reason. Learn to visually scan an area and notice troubling people, and then calmly keep track of their movements should they change locations within your space. Threat assessment is also a part of this; unlike identification, assessment involves deciding just how much of a threat you believe someone or something you’ve identified as a potential problem represents.
Learn to guess what sequence of events will take place at any given time. You can practice prediction by sitting in a mall and guessing what certain people are about to do based on their body language. Malls are a fantastic training spot – of course, they’re also a potentially risky environment, so go prepared.
This is one you don’t often see in self-defense articles, but it should be common. Nowadays we utilize central vision on a regular basis by focusing on cell phones, iPads, and laptop screens. As we stare at those close-up images, it’s easy to ignore what’s happening around us. During the early years of my time training and showing horses I learned a practice called Soft Eyes.
It was taught by Centered Riding author Sally Swift, who described Soft Eyes as “wide-open eyes and peripheral awareness, awareness of your entire field of vision and feeling sensations from within.”
Swift explained this as observing a central object—think a singer at a concert—while allowing yourself to relax and “see” your surroundings rather than focusing only on the object and noticing nothing else. Hard focusing on an object creates tunnel vision and a lack of awareness of your surroundings; Soft Eyes encourage broad peripheral vision and subconscious nudges when something occurs around you. It may have been gleaned from my time on horseback, but I continue to exercise Soft Eyes to this day for situational awareness (to this to my teenage daughter remains frustrated by her inability to sneak up on or startle me…apparently I always see her coming).
Hone Reaction Time
There are a number of concepts, strategies, and charts out there you can use to shape the way you mentally approach a threat. Whether you choose Col. Jeff Cooper’s Color Code or USAF Col. John Boyd’s OODA loop (below), one thing remains constant: you are improving your reaction time. Cooper’s Color Code charts levels of awareness using colors – white, yellow, orange, and red – while the OODA loop is an acronym and stands for “observe, orient, decide, act”. Find a method that works for you and train using it. He who acts or reacts the fastest, survives.
This is an easy one: learn to trust your instincts. Trusting your instincts isn’t necessarily innate but tends to be something you must learn to do. Learn to separate feelings from intuition; they are not the same thing.
Your gut instincts tend to be the result of a variety of information your mind has been taking in both consciously and subconsciously, so when it speaks up, listen. Consider the times you went with your gut instinct.
Did it end well? Remind yourself of those positive examples to reinforce listening. If your gut tells you something is seriously wrong in an area, leave. Would you stand around in a dark alley holding a fistful of cash? Don’t wait to see what happens; be proactive.
Know the Baseline
Understand what normal activity and behavior should be at any given place and time. Knowing the baseline helps you monitor said baseline for troublesome changes.
Avoid Complacency and Hard Focus
Don’t scan an area when you arrive and never look again; continually assess your environment and notice events taking place in space and time. Don’t lock into central vision and stare at a person or object so hard you don’t notice anything else. If you’re at a movie be sure you’re using Soft Eyes to constantly observe your surroundings rather than focusing on the big screen. If you’re walking to your car from a building, don’t stare down at your phone.
Watch Your Six
This term apparently annoys some among us but given that its roots are in the military – which branch is a matter of much contention – it’s appropriate. Peripheral vision only takes you so far. As mentioned before, try to avoid having your back to a door or other major entry point. And wherever your back is, keep checking it. Don’t ignore the spaces you cannot easily see.
Strike a Balance
Being situationally aware does not mean you are paranoid and also does not mean you can never relax. It’s simply a way of life, added to your daily routine, like wearing sunblock to protect your skin or getting used to the shape and weight of a concealed-carry pistol on your waist.
For example, practicing Soft Eyes is about relaxing your vision to improve your awareness of your surroundings, not tensing up and forcing constant attention on something. Good situational awareness involves being aware both consciously and subconsciously of what’s happening around you while going about your day (or night) as usual. Relax, enjoy yourself, and be aware.
I could go on; methods of honing situational awareness are practically endless. Here’s the bottom line: be aware of your surroundings. You can neither control nor predict everything in your environment but you do the best with what you have and go from there.
Being unobservant and complacent will only take you down a potentially dark path. Instead, be alert, make a plan, and act on that plan as needed.
Author’s note: Of course we want you to train with your gun, too. Have a gun, train with it, and carry it. Going a step further, it’s also not a bad idea to get good medical training and carry a tourniquet or, better yet, get an IFAK (Individual First Aid Kit). A good tactician is well-rounded and able to handle whatever life throws at them. Be prepared in every way possible.