Situational Awareness: Readying Yourself to Act and React

The following article is a retired law enforcement officer’s experience and recommendations on situational awareness.

Maybe you have heard the term situational awareness used or have seen it portrayed on TV and in film. Maybe you are somewhat familiar with the concept but do not know how it applies to your life. Having spent many years in law enforcement, it gets ingrained into you like second nature as something that will save your life or the life of your partner. So, let’s take a moment to discuss what it is, how you develop it and what you use it for. Situational awareness is, by definition, “the perception of environmental elements and events with respect to time or space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their future status”. In plain English, you say? No problem.

Whether you are sitting at your table at home on your phone right now or are at work reading this on your computer, you are probably acutely aware of the ambient noises around you. The dog, the kids, co-workers in your immediate area, conversations happening around you are all things you probably notice and dismiss as background noise every day. What happens when the dog whines at the door, or you hear one of the kids cry? What happens when the boss unexpectedly walks into your work area? You may not realize it, but this is the basis for situational awareness.

We don’t all have to be Jason Bourne or Wonder Woman when it comes to threats around us. Most of us don’t have government agencies or secret societies of assassins after us; but what about our everyday routine? If you go on a walk, do you pay attention to what street you are on? What address block you’re in? Who are the people you routinely see versus a new face? When you use the ATM or walk out to your car late at night alone, do you scan around you for possible threats? Here are some basics of situational awareness that every person should try to incorporate into their daily lives.

Know Your Location

As a young police officer, I worked graveyard shift with enough training officers to know the drill. It was 2 AM, pitch dark and inevitably in a neighborhood where everything started to look the same. They would stop the car, turn off the engine and the lights, turn to me and say “I’ve just been shot. You need to tell dispatch our location for the ambulance and backup… where are we?” I can tell you that if I didn’t know, I would be running back to the nearest street sign to find out. 

This concept is also important for your own situational awareness. When you walk or jog, when you are out shopping in a new area, when you are driving to and from new places – in the case of an emergency, would you know how to tell emergency dispatchers where you are? Take an extra minute to look at street signs and addresses or even landmarks to guide help to you. Those minutes might make all the difference.

Check Your “Six”

Any good fighter pilot will tell you that checking behind you for threats is a life and death decision in a dogfight. It can also help you when you are simply walking down a new street or using the ATM. Take a brief second to look over your shoulder every minute or two. No need to be paranoid or stare. You will get better at observing your surroundings quickly and returning to your activity. As many police officers love to remind each other: “keep your head on a swivel”.

Look for the Abnormal

If you were buying a bag of marshmallows and you saw a shriveled brown apple in the bag you would question the contents of the entire bag, right? In any situation you enter you should be looking for the shriveled brown apple, as well. Ask yourself what sticks out. It may be a new coworker, or it may be nothing. If it isn’t? Well, then you will be better prepared to react to whatever happens next.

Identify the In’s and Out’s

How many ways in and out are there? Where can a new threat appear from? Where can I escape if necessary? These are simple questions to pose in your head. Not even something you need to act on most of the time but when it matters knowing where the entrances and exits are can save your life.

Take Action

If you think something seems out of the ordinary, do something about it. Action will always beat reaction. If you see someone near the ATM you were going to use who seems out of place or is acting strangely, pick a different ATM. If you see someone walking at you on the street, walk to the other side of the street. If you think someone is following you in a car, drive to the nearest police station. As you begin to hone these skills, you will better develop the ability to discern and make decisions based on your comfort level.

These basic tips should be the foundation for you to begin developing situational awareness. You don’t have to be paranoid; just be observant. The primary person responsible for your safety and the safety of those you love is you. Develop your skills and pass them on to others. You may never have to use these skills to save your own life, but by developing them and passing them on, you may save someone else’s.