Situational Awareness - The Basics of Personal Safety

August 7, 2017


Security is a shared responsibility and it starts with you! As simple as that sounds, in over ten years of my law enforcement experience truth be told, that when it comes down to personal security or personal safety I've had more than my share of filing reports or intervened minor to high risk incidents which could've been avoided had a little awareness been present.

The problem with maintaining situational awareness these days for the average person, is that the very same devices that is supposed to make our lives easier, more often than not keeps us distracted from being able to absorb the overall picture of the environment. Ever had an experience where you almost bumped across another person while walking because your attention was on the small screen in your hand? A benign "bump" and inattention, which in some places in this world; micro seconds of being caught off guard may result in getting your phone snatched, bag cut open, or physically assaulted.  I paint this picture clearly because as I've mentioned before, I've personally written the police reports for these types of incidents and have in some cases physically intervened which although eventually resulted in the arrest of the suspect, rolling around on the ground with someone who seconds ago tried to swing a 2x4 wood at your face with cars passing in the background is an experience that is best experienced in PlayStation games like Grand Theft Auto and not in real life.

 So when it comes down to personal safety where do we start? Understand that situational awareness is a habit. A positive habit which once it becomes second nature, I truly believe it becomes an important life skill. That being said it doesn't make an individual "full proof" against criminal or intra personal violence, but having the ability to identify trouble before "it" happens can save a person so much trouble.

In my community patrol days, I've noticed that fights in night clubs (and to some extent also riots) tend to happen after a certain time of night. At any time you're in an establishment or club and you feel or see a change of mood in the crowd that is either becoming more aggressive, loud, unruly; then it's time to leave. The same thing applies in the streets, keep in mind that although criminals may be seasoned criminals, crafty and violent. but in general they are not the typical hardworking types. Which means the victim that is unaware, distracted or considered "weak" in their assessment will be the first choice.

Switching on your situational awareness radar helps you achieve more control and options on what happens once the gap between the criminal or the person/ group that is trying to harm you closes that distance. Sometimes though, despite our best efforts to avoid that incoming trouble or attack, trouble may find its way regardless what you do and you will have to act accordingly, but keep in mind that a good awareness mindset will help you prepare for it as well.
Watch these two clips from "Spy Game" and "Bourne Identity" which I think explains the concept of situational awareness very well:



I'd like to underline that being situationally aware is not the same as being "paranoid", the difference between being aware and the latter is, paranoia to me is a state of constant fear which to an extent incapacitates rational thinking and function. To better define appropriate levels of situational awareness, a color code system which was codified by the late self defense instructor and retired USMC Colonel Jeff Cooper can be used and these are:

•Condition White (Oblivious) - This is pretty straight forward, in condition white an individual is oblivious to his/ her surroundings and unprepared if trouble stepped in. Drivers in constant conversation with passenger or on mobile phone, jogging with headphones, and any other activity that preoccupies the mind and takes away the mind's ability to capture the current environment falls in this category. If an individual is attacked in condition white, the odds are that the individual is very likely to be hurt. In martial arts my Sensei used to say "The punch that you don't see coming is the one that's going to hurt a LOT!, if you see the punch coming your natural reflex to cover up and protect will momentarily protect you. But if you don't see it coming, it's lights out 99% of the time!".

•Condition Yellow (Aware) - This should be the operating system or mindset once an individual ventures out, not looking for trouble but also keeping a fundamental "game plan" in the background should the radar ping a possible trouble identified. People in this condition are at ease but aware of their surroundings. A quick mental quiz on checking condition yellow is: being able to identify without looking twice what is around you (vehicles, people, building entrances and exits, cover and concealment etc.) Body language is generally conveyed in condition yellow by a self assured appearance, walking with heads up, casually scanning what's around them and just beyond their horizon. They can see who, what is ahead of them, are aware of their environment to each side and occasionally turn to scan behind them.

•Condition Orange (Alert) - You see something that is out of place, it's caught your attention and you've assessed that there is possibility of trouble if you don't take any action. This condition orange in short. Keep in mind that of something has indeed caught your attention then it's time to put that game plan into action and contemplate what needs to be done if the danger is an imminent threat. If trouble is immediate, but not directed to you then move to safety, get of the "X" as they say in police and military world, call for help and alert the authorities of the danger. If on the other hand, it's a false alarm simply go back to condition yellow and take it as a good situational awareness practice opportunity. However if the trouble radar keeps pinging at a much faster rate and closing then it's time to go to condition red.

•Condition Red - (Get Ready) - After assessing and maybe even avoiding, the radar ping is no longer a noise in your situational awareness radar but a clear and present danger to you or someone with you. At this point even though you've done your best to avoid it, but if danger is still on to you like predator hunting its prey... get ready to fight. A verbal challenge to back off at this point may prove useful if time permits. De-escalation may still be an option however if it doesn't work be prepared to stand your ground. In general do every attempt to avoid the physical fight but keep in mind also on the reality of what to do if escape or evasion steps has been exhausted. Important also on this phase is the appropriate use of force, even if you are attacked, you can only do whatever means to defend your physical-self from being hurt or injured and STOP once the danger is over. You must not want to kill or hurt or even strike back with the intent of "teaching your attacker" a lesson. That attitude in my police experience has seen many so called "I was defending myself because he/she called me a (fill in the blank)" being the aggressor in the eyes of the law. And unlike Grand Theft Auto video game, once an individual is charged with assault, the record tends to stick with a person way longer than the three to five hour game time it takes to finish that game on PlayStation or Xbox.

•Condition Black (Under Attack!) - This is it, this is where nothing Hollywood makes can recreate the chaos of violence and the energy, fear, adrenaline of mortal combat. At this point, de-escalation attempts are futile, an individual has to either finish the fight, or create enough distance to escape from the fight. Maintain you will to "live" and do whatever it takes to fight back, stay alive, escape to safety and seek help.

Once you've accustomed yourself to using the color code system, share that knowledge to your loved ones. Using this system has kept me safe for many years on the streets and teaching it to my spouse & children have also benefited them and helped them better understand what to look out for when interacting in this truly dynamic (and can be cruel violent) world we are living in. Remember that law enforcement are by directive tasked to apprehend criminals and put them to stand trial, more often than not police officers will not be around when the actual crime/ violence happens. Hence you are the first line of defense, with situational awareness radar switched on there's a higher & better chance that the phone being snatched from reading the latest Facebook post won't happen, the bag snatch won't be as easy, because the criminal's intent to put his/her victim in a position that is most advantageous to the criminal and least advantageous to the victim can be stopped.

Just like fire when it comes down to personal safety, a malicious intent (to attack or assault) on a victim is predicated on the given IAO factors which are: Intent, Ability & Opportunity. Remove any of the factors in that triangle, the higher chance the crime or attack doesn't happen. With good situational awareness, one can detect when one or more of those factors become present. After all " to subdue an enemy without fighting is the highest skill " says Sun Tzu, and this journey of life was indeed created to be lived and enjoyed...and much better (and safer) with situational awareness radars on.

Stay safe!




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