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Since leaving the military, I have been able to look back on my training and be thankful for a lot of the lessons and practical skills I learned, but none more so than the introduction, application, and understanding of situational awareness. I think a lot of military and law enforcement professionals would agree with me when I say learning situational awareness is one of the most important principles taught in these professions. Why? Because your brain is a super calculator capable of analyzing multiple scenarios, reactions, and hypotheticals using the environment around you. You just need to go through the easy mental cues to analyze a situation or a problem.
In this post, for many of you, we are going back to the basics to take a look at what situational awareness is, and how you can improve it to be a more safe, analyzing and critical thinking person, whether you are in a survival situation, playing a weekend sport, or just being safe in public areas.
Situational awareness does sound like an echo of military professionals but it’s use reaches so much further than just military life. It is something that is so easily adaptable no matter who you are, what your job is, or what situation you are in. For survivalists, situational awareness is a crucial skill to ensure you are able to keep you and your family out of dangerous situations, and when the sh-t does hit the fan, you are able to quickly analyze the problem and think in practical terms “this is what I need to do”.
It’s your own computer program to run in strategic situations. Whether you work in an office, outdoors or are a student studying at university, situational awareness is a skill you can learn and benefit from.
The topic of situation awareness has been canvassed a lot in Hollywood productions, with one of the more practical applications being from that ex-military government spy Jason Bourne? He’d manage to walk into a crowd with an earpiece while being traced and still the world’s biggest government couldn’t track him down. That’s an example of someone being extremely situationally aware. Here’s an example from Bourne on extreme situational awareness, and it gives you a a good idea of one of the elements of situational awareness, which is observation and instant surveillance of your surroundings.
For me, situational awareness is the level of understanding, identification, and application of your surrounding environment. That is what I prefer to refer it to, however, some of you are probably thinking that basically means to know your surroundings.
What you should realize is situational awareness is suitable for any occupation. Of course, there are some applications that might use it more than others. While reading this, you would no doubt have in mind that situational awareness applies to roles such as spies and intelligence officers that work for a government. These roles have a number of reasons why situational awareness is a crucial skill, such as early threat detection, heightened sense, quick reaction times and developing that ‘gut feeling’. For modern-age intelligence, much of the spy work is conducted through technological aspects, such as using open source intelligence gathering methods, black hat techniques and having an understanding of the trace and surveillance of a subject. This is situational awareness as it allows intelligence agencies and officers have a greater awareness and observation of a likely threat target.
Even though situational awareness may have an added benefit to spy agencies and military, there are a number of other interesting professions and even some things that you do in daily life that use situational awareness, such as:
And while these are only a few roles that use awareness skills, there are many more that you can probably identify. For most people, just like the mothers, drivers, pilots and police, scanning for safety breaches and likely hazards is just an automatic reaction to everyday life.
As a survivalist, I feel situational awareness is an absolute paramount skill to learn. For instance, we can use situational awareness in the context of being stranded on an island. Think about this scenario, you have been on a boat, it sinks and you wake up to being on a desolate and unpopulated island. What would you do?
In looking at a more modern approach to situational awareness, say you are on a holiday beach resort, and suddenly you notice some out-of-place men arrive at the resort:
These cues could be the difference between an early warning system for you to leave an area and call authorities on the way, or becoming a victim of a terrorist attack. While I am not saying that every terror attack could be avoided, but situational awareness is a method of identifying specific things that might lead to a change of status later, whether it be a high school student carrying a weapon to school, or a suspicious individual carrying a large package to a crowded sporting event. In these regards, situational awareness is very important to urban survival.
So why would a skill like this be useful for preppers and survivalists? It is an element of self-analysis that you can train now by regularly conducting your own self-assessments and being aware of your different situations. While a lot of preppers rely on their tools and supplies to get them through an emergency, there might be times when the only tools you have are your body and your mind. When you work on this situational awareness skillset and you do have the right supplies, you are unstoppable.
In the 1970s a US Air Force Colonel called John Boyd developed the OODA loop. Since his first publishings on the idea, it has been copied and applied through the strategic world from law, boxing and MMA, chess, military studies, policing and medical studies.
The OODA loop is the way you need to start thinking about every problem in your situation and surroundings. It stands for:
To apply these to an understandable example, think about these terms in the boxing realm. We are up against a strong fighter who lines himself up for a high jab to the head. We have just made an observation that strong fighter is about to punch. In the orientation, we think: if the fighter hits me, I am out or if the fighter punches and I block, I am safe. So I commit to a favorable decision which is to block the punch, and I carry out the blocking action against the fighter. The loop comes into effect as the fighter has now exposed himself, so I run through the OODA loop sequence to this time decide whether to hit back.
You can see how relevant this becomes in small-scale and large-scale emergencies, disasters and conflicts. The OODA loop can run on everything from the evacuation plan you should have to address a flood, to strategies a government would use to respond to a terrorist attack.
When you walk into a room like what Jason Bourne did in that clip above, and you are analyzing exits, potential grabbable weapons, and possible threats, you are committing the OO of the OODA loop. When the sh-t hits the fan in that environment, you are potentially running through the possible sequences of DA loops until you enter a new territory to make new observations and orientations.
What else can the OODA loop apply to?
All of these situations can use the OODA loop and your situational awareness to become aware of your surroundings and the other person, what their intention is, how actions would work, what decision would fare the best and commit to an action.
This is something that would be common for anyone coming from a hostile environment, whether you have lived in a war zone or have been involved in a war. People who have been exposed to extremely hostile environments tend to observe more and find suitable places to do so.
Military personnel who have been in hostile war zones for some time are a common pick for doing this, but also for people who have been involved in urban terrorist incidents.
The first type of observation is your own positioning. Many of these people who have been experienced hostile areas will choosing to sit where they are able to clearly view the entrance of a room, say a restaurant or cafe, and be able to reach an alternative exit if need be. This would be preloading the OO in the OODA loop, so that should something such as an urban terrorist attack occur, you would only have to carry out the decision and the action of making a safe escape.
The other type of observation is observing other people and details. I covered this before briefly but essentially you should be looking out for details such as:
This is where situational awareness plays an important role in the prevention of terrible events such as high school shootings. While there are a number of approaches to responding to an active shooter, there are less strategies to deal with the prevention of those shootings. However, one of the most important strategies (given, a lot of them are made in hindsight) is to encourage the situational awareness and observation of any suspicious activities. Many federal police and intelligence agencies run public campaigns to “call if you notice anything suspicious”. This is to encourage people to be proactive in identifying certain things people might do to lead up to a specific event.
Of course, not everyone is going to be on the lookout for potential terror threats or possible active shooters, that would be living in fear of something bad about to happen every day. Instead, there are some giveaway signs that should make you think ‘is that right?’. These would be things such as:
Sure, some of these situations might have a logical explanation and be innocent events, and 9 out of 10 times something that you might notice might be a completely natural and innocent act. But the one time it does happen, you could potentially save not only your life, but spare the lives of many other innocent people, just by preventing someone from committing a terrible act.
Keeping this in mind, watch the following video to test your situational awareness
Did you pick what happened in the background? Well done if you did. You are one of the few.
For this type of situational observation, I recently came across some people who had attended training camps in Israel teaching these methods to members of the public as a way to address public concerns about the surge in urban terrorist attacks.
The training was also used to identify what times public should avoid places such as shopping malls and encouraging citizens to become more aware of potential terrorist attack hotspots through teaching alternative shopping methods, practicing routine disturbance in avoiding daily patterns so that they were not leaving their homes at a predictable time. This may be extreme measures but necessary steps citizens must make of their situation when they are faced with an urban war zone.
Some of the teaching methods hit upon some factors drawn from common terror attacks that would indicate a future attack. Sure, crowded places are always a possible threat location, but other factors can include suspicious packages being left behind, spotters in or around the crowd that might be on the phone, or with earphones in, and are constantly surveying a crowd to determine the best time to make an attack. There might also be an individual wearing a bulky jacket or clothing on a hot day which could be covering up explosives.
For car attacks, there have also been recommendations made to people in European hotspots for urban car attacks, such as being situationally aware when in crowded areas next to roads that do not have protective gutters or barriers between the road and the people and listening for a sudden acceleration of a car.
Paying attention to simple factors like the ones we have pointed out, might not stop an attack, but they might give you the advantage of a small window of time (whether it be seconds or minutes) to save yourself and others, and possibly to alert authorities.
To increase their skill in situational awareness and memory, children in scouts and even the US Marine Corps sniper school in Virginia play Kim’s Game. The name itself comes from an old novel called Kim, but the game is quite simple. A tray is covered with various items such as spoons, pencils, bullets and various other pieces of kit that either the snipers or the scouts would be familiar with. A towel is held over the items and people get one minute to view all of the items. The competitors then list the items that they saw, the winner is the one who can list the most.
I have undergone similar training in the military which went as follows:
There are a number of texts available on situational awareness. Author and ex-special forces soldier Jocko Willink works situational awareness strategies into corporate, leadership and self-development fields frequently through his podcasts and talks. His book, Extreme Ownership, is a great place to start if you are new to this broken-down to basics, elemental, type of thinking. For books that are more closely related to how you can develop your own situational awareness skills check out The Gift of Fear and Spy Secrets That Can Save Your Life
If you found this article useful, let me know in the comment section below if you have any other useful applications of situational awareness or ways to train it further.