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  • Writer's pictureMichael Padilla-Pagan Pay

Situational Awareness – a Mindset, not a Skill

SA, or better known as Situational Awareness, is something that should be explained to all employees, even to those, who are our own employees. It is very critical not just for personal security but as a fundamental building block in cooperative security.

It is important to note that situational awareness, in what we define as being aware of one's surroundings and identifying potential threats and dangerous situations, is rather a mindset than a hard skill. Situational awareness is not something that can be practiced by ex-military or ex-law enforcement or specialized corporate security teams. The truth is that it can be exercised by anyone with the will and the discipline to do so. Situational awareness is not only important for recognizing terrorist threats, but it also serves to identify criminal behavior and other dangerous situations.

Apathy can be deadly

First step in establishing this mindset and to recognize that threats exist, and in today’s world, all you have to do is turn the TV news channel on. Ignorance or denial of a threat make a person's chances of quickly recognizing an emerging threat and avoiding it highly unlikely. Bad things do happen. Apathy, denial and complacency can be deadly.

Take responsibility for your own security

Second step of the proper mindset 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 potential terrorist attack or other 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.

Trust your gut

Third Steps and an important step of the 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. Trusting your gut and avoiding a potentially dangerous situation can cause you a bit of inconvenience, but ignoring such feelings can lead to serious trouble.

Be observant even when doing other things

The discipline part of practicing situational awareness refers to the conscious effort required to pay attention to gut feelings and to surrounding events even while you are busy and distracted. At such times, even obvious hostile activity can go unnoticed, so individuals need to learn to be observant even while doing other things.

Five Levels Awareness

People typically operate on five distinct levels of awareness. There are many ways to describe these levels ("Cooper's colors," for example, which is a system frequently used in LE and military), but perhaps the most effective way to illustrate the differences between the levels is to compare them to the different degrees of attention we practice while driving. For our purposes, we will refer to the five levels as "tuned out," "relaxed awareness," "focused awareness," "high alert" and "comatose."

Level one:  tuned out, is similar to when you are driving in a very familiar environment or are occupied in thought, a daydream, a song on the radio or even by the kids fighting in the backseat. Increasingly, cellphone calls and texting are also causing people to tune out while they drive. Have you ever arrived somewhere in your vehicle without even really thinking about your drive there? If so, then you've experienced being tuned out.

Level two: relaxed awareness, is like defensive driving. This is a state in which you are relaxed but are also watching the other cars on the road and are looking at the road ahead for potential hazards. For example, if you are approaching an intersection and another driver looks like he may not stop, 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 from slipping 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.

Level three: 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 pothole-infested roads populated by unpredictable drivers that exist in places, like Egypt, Iraq, Libya, Mexico and others. 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 around you. You don't dare taking your eyes off the road or let your attention wander. There is no time for cellphone 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 prolonged and total concentration.

Level four: high alert. This is the level that induces an adrenaline rush, a prayer and a gasp for air all at the same time. This is what happens when that car you are watching at the intersection ahead 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 adrenaline rush you get at this stage can sometimes aid your reflexes.

Level five: 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. It is this panic-induced paralysis that concerns us most in relation to situational awareness. The comatose level 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 the event rather than actually participating in it. 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.

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 or they will maintain a mindset wherein they deny that criminals can victimize them. "That couldn't happen to me, so there's no need to watch for it." This results in them being tuned out to any potential threats.

If you are tuned out while you are driving and something happens, let us 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, freeze and cannot react to it — neither is good. These reactions (or lack of reactions) 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 so they go comatose. This happens not only when driving but also when some 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 law enforcement and military personnel receive so much training on situational awareness.

Control you fight or flight

It is critical to stress here that situational awareness does not mean being paranoid or obsessively concerned about security. 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 "fight-or-flight" 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 and mind, and this also hampers security. 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 demanding and completely enervating. The human body was simply not designed to operate under constant stress. All people, even highly skilled operators, require time to rest and recover.

Practice the relaxed awareness

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 people are in an area where there is potential danger (which, in reality, is almost anywhere), they should go through most of the day in a state of relaxed awareness. Then if they spot something out of the ordinary that could be a threat, they can "dial 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 possible threat proves innocuous, or is simply a false alarm, they can dial back down into relaxed awareness and continue on their way. If, on the other hand, the potential threat becomes a probable threat, seeing it in advance allows a person to take actions to avoid it. In such a case, they may never need to elevate to high alert, since they have avoided the problem at an early stage.

However, once a person is in a state of focused awareness they 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 advancing and look as if they are reaching for weapons.

Practice increased awareness when suitable

Of course, when a person knowingly ventures into an area that is very dangerous, it is only prudent to practice focused awareness while in that area. For example, like working in Libya 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 the area cannot be avoided for whatever reason, it would be sensible to practice a heightened level of awareness when 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. When the time of potential danger has passed, it is then easy to shift back to a state of relaxed awareness.

Play with drills

People can hone their situational awareness ability by practicing some simple drills. For example, you can consciously move your awareness level up to a focused state for short periods of time during the day. Some examples of this can include identifying all the exits when you enter a building, counting the number of people in a restaurant or subway car, or noting which cars take the same turns in traffic. One trick that we teach is to take a look at the people around them and attempt to figure out their stories, in other words, what they do for a living, their mood, what they are focused on and what it appears they are preparing to do that day, based merely on observation. Employing such simple focused-awareness drills will train a person's mind to be aware of these things almost subconsciously when the person is in a relaxed state of awareness.

This situational awareness process also demonstrates the importance of people being familiar with their environment and the dangers that are present there. Such awareness permits some threats to be avoided and others to be guarded against when you must venture into a dangerous area.

Not everyone works where we, or some of our customers operate in. Nonetheless, average citizens all over the world face many different kinds of threats on a daily basis from common thieves and assailants to criminals, terrorist and lone wolves’ individuals intending to conduct violent acts to militants wanting to carry out large-scale attacks.

As the jihadist threat continues to regionalize from one based on al Qaeda or ISIS group to one based on grassroots cells and lone wolves, grassroots defenders, it is smart for some ordinary citizens to practice good situational awareness do to the world changing.

It has become more important than ever before.

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