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  • Writer's pictureAndy Murphy

Good Situational Awareness Habits

Putting yourself in a position to see trouble

People asked me what sort of situational awareness habits they should have in order to be successful and safe when they are out in public. Today, I’ll go over several scenarios of places that we all find ourselves and I’ll share with you what I do and some best practices to make sure that you can see trouble before it starts.

Where to Sit at a Restaurant

There’s a chance that you might have come to find this podcast when you Googled the phrase ‘Why I can’t sit with my back to the door’. Several years ago I wrote an article that talked about this feeling that I get when I sit with my back to the door that I just can’t shake.

It feels like my spidey senses are tingling. And a lot of people feel that way. It's a very popular article that people read week after week. So part of that is understanding that we need to put ourselves in a position where we can see what’s going on at a restaurant.

I think we got lost in translation because of the fact that you feel like you can’t sit with your back to the door, not that you must not sit that way. What I have come to understand is that not all threats in restaurants come from the front door.

Many people do watch the front door because they’re concerned that someone will run in from the street, put a gun in the face of the cashier, rob the place, and maybe decide to rob the patrons of the restaurant as well. That’s a reasonable assumption given the climate of today’s society.

But we need to be more aware of what’s going around and not focus solely on the front door in the cash register. And a recent event near my home will show us exactly why we need to be alert to more areas than just the main door.

There is a very sad story out of my county when co-workers at a fast-food restaurant got into an argument. One of the employees left the restaurant, went to his vehicle to retrieve the firearm, and came back and shot the other employee in the kitchen. This is a sad situation all the way around.

The greatest threat in that restaurant wasn’t somebody from the outside, it was somebody from the inside. So when you are seated at a restaurant be sure that you can check on the most common areas for conflict which would be the front door, the bar, the cash register, the kitchen, and most of the dining room.

Now you may wonder, Andy isn’t that everything in the restaurant? Well, kind of... yes.

But you need to be able to monitor those situations but don’t focus on anything until it catches your attention. That's when you need to start truly paying attention to what’s going. Make sure that you’re in a good place that you can casually observe without being noticed.

From there you can start to develop a plan to get you and your family up and out if a problem does arise. So while you still want to sit where you can see the front door, don't be so narrowly focused that you miss something happening in the kitchen.

Safety at the Pump

I’ve actually done two shows on being safe at the gas pump. Once was with Greg Williams and Brian Marren of Arcadia Cognerati and that’s a fantastic episode to go check that one out. And the other talked about things that we can do as parents to protect our kids while at the pump.

So I’m not going to share those points again you can go back and look at those episodes but what I will do is share with you a story that happened to me recently that made me very glad for my commitment to situational awareness.

I was driving back from Disney World earlier this year. We had to go out of our way to make a stop before we went home. As we crossed back into our state the check engine light came on our car. I couldn’t diagnose what the problem was but the car seemed to be moving fine so we pushed on.

Then the closer we got to our destination the gas light came on. But because this errand that we have to run is out in the middle of nowhere, gas stations are hard to come by. I am familiar with this area and my wife and I were able to use Google maps to figure out that we can make it to this gas station and be good on fuel.

So when I tell you about this gas station and what it looked like, know that I was in a situation that I couldn’t pass up filling up here. This was something that had to be done.

I used to travel to this area a lot a few years ago for work. And I had stopped at this gas station before but in the past five years, this gas station had really gone downhill. It was dirty, the parking lot was in bad condition, the pumps looked like they were in need of maintenance.

The convenience store was a two-story old farm-looking building with all of the windows covered up with beer and lottery advertisements. There were no clear sightlines into the building. The parking lot for the gas station was nearly full, indicating to me that there were a lot of people inside who weren’t there for gas.

As I pull up to the pump I’ve got a lot of yellow flags but again this is a stop that I have to make because I have a gas light on and the check engine light on this is not a gas station that I can just pass by. This is a small four-pump country gas station two of the pumps are being taken up by people who were acting like gas station patrons normally act, so nothing strange there.

As I get out to fill up the car I’m looking around I’m making sure that the two other people pumping gas are not gonna be interested in me. But I turn my attention towards the entrance of this Stephen King-like gas station. That’s when I see a man that gives me red flags.

The man was about 6’2”, undernourished, his chosen clothes were dirty and looked like they needed to be burned. He was driving an old, red Chevrolet pickup truck that look like it had been wrecked multiple times.

When he looked at me I could tell he was not used to seeing a person that was dressed in clean clothes and looked like they had their life together. I was the anomaly in his baseline.

He stood with his mouth open with his face, shoulders, hips, and feet pointed toward me, not the front door to the convenience store. To cap it off here, he looked like a person from the woods in a Cormac McCarthy novel.

He watched me intently for several seconds and I am looking back, letting him know that I see him. That’s when he decides to go inside the convenience store. I start pumping gas as fast as I can. At this point I have made the decision not to fill up I’m just going to get five or six gallons and I’m out of there.

This man exits the building very quickly looks at me as he walks back to his truck. Before he goes to his truck he puts his hand on the handle of the door and it is very obvious from how he is staring, how rigid his body is, and that his lips are moving just a little bit that, he is having a very intense internal dialogue.

This man is struggling with something and I don’t know what it is. Honestly, I don’t care. I am wrapping up my transaction and I’m trying to get out of there as quickly as possible.

He enters his truck and sits down and faces towards the building away from me but I could still see his head moving his shoulders moving as if he were talking to somebody that wasn’t there. Then, looked into the rearview mirror of his truck in the direction of my car.

I don’t know if he misunderstood my eye contact for a challenge, which is always a possibility. But whatever this guy was thinking, I was not going to stick around and ask him about it.

I could tell that his decision to get into the truck was one that was a tough decision to make. I think his choices were to get into his truck or to come to see me and I didn’t know what he was going to do when he got to me.

Getting into any sort of altercation verbal or physical at a gas pump is not what you want to do. Thankfully I was able to see him get enough gas to get me further down the road and get out of there as quickly as possible. I watched my rearview mirror for several minutes to make sure that his beat-up truck didn’t appear behind us.

I share that story to tell you that awareness is key at the gas pump. I looked at the environment, which was the gas station, and developed a baseline pretty quickly before I even pulled into the lot. I had yellow flags waving about the place, but I had to stop.

I looked at all the people I could see to size them up and found one person who was a red flag. That made me decide to shorten my stay at that location and keep an eye on the red flag. If I had my face in my phone, this story may have gone differently.

Up and Out

Lastly, let’s talk about a technique that we need in every environment we find ourselves in. It’s called being up and out. This is the key to good situational awareness anywhere.

Up and out means that when you are out of your home, your head is up and you’re looking out in the area surrounding you.

The opposite of up and out is down and it means to have your head down and your attention is taken up by something very close to you like your phone. None of us here are superhuman, we’re going to be down and in at some point in the day. It happens.

But try to keep your head up and look around as you move throughout a parking lot, a store, or even your office. You’ll be ahead of the game if you can give your eyes and your brain even a split second’s advantage to respond to a threat. I was able to see the red flag guy at the sketchy gas station because I was up and out. If I had not been, who knows what would have happened.


Andy Murphy

Andy Murphy founded The Secure Dad in 2016 with the aspiration to help families live safer, happier lives. What started as a personal blog about family safety has turned into an award-winning podcast, an Amazon best-selling book, and online courses. He focuses his efforts in the areas of home security, situational awareness, and online safety.


Andy is a husband and father. His interests include coaching youth basketball, hiking, and trying to figure out his 3D printer.

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