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There’s a lot going on in our world right now. Horrific terror attacks in the UK. United States Congressmen being shot at baseball practice. And it seems that each new attack hits closer and closer to home. That’s why we as citizens need to understand that our personal safety is first and foremost our own responsibility. One way to make you and your family safer is with a working understanding of situational awareness.
Situational awareness is a complex and diverse study, but for our purposes it can be summarized as simply knowing what is going on around you. I’ve written extensively about situational awareness for families and how it can make you safer.
Here are a few ways you can start training yourself to better understand situational awareness.
Note: The following is an introduction to a very complex and multifaceted process known as situational awareness. This article is formed from my opinion from study and experience. This is for informational purposes only and is not to be considered formal training.
I rely on my understand of body language frequently. In a crowded mall there are too many people for me to sit and notice. Plus I have shopping to do and want to get out of there as fast as possible. In situations like this, I rely on my years of built up memories of body language as part of situational awareness.
There are tons of great studies and books written about the complexities of how the body broadcasts our thoughts consciously and unconsciously. To keep this simple, let’s focus on the basics. In the mall scenario you’ll see lots of different types of people and attitudes to establish your baseline. People are moving throughout the mall looking at their phones, holding shopping bags and keeping to themselves. These people will walk with their shoulders relaxed, turning their heads to look at window displays and saunter from place to place.
But a man with his chest puffed out, fists clinched, walking quickly and directly somewhere is going to stand out. This man needs more of your attention. Obviously he’s uncomfortable and doesn't have an interest in shopping. He could have left is wallet at the nearby pretzel place and is upset about leaving it. Or he could be going to confront his girlfriend about an affair. You don’t know. But what you need to do is observe him from a distance. If you determine he needs more attention, then alerting security or the police is your next move.
I enjoy these exit signs as the person in the image is booking it out of there!
Note the Exits
There’s a game I play with my son called, “Count the Doors”. The game is simple. At a restaurant, my son looks around and counts the doors and tells me his findings. We talk about them and I usually point out the kitchen access as a door.
What I’m doing is teaching my son to look for exits. In the event of a fire, I want him to be able to recall the exits in the restaurant quickly. That way he can better determine the quickest way out. These mental notes are also good to know in the event of a fight or an attack. You can play this same game. Start noticing your surroundings and note the quickest ways out. When danger occurs and your fight, flight and freeze responses kick in you will already have the information you need to act.
This one is as simple as it sounds. When you go to the Target, Starbucks or the gym make a conscience effort to look at the people around you. How do they move through the environment they are in? What are they wearing? Do they seem concerned at all? These are all good questions to ask about the people around you. Unless you’re really obvious, most people won’t notice you noticing them.
To start, establish a baseline for the environment. That’s fancy talk for understating where you are and how you expect people to act. For example at Starbucks, people will generally be relaxed, keeping to themselves and reclining in their seats. That’s your baseline. Now look around the room and see who is uncomfortable. Who is shifting in their chair or rubbing their arm to try and steady their nerves? These are the people who deserve your attention.
Just because someone does not fit the baseline does not mean they are about to commit a criminal act, it means you should pay them more attention and make a decision about what to do based on further observation.
Lastly you need to start listening to the little voice in the back of your mind. That little voice is called your initiation and it wants to keep you safe. It is a Godsend. Many people will argue that every person's intuition, sometimes called instincts, is enough to keep them safe. I do not agree. I feel that your intuition can warn you to keep you safe, but you need to couple that with training and situational awareness. Ami Tobin in his new book Surveillance Zone thinks that instincts have room for improvement.
“One of the things that never really sat right with me… when it comes to reading people, you should ‘Trust your instincts.’ Don’t get me wrong, it’s not a mistake to trust your instincts, but not everyone’s instincts are that sharply developed, and even among those with better instincts, there’s always room for improvement.”
Take instincts a step further with your personal safety with situational awareness and training so you know what to do when that little voice shouts.
Your “gut feeling” or “women’s intuition” is valid and should be considered when activated. Take instincts a step further with your personal safety with situational awareness and training so you know what to do when that little voice shouts.
I do want to make you aware that once you start looking for signs of potential threats, you may have a tendency to want to see more that what is really there. I’ve done this a few times. You have a new set of skills and you want to use them. The enthusiasm is great, however it is unlikely that 60% of the people at Starbucks are exhibiting pre-event indicators. This is called confirmation bias, which means you are searching for actions that support your preconceptions, or in this case, your newfound training. In other words you’re out looking for trouble and you’re going to find it - whether it's there or not. Practice makes perfect.
Start putting these activities into practice today. After a while you’ll notice two things. First, that it has become second nature to find escape routes and read body language. You’ll also be able to complete these tasks much quicker and gather much more information with practice. When used with situational awareness in mind, these exercises can make you and your family safer.
If you want to know more about situation awareness for families, check out my Secure Dad series.