The ability to defend yourself in a life-threatening situation starts long before touching a weapon; it starts with what the military calls, “situational awareness.” If you don’t know what’s going on around you, the bad guys have a distinct advantage… the element of surprise. But with proper situational awareness training, you can all but eliminate that advantage and be ready when they get the ball rolling.
It typically takes two to five seconds for someone to realize that a dangerous situation is unfolding and begin to react to it. That’s something that the bad guys count on. If they can catch their intended victims off-guard, those few seconds provide the opportunity to take control of the situation, greatly reducing your options for defending yourself.
But if you are aware of the situation around you; chances are, you’ll be aware that something is about to go down, even if you aren’t exactly sure what’s going to happen. The more aware that you can be, the quicker you can react, perhaps even beginning to react before the bad guys even start.
This is situational awareness; the act of being aware of everything that is happening around you. While simple in concept, actually developing situational awareness is difficult. It takes practice and more practice to get to the point where you are aware of everything that is happening around you, even those things that others don’t want you to be aware of. As you develop your situational awareness, always keep in my mind your goal is to be safe. Remember to proceed with caution and safety.
Practical Situational Awareness Saves Lives
You’ve probably heard the oft-quoted saying, “When seconds count, the police are there in minutes.” This is the fundamental basis for why many of us feel that we need to be ready to defend ourselves. But if we are going to take too long to react to the situation, we end up being just as bad as waiting for the police.
This is why we need to be constantly alert to what is going on around us; what is often referred to as “condition yellow.” In case you haven’t heard of this, there are four conditions of alertness:
- Condition White – Unaware of what is going on around us; where the sheeple live and where we don’t want to.
- Condition Yellow – Aware of what’s going on around us and constantly scanning for potential threats.
- Condition Orange – A potential threat is observed and we are watching to see if it develops further.
- Condition Red – The threat seems to be real and we are waiting for it to materialize. We are ready to draw our sidearm and react to it.
It’s impossible to be in condition “Yellow” if we don’t have our situational awareness turned on. But in order to do this, we need to do two things: make it a habit to keep our situational awareness active and engage in situational awareness training to a point where we see things, without having to actively think about it.
If you have any questions about these levels of awareness, I suggest talking to one of our experts in our forums.
Observation and Orientation Help You See the Danger
The four steps in the loop are: Observe, Orient, Decide and Act. While originally developed for use in combat, it is just as applicable for self-defense. Whoever makes it through this loop the fastest tends to be the winner.
At the moment, all we’re interested in is the first two steps. Most people think of situational awareness as being only observation. But the OODA Loop shows us that there’s actually more to it than that. We need to add the second step, Orient, for that observation to make us any sense.
So, what’s Orient about? It’s about knowing what it is that you need to be looking for. That provides our observations with some context. Looking, just to be looking, can overwhelm our senses. But when we are looking for specific things, we can filter out what doesn’t matter and focus on what does. So, situational awareness is actually a combination of Observation and Orientation.
Of course, this means putting ourselves in a position where we can observe. If your head is in your smartphone all the time, you’re not going to see a thing. Nor are you going to see much if you’re head’s in the clouds and you aren’t paying attention to what’s going on around you. Having situational awareness means always being aware; always be looking. But at the same time, it doesn’t have to mean that you are tense, worried or afraid. That won’t help you at all and will just wear you out.
Selecting the right vantage point from which to observe is an important part of making sure you have the ability to observe. The classic example is eating in a restaurant. If you’re sitting with your back to the door, your first opportunity to be aware that anything is going down is when you hear the bad guys yell or take their first shot; so much for condition yellow.
Rather, always position yourself so that you can see most of the area you are in, especially ingress and egress points. If it isn’t possible to see the whole room and the doorway, pick the doorway. At some point in time, any bad guy will have to come through it, in order to get where you are.
Compare Everything to a Baseline
Now that you’re sitting so that you’re facing the door, take a minute to look around. This first look is to get a general “feel” for the place. You have to know what normal is before you can detect something that’s abnormal. A lot of things can go into that baseline, but a few of the most important are:
- Noise level
- Lighting level
- Movement patterns of patrons and staff
- Activities of patrons
- The way people are dressed
- The mood of the people
You notice that not all of those items are visual. It’s important to use all of your senses to feed information to your situational awareness. If a fire starts, your first warning may very well be smell. If you’re not paying attention to your sense of smell, you may miss the opportunity to get out of the building before the fire spreads too far.
Once you have a baseline, you are then able to catch those things which don’t match it. Those things are anomalies and they will all exist for some reason. While most will be non-threatening, each will have to be looked at and evaluated to see if there is a potential threat.
Take a casual eating place in the summertime, for example. People aren’t going to be dressed up, wearing suits or overcoats there. So, if someone walks in, wearing a suit or overcoat, it is an anomaly. That’s important, because they could have a firearm hidden under their coat. This is why the FBI always wears suits; to hide their sidearms. Just because they have a gun under their coat doesn’t automatically make them a threat; but it does make them someone worthy of attention.
What Should Peak Your Situational Awareness?
Okay, so now that you have yourself operating in condition yellow, you’ve put yourself in a position where you can observe well and you’ve developed a baseline, what is it you want to look for? What’s the orientation that you want?
I’ve already mentioned two important things: the smell of fire and people who are dressed too warmly or formally for the situation and climate. But there are a number of other anomalies that should trigger our attention, warranting a closer look:
The key thing that the police look for is people who are behaving as if they are uncomfortable. While there may be many reasons why someone is uncomfortable in a given situation; people involved in illegal activity almost always are. These people always warrant a closer look, just to make sure that they aren’t up to any nefarious activity.
You will have already figured out what normal actions are, as part or developing your baseline. So, when you see someone come in, who is acting differently than the norm for that place and time, it should attract your attention. Criminals will always try to make their actions fit what they think is appropriate for the environment, but the tactical considerations of what they are doing make that impossible.
At some point in time, every criminal is going to have to get their hands on a weapon. This either means that they are going to come in the door with their hands inside their clothing or are going to reach inside their clothing once they are in. Either way, anyone putting their hands inside their clothing, as if to reach for something, should act as a warning.
In a crowd where you might not be able to see the hands, the shoulders are the giveaway. Before taking any effective action, the person must draw their shoulders back. So if you see someone do that, expect some sort of violent action to follow.
Aggressive or Erratic Behavior
Many people will act aggressively, trying to dominate others, before starting something. This is the classic act of one guy getting into another guy’s face, yelling at him to intimidate him, before starting a fight with him in the bar. This could be nothing more than a distraction or an excuse to get things started.
You should also be aware of erratic behavior. Unusual or strange behavior that is not appropriate to a given situation is a clue that should get your attention. Unusual reactions may be a sign of a medical or mental disorder.
Bulges in Clothing
Weapons all cause visible bulges in clothing, unless the individual is wearing clothing that is specifically tailored to hide it. Loose, baggy clothing will hide it better; but most people don’t wear loose enough clothing to hide a weapon, especially if they don’t carry concealed all the time. Be aware of any bulges and look to see what they are. Remember, it could be nothing more dangerous than their cell phone, so don’t jump to conclusions.
Are there any other things you can think of, which should be on this list? Let us know in the comments section below!
Training Your Observation Skills to Improve Situational Awareness
All of this is fine; but there’s one thing missing. If you and I don’t have keen observation skills, we could very well miss the signs we’re looking for, even though we’re in condition yellow.
Seeing the things which are right in front of our eyes is a skill that takes time to develop. Sadly, you can’t just decide one day that you’re going to live your life in condition yellow and be able to do so perfectly. As I said before, you need practice and more practice.
This doesn’t just mean practicing the specific act of using your situational awareness, but also practicing your observation skills. The idea here is to literally learn how to see in a whole new way. As you do, you will naturally use it to improve your situational awareness. So, here are 17 different situational awareness training exercises you can choose from to help improve your abilities.
1. Kim's Game
This game gets its name from Kipling’s famous novel “Kim,” where the main character it taught it as part of his training to be a spy for the British Secret Service. It is a memory exercise, where one is given a limited amount of time to memorize a series of objects. Then they are required to recall every one of those objects. It is much harder than you would expect.
- Start by having someone lay out 10 to 15 items together, without you knowing what the objects are. They should be separated and not piled, but not so far from each other that they can’t be covered easily.
- When they are ready, they tell you to look at the items, giving you exactly one minute to memorize what is there.
- At the end of the minute, they cover the items up so you can’t see them.
- Try to see how many of them you can remember.
When starting out, you might want to use a small number of objects, increasing as you improve. You can also challenge yourself to remember details about each item, such as the color or distinguishing marks.
2. Eyewitness Description
Being able to describe people is a valuable skill; not just to be able to describe them to the police, but if you have to tell someone else what they look like, so they can recognize them. However, few people can give a very good description of what someone looks like. As with other things, this takes practice.
- Pick out someone randomly and take a picture of them.
- Tell everyone who the “subject” of the exercise is.
- When they leave, have everyone write down as detailed a description of them as they can.
- Take the photo out and compare the descriptions to it.
You will find that different people will notice different things in this exercise. For example, women will be able to give a better description of how they are dressed. The idea is for everyone to work on the areas where they are weak, not just concentrate on those where they are strong.
3. Expanding Peripheral Vision
Most of us walk around with tunnel vision all the time, only seeing that which we are focused on (usually our phones). But if we are looking for something or someone to move, our peripheral vision is actually more useful, because it detects that movement even more easily. However, it doesn’t give us a whole lot of detail about what that thing is that’s moving.
In order to improve your peripheral vision, get in the habit of scanning everything in front of you, without moving your head, just moving your eyes.
- Start out by scanning your eyes from right to left, covering an area that is just in front of you.
- Refocus your eyes a little farther away, then scan back from right to left.
- Repeat this action, back and forth, dividing the space in front of you into segments, by distance, scanning each one.
- When you get better, try describing things that are to the extremes of your peripheral vision, without taking the time to stare at them.
4. Observation Scavenger Hunt
This exercise originates in the military, where it is used for training snipers. But it can be used anywhere. While it was originally done with camouflaged items in the woods or jungle, the same idea can be done in a shopping mall, a home with a lot of knick-knacks or a crowded garage/workshop. The idea is to be able to notice specific items in the visual panorama and remember them.
- To start, the “trainer” comes up with a list of items that are visible and not likely to move in a particular place.
- The “trainees” are brought into the area and each given a copy of the list or the list is placed where they can all see it. They are given five or ten minutes to find those items.
- The list is taken from the trainees and they are taken to do another activity, in order to distract them from what they saw. In the military, they would use physical exercise, but it can be anything.
- At the end of the distraction period, the trainees are required to list the items they saw.
5. Exit Interview
It’s always easier to spot something, when you know what it is that you are looking for. But how well do you see things, when you’re not looking for anything in particular? Do you notice the things around you or do you tend to ignore them? If you’re like most people, you ignore them. This exercise will get you thinking about seeing what is around you, rather than just letting your eyes pass over them.
- As you leave a store, restaurant or other location, quiz each other on what you saw there. You’re looking for things like:
- How many people working there?
- What the people at the next table had to eat?
- How many patrons?
- Where were the exits?
- What decorations on the wall?
- How many tables or display racks?
- The person who can recall the most details wins.
6. Spotting Differences in Images
This is a common kids game, where they are presented with two images which are almost identical. The idea is to find the differences between the two of them. This short video will illustrate how easy it is to miss seeing these differences.
7. How Many Can You Find?
I used to play this one with my kids all the time when we were traveling. It’s a variation on the “punch buggy” game; if you’re familiar with that. The idea is to find as many of one thing as you can. It can be:
- Volkswagen bugs
- Stop signs
- People wearing a particular color
- Potted plants
- Or whatever
The key here is that only the person who sees it first gets to count it; so this game is encouraging you to see things quickly and identify them. To avoid people calling something that isn’t there; if others can’t see or identify it, the person who called it out loses a point.
8. What are People Doing?
This exercise is best done in a public place, with a lot of people around. The idea is to train you in finding people who might be involved in some sort of illicit activity. What you are doing is looking for clues in their actions and attire, which indicate what their purpose is for being there.
- Find a location where there are lots of people; ideally, one where their purpose for being there might not be so obvious, such as a park or outdoor plaza.
- Members of your group alternately pick someone out of the crowd and identify them, using minimal information. It is best to use things that stand out, like “the guy with the big red coat.”
- Watching them for no more than a minute, try to determine why they are there, whether they are with anyone else and what they are doing.
9. Who’s Really Shopping
This is an alternate version of “What are people doing?” The idea is to do it in a shopping mall. But rather than trying to figure out what they are doing, just try to figure out who the real shoppers are. Any shopping mall will have a lot of people who are there for other reasons, like to hang out, eat or because they are with someone who is shopping; but they aren’t shoppers themselves.
10. Locate all the Exits
This is something we should all do as a regular part of our situational awareness; so it is directly applicable.
- When you go into a store, restaurant or other place, see how quickly you can identify all the exits.
- Don’t limit yourself to common exist either; going through a window still counts as exiting and may be very useful in an active shooter situation.
11. Describing the Area You’ve Just Been Through
Walking, whether through town, a shopping mall or the woods is always a great opportunity to practice your situational awareness. One way is to randomly ask each other to describe the area you just went though.
- For this to work well, it must be unexpected, so that you catch the other members of your party off-guard.
- Before doing it, take a good look around the area you are going to ask them about, picking out several obvious things that you expect them to see.
- You can also ask them to describe something in particular that was in the area you just went through.
- As your group improves, you can make this harder by picking out less and less likely things to ask each other about.
12. Recognizing Other Commuters
This is an exercise you can do by yourself. It is also one that any of us who have a regular commute should make part of our normal routine. We will find that there will be others who have their commute at the same time we do.
- Start by learning to recognize the commuters who are regulars on your daily route to and from work.
- Learn when those people join you in your route and when they leave your route.
- Using that as your baseline, how many people can you identify who you are sure are not regular commuters with you?
13. Where Can Gunmen Hide?
This is an exercise in learning to identify cover and concealment, which can be useful both to identify areas that the bad guys might use and areas that you might need to use.
- As you go into an area or place of business, try to identify all the areas where a gunman could be hidden from sight.
- To make the exercise more challenging, limit to areas where they can still observe from or where they can shoot from.
- Another limitation you can use is only areas where they would have cover, not just concealment.
14. What’s Different on Your Street
Everyone knows their own street; or at least thinks they do. But in reality, things on our streets are changing all the time. Many times, these things happen without our even being aware of them. This is an excellent way of increasing your awareness of the area which is closest to you.
- Start out by taking pictures of your neighborhood. Put them away someplace safe, where you’ll be able to find them.
- At the same time, study your street thoroughly, making sure you know what is there. You can either choose to do this from your front porch or walking down the street.
- At some predetermined later time, look at your street and try to identify everything that is different. If you originally looked at it from your front porch, do so again. If you did so walking, then take the same walk.
- Once you’ve made a list of everything you see different, take out the pictures and compare them, looking to see what you missed.
A Final Word About Situational Awareness
Don’t expect to become an expert in situational awareness overnight. This is something that takes considerable time and effort to become good at. You may not even realize that you are getting better, because the improvement will come slowly.
Nevertheless, you will find that you can and will improve with practice. You’ll know you’ve reached your goal, when people around you are amazed at what you notice that they don’t.
The more you work at these exercises, the faster you’ll improve your situational awareness. I’ve used a number of them myself, and am very pleased with the results. While I can’t say that I’ve arrived yet, I’m much better than I was a couple of years ago.
If you have questions about anything in this guide or any suggestions for other ways of improving your situational awareness, please post a comment below!