How to develop situational awareness

April 26, 2017

With the recent wave of smaller, more localized terrorist attacks like the ones that have recently occurred in London and France, the need to develop situational awareness has never been more important. Would you know what to do to should a hostile situation start unfolding quickly around you? How would you react? Would you freeze or run? How do can you train yourself to develop a faster response time when seconds matter?

Fortunately for average individuals like you and I, developing situational awareness and the ability to act quickly is a skill that can be developed. In this article, we’ll discuss the skills you can begin developing now that can easily be incorporated into your daily routines to help increase the likelihood that you will survive if a hostile situation unfolds near you.

In 2003 I spent 3 months in Kabul, Afghanistan doing NGO work. From time to time a few members of our team would visit the downtime bazaar to pick up things we needed. There was an occasion where we ended up gaining a crowd that began to follow us while at this bazaar. By the time we decided to act, the crowd following us had grown quite large and we ended up having to sprint to a taxi narrowly making it out before the crowd fully engulfed us. In was in this moment that I had my first introduction into how valuable being aware of your environment at all times really is for survival.

Before we go into detail in this article, I want to first discuss a concept called the OODA Loop which will serve as the foundation for this article. The concept of the OODA Loop was described by the United States Air Force war theorist Col. John Boyd. The term is said to have been used by the United States Air Force fighter aircrew as the “ace factor” when it comes to Situational Awareness. Survival in a dogfight was typically a matter of observing the opponent’s current move and anticipating his next move a fraction of a second before he could observe and anticipate his own. The phrase OODA loop refers to the decision cycle of observe, orient, decide, and act.

In this article, we’ll discuss this concept of the OODA loop in beginning to train your mind to learn how to not only spot a potential threat but learn how to react quickly. While I’ll cover some practical steps to begin teaching you how to look for a potential threat, I’m also going to discuss how to begin conditioning your mind to move past identifying a threat and acting when literally seconds matter.

1. Observe

In this article, we’ll spend a good chunk of our time focusing on the first point, Observe, as so much of situational awareness has to do with simply being cognitive of your environment and observing what’s happening around you. This is a skill that is quickly being lost by many in this day and age. We’re constantly surrounded by distractions, especially with the era of mobile technology. Learning to look up and take notice of your surroundings is the first step: Observe.

It’s important that you learn to train your mind to be in an active state of observing what is happening around you at all times. This is not paranoia, but rather being alert, cognitive of the moment and what is happening around you. You’ll sometimes hear people say “live in the moment”. This simply means to take in everything around you. This is a popular photo that circulated the internet a few years back of a woman observing an event while everyone was on their phone trying to get the picture. She was in the moment taking it all in. Stay in the moment…look up and observe what’s happening around you.

Not only is it important to look up and observe what is happening, equally as important is begin training your mind to memorize what’s going on around you when you come into a new environment. In Boy Scouts, we played a game called the KIM’s game which taught you to memorize things and later recall what you saw. A similar approach is used to train military snipers. Begin to take note of what is around you and see what you can quickly memorize. By doing this, you begin to learn to improve your ability to learn to take notice of what is happening around you. There’s a scene from the movie the “Bourne Identity” where the main character is trying to piece together his past and is in a diner reciting all the information he’s memorized from his current surroundings. It’s a skill that is learned and takes time but starts by taking note of your surroundings and begin memorizing details to see how much you can retain.

The goal is to be in a state of alert, paying close attention to the details around. Some may argue this is being a bit paranoid. You’re not necessarily looking for a threat around every corner, you’re not worried about something bad that’s about to happen, but rather you’re learning how to take notice and observe what is happening around you. You’re in an active mental state instead of being passive.

Here are some additional tips:

Position yourself to observe

I recall reading an article about a soldier returning from Iraq and after constantly being under pressure from being in a hostile environment, he found himself always looking for places when going to restaurants where he could see the entrance and positioned himself close to an exit. When in a building or room, position yourself to see entrances and if possible stay close to an exit because should a problem materialize, you will be in a position to observe and escape if need be. In addition, begin to identify the exits around you whenever you enter a building. If you’ve got those places already defined in your head, should a problem come up, you can quickly move through the 2 last phases of the OODA loop of “decide” and “act” quickly which we’ll cover momentarily.

Also, learn to observe behavior that is out of the ordinary. I’ll give you an example. Imagine one night you go to an ATM to withdraw some cash. There’s no one around…it’s late out. Out of the corner of your eye, you suddenly notice an individual walking down the street in your general direction. A few seconds later you notice they cross the street to your side. While you’re still handling your transaction at the ATM, they’ve now changed their direction to walk specifically to your direction. What do you do? This is where you have to work through the steps of the OODA loop which we’ll discuss more. We’ll take more about this at the end of the article in relation to the skills we’ve learned about the OODA loop.

Also, be a good watcher. Begin to not only watch people but see if you can pick up on people’s mannerism and behaviors. Learn to keep an eye out for any odd behavior. This doesn’t always mean someone is a threat just because they’re behaving a little out of the ordinary, but take note nonetheless.

When things are not lining up and you sense a potential threat, it’s time to move through the next steps of the OODA loop.

2. Orient

Being observant is the first part of developing situational awareness, but once we’ve determined that something or somebody is not following the baseline of expected behavior for the given environment, we have to quickly compile and synthesize that information and piece things together to decide what we will do.

We all do this at some level whether we realize it or not. We’re at a restaurant and someone begins acting out of the norm. We find ourself begin to instinctively turn in their direction…they’ve got our attention. It’s at this moment that we need to quickly move through the OODA loop cycle to decide what we’re going to do with the information we have. We have spotted an anomaly, we’re pivoting, we’re orienting ourselves to that issue to determine if we are facing a threat or not. While many people can observe things are a bit off, the ability to orient and move through the next few steps are critical and require you to force yourself to engage in the moment. This is the most important part of the O-O-D-A loop since many simply can not move past the “Observe” phase. Moving through the ability to orient yourself to actively engage in the moment determines whether we’ll lock up if things escalate which leads us to the next point: Decide.

3. Decide

OK, we’re in an environment and we’re very cognitive of what is happening around us. What would we do if we actually saw something out of the ordinary and orient ourselves to now face a threat? This is where we must come up with a plan to decide how we will behave. Putting together a plan on the fly with the information you have at your disposal and having your mind already actively engaged allows us to overcome what our body will do naturally. This is where many people that haven’t made this decision to engage their mind, to orient themselves to the threat instinctively default to their freeze or flight behavior. The term “deer in headlights” refers to how if you shine a flashlight in a deer’s eyes, they’ll freeze. I grew up in the country and had this happen many times driving down country roads at night: if a deer is on the road in front of you, your head beams hit their eyes and they just freeze. Without going into a deep discussion of the body’s flight or fight response (if you’re so inclined to study more, I’ll provide a link to some additional information), it’s at this moment that most people lose their higher cognitive thought process and let the hormones that are being dumped into their bloodstream by their body take over.

So how do we overcome this natural reaction? There are a few simple things that can help you calm your body enough to give you time to react. These techniques are useful if time is afforded you, but sometimes you don’t have that luxury. These next two techniques will help you stay in control mentally:

  • Step 1: control your breathing. Your body will naturally increase your breathing rate as a threat has presented itself and your body is preparing you to run.
  • Step 2: another very important technique to get the higher cognitive processes going is to ask yourself questions. This delays the physiological response and the neurotransmitters to slow them down. The best technique is to develop positive inquisitive self-talk in your head. Ask yourself what are you going to do here? Prepare yourself and talk through what you are going to do to handle the situation. Don’t get locked onto the threat and allow yourself to freeze up, but rather purposefully engage your mind and talk it through to find a solution to Act upon which leads us to our next point.

4. Act

This is the final part of our OODA loop. We’ve been observing, we’ve oriented ourself, we’ve made a decision to engage with a plan, now we must decide to act.

Out of all the 4 phases discussed above, in a hostile situation, this phase may be the hardest for most people. Again, life or death can be hanging in the balance in a matter of seconds if individuals are not capable (or unwilling) to quickly move and act. In the previous step, I brought up how critical it will be to begin actively engaging your mind to form a plan deciding to move forward and keep your ability to listen to your higher thought process versus succumbing to the rush of adrenaline that is now being dumped into your bloodstream. It’s in this moment that you must move, you must act.

While working on this article, I had a talk with a friend of mine, James Story over at Rain6, who specializes in firearms and tactical training. He uses the OODA loop for his students and one of the things he impresses upon his students when training them at the range in firearms is to not just shoot a paper target, but to imagine a scenario in their mind where they may be shooting an intruder who is threatening their family. The goal is to teach his students to develop a killer instinct…to begin training their mind and their emotions to engage if they have to face a hostile threat. Train the way you think you’ll feel in real life if you were really in that scenario instead of coming to the range to just shoot paper targets. Be aggressive. Visualize the scenario and train accordingly.

Situational Awareness is a skill that must you must work on to develop. As you leave your home and visit stores or restaurants, see if you can begin training your mind to look for the exit, observe what is happening around you and what is standing out. Make a decision to pull your attention away from your cell phone and instead focus on the now. See how much you can memorize from your surroundings…continue to sharpen your mind.

I’d love to get your feedback in the comment section below. If you liked this article, please feel free to share on social media.

As always, be safe out there.

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