Prepper skills…it all starts with situational awareness!
While I was writing my article on being prepared for terrorism and mass shooting events, I touched some on having situational awareness. And after writing that, I realized that I need to expound on situational awareness even more. This subject is so important, it warrants its own article.
In fact, I’d rate the skill and ability of situational awareness as one of the most important skills you can have as a prepper. (If not the MOST important!) So I decided that I needed to expand, and really take a look at this truly important and potentially life saving skill!
Situation awareness is, according to the USCG, the ability to identify, process, and comprehend the critical elements of information about what is happening to the team (you) with regards to the mission. More simply, it’s knowing what is going on around you.
By reading this, I hope to make you aware of the varying stages of situational awareness, ways to improve your awareness, things to be aware of and look for/habits to get into, and developing potential plans of action. All of these will increase your situational awareness, which will in turn increase your odds of surviving a dangerous scenario.
I have taken bits and pieces of the mass shooting article and used them here. So if a paragraph or two looks familiar, that is why. 🙂
Stages of Awareness
First, awareness can be broken down into 4 different stages. Some people may have already heard about these four stages, but if not they are as follows:
- Condition Green – relaxed and unaware
- Condition Yellow – relaxed, but aware and vigilant
- Condition Orange – alert, possible threat identified
- Condition Red – threat verified, call for action
In condition green, people are unaware of what is happening around them. They are plugged into their Iphones or Ipads. They are busy with their thoughts of getting home and deciding what is for dinner. When in this condition, your reaction times to an emergency will be slower, and you will be much more susceptible to becoming a victim or even a statistic during a disaster event.
There are times I find myself in condition green…like when I have to get up out of bed in the middle of the night to go take a piss. But the moment I walk out of my house, I am no longer in condition green. The same should be true for you.
As a police officer, I am typically in condition Yellow. Yes, I still text on my phone, or check the latest sports scores. But I am always aware of my surroundings. I am noticing the people in my area. I take note of what are they doing and how are they acting.
When I enter buildings, I take note of the people inside, exits (and potential exits ie. windows), and other things of note. These include stairs, extra large pieces of furniture, potential blind spots, etc
In this condition, I remain calm, and my heart rate stays normal. I’m relaxed, but I am aware of my surroundings. This is the condition you want to remain in throughout your day.
If something catches your attention that could be a potential threat or problem, your senses are heightened, and you move to condition orange.
In orange, you are not taking action per se, but rather you are becoming more vigilant to your surroundings.
For example, you notice the same man has been in the last four or five stores at the mall that you have been in. It could be that he simply has the same shopping tastes as you. But now you are more aware of his presence, and can begin to study more things about him. His dress, his demeanor, what’s in his hands, his body language, etc.
This is also the condition that you begin to solidify the “what if” plans in your head. If this guy does this, I’m going to do that. If he continues to follow me, I’m heading for the security desk or a large public setting. If he starts to move closer to me, I’m leaving through that exit. If he lunges at me, I’m yelling as I draw my EDC firearm.
You cannot remain in condition Orange forever. It is taxing both mentally and physically. If the man moves on from the store and is not a threat to you, you can drop back to condition yellow. But if what you are observing while in condition orange turns out to be a true threat, you move to condition red.
This is where the threat is likely or about to occur, or is already occurring. Hopefully in condition Yellow and Orange, you were already aware of your surroundings, possible escape routes, and have formulated some quick plans in your mind of what you will do if you find yourself in harm’s way.
At this stage, whatever your plan of action was during orange, now is when you implement it. It could be simply running for the nearest exit. Or it could be taking action to neutralize the threat.
This is why you don’t want to be in condition Green. Being in condition yellow/orange might give you a few seconds notice of an impending emergency. Without any sort of prior planning or awareness, you find yourself in a bad situation and will be unsure of what to do or where to go. This is NO BUENO! Seconds count!
How to improve your awareness
Unfortunately, you can’t simply decide to become more aware. It is something that takes a little practice and training. If you are used to being in condition green all the time, you have to train yourself to remain in condition yellow. Over time, you will become adjusted and conditioned to being in yellow. You just have to practice.
Making training a game
In my mass shooting article, I talked about making a game out of seeing which people in my area were in condition green vs condition yellow. If you have kids and/or spouse, you might make a game out of it. When you enter a room, note the gender and clothing of the person sitting/standing next to them. Note the same on the people by the entrance or exit of the building. When you leave, quiz your family on it. Or if you are alone, try to recall as much as you can.
Make the game fun. Ask them questions like “Was the person sitting by the stairs a man or a woman?” ”
What color shirt did they have on?”
Allow your kids to formulate questions for you. What kid doesn’t love being able to stump his parents on something? This not only helps you become more cognizant of your surroundings, it helps your family as well.
Location, location, location
An important part of being able to observe your surroundings is to put yourself in the best position to fully observe your area. The more of your area that you can observe, the more aware you will be.
Ever notice when you walk into a restaurant and there are police officers eating in there? Are they usually towards the back, away from the main entrance? Are they typically sitting with their backs to the wall? Ever wonder why?
It’s because this area gives us optimal viewing area of most of the restaurant and the exits. And with our back to the wall, we do not have to worry about potential threats that may come up from behind. We can remain in condition yellow, and observe the restaurant as well as who is coming in and leaving.
Be aware of things which might inhibit your view. Things like large furniture or internal pillars. Take these into account when choosing your location.
Of course in many public settings, you may not be able to pick your table or where you must stand in line. In those situations, just be discreetly aware of your surroundings. Glance over your shoulder from time to time. Maybe act like you are shifting your balance from leg to the other and use that time to glance around your area. Just be sure to do so nonchalantly.
Make mental notes about exits, always. Especially in relation to where you are at. In public areas, I am always noting where the exits are, and how they are in relationship to where I currently am and where I parked. In areas I am new to, I try to find a building map and study it for a moment or two.
I also note where the security and information desks/kiosks are as well.
When I fly commercially, I count the rows from my seat to the closest exit. When I stay in a hotel, I count the doors from my room to an exit. Why? Because if it is suddenly dark (loss of electricity) or my vision is obscured (smoke for example) I can physically feel my way to an exit.
At many grocery stores and shopping malls, the parking aisles are numbered. So make a note of what the aisle number is when you park. Did you park beside a tall street lamp like I recommend in a previous article? Is you car key already in your hand and ready to go when you exit the building?
What to pay attention to
The human brain is wonderful at pulling in the information that you need, while filtering out that information which is non essential. By developing situational awareness skills, and by learning what you should pay attention to and what you should disregard, you are helping your brain to more quickly and accurately determine what is important and what is not.
Unfortunately, we as humans cannot pay attention to every single thing that is going on around us. It is physically impossible. We cannot process things like a “Terminator”.
So we must train ourselves at what is important. We do that first by establishing a baseline for the people and places around us.
Everyone and every environment has a “baseline”. For a person (or animal) it is how they react when everything is “normal”. Obviously, this will be different for everyone in every different environment. But generally, baselines should not be to hard to pick up. For an environment, the baseline will be what is considered normal for the events and activities going on in that area.
Baseline – Environment
Different places and areas will have different baselines. These baselines can vary widely, but should not be hard to pick up on.
For example, at a book store or internet cafe, the baseline is most likely a quiet area where people are reading or maybe sipping on coffee. If they speak, it is usually in quiet tones. Peoples movements will probably be controlled and low key. They will typically focus on what is in front of them.
At a busy and bustling restaurant, there is probably more noise. Folks will be talking a bit more loudly and laughing. There will be more movement as people around the table are eating, and the wait staff and bus boys are busy with their jobs. People will most likely be focused on what is at and around their table, or in the case of the staff, focused on their duties.
A rock concern will be loud, with lots of exaggerated movements and lights. Folks will be focused on the band on stage and possibly interacting with those around them.
Once you have developed a baseline of your environment, it will be easier for you to spot something out of place. “Abnormalities” if you will. These are things that are happening that should not be. Or they could be things that are not happening when they should be. Either way, there are people, actions, or things that appear to be out of place or not right for the setting you are in. And these are what you direct your attention to, and could take you to condition orange.
Baseline – People
People also have a baseline. You know your spouse and kids’ baseline. Maybe neighbor Joe across the street. But you obviously won’t know everyone’s baseline with whom you share a close proximity with and to. But that does not mean you cannot learn to read them. To do so, you need to know something about people in general.
Lt. Col. Dave Grossman (retired), a former West Point psychology professor and author of the book On Killing, (which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize) talks about 3 types of people in this world; sheep, sheepdogs, and wolves. This may sound familiar to you if you watched the movie American Sniper. That’s because it came from Grossman’s book.
I HIGHLY encourage you can read more on Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s take on sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs by clicking here. I keep an abbreviated version of it on my wall in my office.
A majority of people in this world are sheep. This does NOT mean they are bad people. It means that they simply want to live their lives in peace….live and let live. And this is a truly wonderful concept. In a perfect world, there would be only sheep. A utopia!
But this is not a perfect world.
Unfortunately, there are wolves out there who will NOT let this happen. And no amount of hiding, no amount of gun control laws, or “tolerance”, or “understanding”, or “safe places” will ever completely keep the wolves at bay. Predators have always been. And they will remain. Wolves will find a way.
Once you understand that it is the “wolves” you must remain wary of, then you can begin to look for subtle clues and behaviors that would indicate a potential wolf. I will list a few behaviors here, but there are others.
Baseline – Behaviors
Because most people are sheep and simply want to get along, they tend to take a “submissive” stance, meaning that they try and avoid conflict. So when you see an individual(s) who appear to be taking a dominant position, i.e. gestures and postures that make that individual look bigger and/or intimidating to others, this might be a clue. It does not mean that they are a threat. But it certainly warrants closer observation.
Now some dominance/submissive relationships will be normal. You would expect to see a boss take a “dominant” position over his employees. Or a cop giving a speeding motorist a ticket. But exaggerated dominated behavior, or dominant behavior which seems out of place could be an indicator that you need to go to condition orange.
Most folks go about their daily lives in at least a neutral stance, but typically most are somewhat relaxed. So when you spot someone who does not look at ease, or looks uncomfortable, it could warrant further scrutiny. It could be something as simple as that person is having a bad day.
But if the person looks “nervous” and keeps looking around and over his shoulder, that is something that could easily be out of place. Or they could be acting “shifty” and “fidgety.” Depending upon your environment, this is something that should be noted and observed.
On the flip side, if everyone around you is upset, nervous, scared, etc and you see someone who is at ease and calm, that too should be a trigger that there might be something going on. Below is the video of the Boston Marathon bombing. Note that at around the 1:15 or so mark, when the bomb goes off and everyone turns to look, one person is NOT and instead walking the opposite direction of where everyone is looking.
If something happens and everyone is interested and focused on that event save for one or two people, there could be a reason for their lack of interest. And that could be a clue.
A large portion of communication is via body language. So read the body language of those around you. Obviously people in condition green are not paying attention to you or their environment, so I do not spend a lot of time reading their body language. But if you observe “abnormalities” in a person as mentioned above, it is time to go to condition orange, and begin to closely watch their body language.
Many people have a hard time hiding their emotions through their face. They may say one thing, but the look on their face, their posture, and their demeanor may say something different. Pay attention to facial cues. People who could be a threat will often glance in the area they may strike at. (Or in my case, flee.) So if a potential threat keeps looking at your chin, or your groin for example, he might be trying to gauge an attack there.
I will always look at a person’s hands. This is to ensure that they are not holding a weapon of some kind. I also check their hands to see if the person maybe trying to hide or conceal something. People often feel/touch the area they have hidden something. Whether to ensure it is still there or to try and adjust it, it is usually done and the individual doesn’t even realize he is doing it.
If you are in condition orange with an individual and are trying to determine if he could be a threat, you need to look for clues that indicate aggression. Reading aggressive body language could take up it’s own entire article, but here are a few:
- Clenched or tightening of fist or jaw
- Rapid or deep breathing
- Lowering and spreading of their body for stability, ie lower center of gravity
- “Target” stare, narrows his eyes and glares directly at you
- “Target” look, quick glances at places on your body like your chin or groin may show his intent to attack that area
Be aware that many predators, be they terrorists or thugs, have a pack mentality. So do not focus solely on one individual and run the risk of not observing his buddy that might want to come up from behind. Part of having good situational awareness is being able to continue to observe your surroundings even when you see a potential threat.
Based upon your environment and what you observe, you need to have little plans or “what ifs” formulating in your mind. A kind of “if this happens I’m doing that” type mini scenarios. Obviously these plans won’t be very detailed, as your situation changes continually. So this is just more of a “if it goes really bad, that door over there is the one I’m running through” type plan.
Also, keep in mind that your plan may not work based upon unforeseen events and factors. For example, you maybe sitting in a diner drinking your coffee and think “If an armed robber comes in, I’m drawing my pistol and shooting him.”
Ok…but what if it isn’t a robber? Say a driver of a vehicle has a sudden heart attack and crashes his truck through the building? What if there is a small explosion and the cafe fills with fire and smoke? Drawing your pistol won’t help much in these situations. So not only do the “what ifs” need to remain simple, they also must be flexible.
When you go from condition yellow to condition orange, then your plans need to become a bit more defined. Now you see what maybe a threat, and you can quickly take your “what-ifs” from condition yellow and make them more concrete.
For many people, simply knowing where the closest exits are and making a beeline for them could be a great plan for most disasters.
As I have said in multiple previous articles, the safety of you and your family is your TOP priority. If you can get them to safety, do it!! I would never discourage anyone from trying to help or save others. But you MUST always be aware of your surroundings and not put yourself in a position where you could become a victim as well. If you do, not only can you no longer help anyone else, but now someone else must be put in a position to try and save you. Basically, you could be doing more harm than good!
Let the story of bystander Joseph Robert Wilcox be a reminder that sometimes simply getting out of harm’s way might be the best course of action. (And also that many times there is more than one perpetrator!)
Now if you find yourself going to condition red (the poop just got real!), in addition to following your plan, you need to control your breathing and heart rate. You need to remain calm and keep your heart rate down. An elevated heart rate can reduce your fine motor skills, narrow your vision (tunnel vision), and reduce your ability at complex cognitive skills and decision making.
A technique that I was taught to quickly calm down and stay focused during times of high stress was to control my breathing. I do this by slowly inhaling a breath for 3 to 4 seconds. I hold the breath for 3 to 4 second. I exhale for 3 to 4 seconds. Then I hold my breath for 3 to 4 seconds. I continue to do that until my breathing is relatively normal.
It is pretty easy in theory. What’s not simple is having the discipline to do this when it all hits the fan!
This breathing technique isn’t just useful for extremely dangerous situations. You can use this whenever you’re feeling stressed out and need to bring yourself back down to normal levels. Try it, it works!
Finally, I would encourage you to learn self defense techniques, and spend time at the range if you carry concealed! In a fight or flight situation, your instincts and training will kick in. If you have developed a good motor pattern, those skills will kick in automatically. I cannot stress how important that is if everything goes bad and your fine motor skills and cognitive ability begin to deteriorate.
“Wolves” will ALWAYS look for targets of opportunity. Even in the wild, predators will go after the yound, the old, and the sick because they are easy targets. The predators do not risk as much by going after them.
As I mentioned in my Crime Prevention article, most criminals strike simply because the opportunity presented itself to them. So if you are in condition green and not paying attention to your surroundings, you are, in a sense, giving them an opportunity. You could be fit, healthy, and bigger than your attacker. But if he thinks he can catch you off guard, then the odds are in his favor.
So use your skills at situational awareness to help act as a deterrent to the wolves. If they can’t get the jump on you, they will be less likely to choose you as their target, and move on to easier “sheep”.
Situational awareness is not about being paranoid. And it isn’t about jumping to condition orange or red all the time either. That is way too taxing on you physically, mentally, and emotionally. You must remain vigilant, but also calm and collected. By staying this way, you will be able to avoid a lot of potential dangers. And avoiding them is the BEST way to stay alive!
Stay safe out there!
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