Prepping, Survival

Situational Awareness 101

crowded city

One of the most fundamental tenets for preppers and other self-defense minded folks is the reminder to “always keep your head on a swivel,” “stay Condition Yellow,” and “Stay aware.”

All essentially mean the same thing: stay present, conscious and cognizant of who is around you and what is going on around you. Stay situationally aware.

It is good advice, no question. Without awareness, without taking in the important information that will alert you that a threat might be rising or imminent you won’t be able to react to it at all until it is right in your face.

That’s a bad play when your first clue that you are being threatened is actually being wounded or injured.

While lots of articles and lots of people will tell you to “maintain situational awareness” few will tell you how to do that.

It is one of those things that gets bandied about so much that everyone just assumes everyone else knows how.

That might not be the case, or someone might not know the best practices. In this article, we’ll fix that and tell you exactly what it means to be situationally aware and how to implement “SA” procedures in your daily life.

The Case for Situational Awareness

Situational awareness is the practice of gathering and assessing information provided by the environment and the people around you in order to detect possible or imminent threats, be they other people or not.

With poor situational awareness, you will only be alerted to the most obvious or overt threats ahead of time. With no situational awareness, you won’t be alert to even the most blindingly obvious threats until it is way too late.

Conversely, good situational awareness will allow you to perceive a threat with time enough to react before it is upon you. Excellent situational awareness is a borderline superpower.

Unlike superpowers, though, you won’t get good SA by being bitten by a radioactive lightning bolt after you cybernetically modify a ritual for communing with cosmic forces.

No, you’ll become and remain situationally aware the old fashioned way: learning what to do, how to do it and then being disciplined enough to apply your knowledge and skills daily.

While it is not infallible, and it is impossible to remain completely situationally aware at all times (you have to sleep eventually!) you should strive to maintain a sharp but relaxed alertness at any time you are awake, dialing that up as the situation dictates, such as when out with your family or when an elevated risk level is in effect.

You should know that the overwhelming majority of attacks perpetrated on a civilians feature a total or near-total lack of SA on the victim’s part. In short, criminals are actively looking for those who show a lackadaisical attitude toward the environment and people around them.

So, we know we need to be alert. What are we looking for? And how do we look for it? We’ll address both of those questions below.

A Constant State of Relaxed Alert

Your primary state of alertness when awake should be that of relaxed alertness. You aren’t jumping at every loud noise and snapping at everything that crosses some unseen line on the sidewalk.

Instead, you are calm cool and collected and taking in information about everything and anyone in a sort of shorthand-checklist way, pausing to scrutinize more diligently anyone or anything that does not pass the initial check with flying colors.

Think of it like a radar sweep: radar will look all around it constantly, but smoothly, steadily. It will not look here and there and all around. It is meticulous, logical, consistent.

You should be the same way. Radar also does not look for everything that flies in the sky: radar does not concern itself with ducks and geese and beetles and bugs.

Radar is only concerned with looking for the things that can hurt it, like warplanes. You should do the same when assessing the people around you.

When you enter a room or spare a glance around you, look for those who are obviously out of place (you’ll get a list of behaviors in the next section) or suspicious.

When someone “pings” on your threat radar, look closer. Start digging deeper for what is wrong. If you alerted on them in the first place, don’t waive off!

Trust yourself and your instincts. At worst, keep one eye on them. If your feeling of disquiet does not alleviate, then take action, even if it is only to leave.

In this way, you will not live in a tense, high-drain “condition orange” all the time, seeing danger everywhere and reacting accordingly (but uselessly).

You should start conditioning yourself to take 100% responsibility for everything that happens within your sphere of influence. You cannot rely on luck and hope the bad guys pick on someone else.

No, if you are targeted as a victim and get waylaid that is your fault; you should have been good enough, alert enough to see the threat coming so you could neutralize it.

The Inviolable Rule!

No matter what, always, always, always trust your gut when it comes to danger. Your instincts are finely tuned survival mechanisms, shaped by the innumerable generations of ancestors who came before you.

Those “warning bells” are there for a reason and are ringing with cause. I cannot tell you how many students and clients I have spoken with who, in the aftermath of their attack, admitted that they “had a feeling” or that “something felt off” and went against their own self-preservation instincts anyway.

It will always end in tragedy if you ignore your better judgment and your instincts when it comes to a potentially dangerous situation involving another person. Don’t do it!

Detecting Human Threats

The employment of situational awareness is predominately focused on the early detection of human threats and with good cause.

An attack is one of the most sudden and terrifying things that can happen to you and the stakes will be high.

Many victims will realize they are being attacked when a knife slices them, bullets plow into them, or a club crunches the back of their head.

To avoid being one of these poor, hapless victims, we need to know what an attack looks like before it starts.

We can figure out who an attacker is, or might be, and who they might be attacking by looking for pre-attack indicators.

Pre-attack indicators are behavioral clues or clusters of behavior that give us some insight into their mindset and their intent.

This might be something to do with their location, their activity, movement, clothing, bearing or attitude. Some of these are fairly obvious. Some are not, and require both training and keen observational skills to spot.

For instance, if you are heading out across a dark parking lot leaving a store on the end of long holiday shopping spree. It is after midnight.

From behind a parked van, a man steps into your path, facing you, and blocking your progress to your care as he looks you levelly in the eye before glancing over his shoulder and all around. Is that threatening? Wow, you bet it is!

Now, few threats will be this overt and sinister, but nonetheless it still contains several essential pre-attack indicators, detailed below. Remember in reading over these that some, all or none of them may be present.

The more you do spot, the more likely it is an attack is imminent, or at least plausible.

police during a riot

Unusual Action or Presence

Someone must always have “cover” or a reason to be somewhere doing something at that exact moment. If they don’t, they might look odd or out of place. Also assess their actions in the context of the environment.

Is it normal? Does it jibe with what other people in the area are doing? Using the example of our parking lot villain above, he is not loading purchases into his vehicle.

He wasn’t even in his vehicle! Maybe he was helping a companion or child get all settled in to the vehicle. If that was the case, why did he not continue on to the driver’s seat?

Is standing in the path of an oncoming pedestrian in a darkened parking lot and mad-dogging them an unusual action? Who is he looking for? Potential witnesses or people who could ride to your rescue, that’s who.

Either of these indicators is cause for attention and further analysis. Both of them at once should be assessed intently. If there is no justification, you should stay away from them.

Action that Coincides with Yours

You should always be alert to anyone whose action seems triggered by or mimics your own. Someone who pushes off and heads for you at speed as you make ready to get in your car.

Someone who follows you at a modest distance, speeding up when you do, stopping when you do. Someone who pops out of their car as soon as you start messing with the ATM’s keypad.

This is often a major tipoff that they were waiting for you to become distracted before acting, or they might be stalking you to gather more information before making a decision.

Should you notice anyone exhibiting any actions that seemed timed to or miming your own, it can certainly mean trouble. Anyone you suspect of following you should be treated as a threat.

Someone Moves to Intercept You or Cut You Off

The stupid and lame old self-defense advice from dipshits who have no idea what they are talking about when it comes to civilian self-defense is “Just keep people away from you!” or “Don’t ever let anyone close the gap on you!” Yeah, okay, right…

Do these people actually live on Earth?! There are always people around you, unless you live in the middle of nowhere and have your groceries and other supplies delivered by drone or you make positively everything you are likely to ever need yourself.

Folks forget that we do the things we do not to forgo living a life but to actually live one and enjoy it, free from fear. That being said, the kernel of truth at the core of this tired piece of dogma is correct; when people get close to you, you get hurt.

You must be paying attention in public so that you’ll notice anyone moving to get into your space, or moving to lie in wait along your path of travel, i.e. waiting for you to come to them.

This is easier to do in less crowded areas and harder to do in crowded ones, but if you pay attention you can spot them easily enough.

Hands out of Sight

Someone can give you the mean-mug all they want, but their eyes won’t kill you; their hands will. A hand hidden in pocket, bag or even under an arm could be holding a deadly weapon and you’ll have even less time to react than you would if the bad guy had to draw normally.

Anyone who has hidden hands and is showing one or several other pre-attack indicators should be near the top of your priorities list.

A hand likewise hidden behind a person’s hip, back or their side if turned edgewise to you is likewise to be treated with extreme suspicion. There are covers for this behavior, though, like anything else.

Lots of people will stand around idly with their hands in their pockets when waiting in line, or with arms folded. That by itself is no reason to be unduly suspicious. Similarly, cold weather will see almost everyone outdoors stuff their hands in their pockets to help keep them warm.

While you’d be wrong for teeing off on everyone in a goose down parka just trying to stay warm, you’d be right for knowing that a dirtbag could exploit a situational norm like that to get close and preempt your response…

“Grooming” Movements

People who are anxious or nervous, especially those who are contemplating violence, will often engage in curious movement clusters like rubbing the neck, chin, face and head, patting or plucking at clothing and gradually making larger and larger chest-height movements with the arms.

While the “why” is a long discourse on human behavioral psychology and fascinating, if dry, reading, all you need to know is that people who are mentally psyching themselves up to “get it on” do this routinely, unless they are one cool customer.

The plucking and patting motions in particular often betray the presence of a weapon, since the carrier is either adjusting it (weapons commonly shift and scoot while carried, especially if not in a holster) or mentally reassuring themselves that the implement is in fact still on them.

On a similar tack, anyone who is running or jogging will often have one hand clamped conspicuously to their body; definitely not a common or natural movement unless they are trying to secure something against falling off of them. Something like a weapon.

Now, even these obvious tell that screams weapon is not a surefire indicator of ill intent; plenty of civilian concealed carriers, even off duty cops, exhibit these behaviors too.

This is often the symptom of bad equipment or a lack of confidence in their concealment skills. New gun carriers are especially likely to exhibit these bad habits. Remember, context is always important. Next time you head into public, see how many people you can spot exhibiting these movements. I’ll bet you’ll be surprised.

Hanging Around Near a Choke Point or Transition Point

This sort of ties in with our first entry above (unusual location) but is more overtly threatening without a really god excuse. Anyone who is hanging around near a place that heavily constricts your movement or is a ready-made distraction is probably up to no good.

This could be an interior or exterior stairwell, elevator, door to your home or office, your vehicle, an ATM or any number of other places where you will not be able to evade an attack or will be distracted with a task.

Consider how many people get jumped in apartment and hotel stairs and at ATM’s, or when getting in or out of their vehicles and you’ll see how common this is. Pay close attention to these areas on approach. If you see anyone “hanging around” one of these places you must double your caution, especially if you have to move past them.

Summary of Pre-Attack Indicators

Any time a person is showing several of the above indicators together you must be cautious and pay attention to them. Perhaps some additional information will make itself known that will “exonerate” the suspicious person or activity, or it might do the opposite and make you even more concerned!

A person who is definitively “cleared” needs only cursory attention from then on; not to say they are not or will not become a threat, but you need to get your focus back on general awareness. You might miss something chasing a red herring with your attention.

Remember always that context is everything! Someone who is loitering, nervous, sweating and glancing around nervously could just be waiting for his date to show up.

A person calling for you and arrowing in toward you might just be hustling to return your dropped wallet or phone.

You must always quickly, and more importantly, accurately assess the totality of circumstances before you decide to use force in defense.

Mistakes are costly; people may be hurt who didn’t need to be hurt and that has attendant legal and social consequences.

Environmental Threats

You are far, far more likely to be hurt due to mishap or misadventure than from an attack, even in the midst of a major SHTF event. While it might not be “your fault,” you will still look like a bumbler to be taken out by something that could have been avoided.

While it is not as cool, interesting or “sexy” you should nonetheless be working hard to improve your environmental situational awareness, which is simply a being cognizant of what can kill, hurt or hamper you in various circumstances.

Something as innocuous as wet ceramic tile can turn into a deadly obstacle even if you don’t have someone shooting at you. A lack of environmental SA might mean being trapped in a burning building when you need to get out.

It could mean watching someone bleed to death because you don’t know where the medical kit in the building is (and why don’t you have your own on you, hm?).

Environmental SA also means knowing precisely where you are at any time. It sounds odd, but only by doing so will you know how to direct emergency personnel to your location accurately in a pinch, or which way to go to get to safety in a hurry.

Environmental SA in some ways has more facets to it than being aware of human threats.

In the sections below, we’ll cover the most important elements of environmental SA.

Terrain and Hazards

Any good fighter will be highly aware of the terrain around them. For concealed carriers, this means instant assessment of cover and concealment both for your own use and protection but also for determining a good backstop in case you need to shoot at a threat approaching from a given direction.

Some surfaces will be harder to conduct a fight on; those that are loose, slippery or uneven will make things even harder than usual no matter how the fight goes down.

You should also be aware of hazards in the environment, things that can be used against you in a fight, of course, but also things that can hurt you, period. Broken glass, slick or smooth flooring, ice, blind approaches or corners, low ceilings and on and on and on.

Hazards also apply doubly when you are in a vehicle and you should be pushing your awareness out even further down the road like any good driver. A bridge will freeze much faster than the surrounding roadways on solid ground.

Gravel kicked onto the road off the shoulder will be a substantial skid hazard. Will a sharp turn leave any time or room for reaction to an oncoming vehicle in the wrong lane, or a piece of debris or a stalled vehicle?

The possible hazards are nearly endless. Start making yourself cognizant of the most common and actively be on the lookout for them.

Location, Location, Location

Day to day, you likely know where you are going, but do you know where you are? Could you, at any given time in the car or on foot, tell me what road you are travelling on? In what direction?

What is the nearest major landmark you could use to walk someone on to your position? For any police out there in the readership, this will be old, old hat. For those who aren’t cops, allow me to explain.

Police drill constantly to know where they are out in the world minute to minute so they can call backup to them with a minimum of fuss or allow dispatch to send help to them.

Without this info on hand at once, backup or EMS can be delayed or even get lost trying to find you. The same applies for you. The faster you can give anyone responding to your call for aid a solid location, the faster you can get help.

This applies when you enter a building, too, especially large ones like malls. Which side of the building are you on?

Which is the closest entrance to you, or which is the closest anchor store or storefront? Keeping your internal compass bearing will also help you sort out the tactical situation if you are not immediately involved.

“Yikes, sounds of gunfire coming from the east end of the mall, and people are running away from it, west. I parked on the east side of the mall, so making my way to the vehicle is probably out. I should just hoof it west, too.” Things like that.

Know How to Get out in a Hurry

No matter where you are, no matter what you are doing there, you should assess exits and routes of egress immediately. It might not be Cool Guy cool, but getting the heck out of Dodge when trouble is brewing is almost always a good idea if you are able.

This goes for road travel as well as moving around on foot in buildings.

When you sit down in a restaurant, do you take a moment to establish where the exits are? What about ones you cannot see, like the kitchen?

If you drive into an unknown place, do you make it a point to lookup or verify an alternate route out of town?

It sounds hokey, but do you actually pay attention to the safety brief when you fly commercial? Quick: name three emergency exits on the plane.

Knowing where to go in an emergency is essential, but knowing where to go when your first two emergency exits are impassible or blocked is priceless.

Only by going through a little mental rehearsal will you prime your brain to act fast and choose appropriately based on the circumstances that happen.

“Figuring it out” is often a euphemism for “I’m a shithead who does not like to plan or apply myself.”

Don’t be that guy or gal! Always know where to go, and always leave yourself an out!

Set Yourself Up for Success

Knowing when and where to fight counts for a lot. Knowing that you don’t necessarily know when you’ll have to fight is more valuable still. The smart prepper will always set themselves up for success in the event something unforeseen does happen.

This counts double in SHTF situations, but makes just as much of a difference in normal times, too.

Back to our restaurant example. Where is the best place to sit in a restaurant? Corner booth and back to the wall, right? Wrong!

While old gunslingers and cops will readily offer up that gem, and in days gone by it was good wisdom, it has become nothing short of a cliché.

Anyone looking to start trouble in the restaurant will be looking for cops and other armed people in precisely this location when kicking things off.

Furthermore, many booth tables are bolted to the wall, making them hard to get up out off and potentially impossible to turn over for cover or concealment.

A better option in this case is a table near but not right in front of a secondary exit, wherever it may be, and one that ideally will still let you see the main entrance or at least the space immediately after it.

This is a great tactical choice that will keep you situationally aware of other people (natch!) and also furnish a quick getaway if needed.

Moreover, people intent on causing trouble will not think to look especially at such a table for resistance, unlike the “gunfighter table.”

Just going about your business and running errands you apply the same rule. When parking to go inside, you should always try to park in a way that will set you up for a speedy exit while also being safe.

If you are able, always, always, always, back into your parking spot so you can pull forward easily and quickly when leaving.

It is easy to see how that can save valuable time if you are leaving with haste. Alternately always look for a spot that will allow you to pull through so you are set up to drive forward and out on the opposite row of spaces.

Don’t try to snag a spot up near the building, either. You’ll just wind up mired in a mess of pedestrians and cars when the time comes to burn rubber. Instead, park in a row several away from the centerline on the doors.

This will mean less congestion. Another tip: if at all possible, try to park in a spot that will give you fast and direct access to the road, letting you gain speed and distance faster in an emergency.

Lastly, and again it is tough to make all of these considerations play well together, is you should park your vehicle in a place that is safe, safe meaning it makes things difficult for an attacker to lie in wait.

This could sometimes be close to the doors. It might mean sticking to a well-lit part of the lot.

In some situations, like parking garages which are isolating structures anyway, it might mean nabbing a lot that gives you the best possible sightline and few places to lurk in ambush for attackers, places like stairwells, pillars, ramps, and elevator enclosures.

The more you think about the “what ifs” the more simple, common-sense ideas you’ll have for setting yourself up for success in any eventuality!

Conclusion

Situational awareness is a tired buzzword in the defense and prepping industry, but the principles behind it are critical for safety and success in an increasingly uncertain world. More practically, it is not just “paying attention.”

Situational awareness is an active, engaged perception and assessment of the people and environment around you in order to enable correct and timely reactions to potential threats in that environment.

If you have never really made situational awareness a priority, you can use this guide as a shortcut to making it a part of your everyday life. Stay alert, stay aware, stay alive!

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About Tom Marlowe

Tom Marlowe grew up with a gun in his hand, and has held all kinds of jobs in the gun industry: range safety, sales, instruction and consulting, He has the experience in helping civilian shooters figure out what firearms work best for them.
View all posts by Tom Marlowe →

4 thoughts on “Situational Awareness 101

  1. Since we live in a relatively sparsely populated area, it is easy to spot “people behaving badly”. And Situational Awareness has been one of my mantras for some time (45+ years?). Now we add people with potential deadly disease symptoms to that list. Lots of fun!

    I can recall 2 instances where being aware has “saved” me, at least further, potential lethal, trouble. Both were in a major east-coast city. Glad I was paying attention both times. These instances ingrained it into me, personally.

  2. As a retired urban area police officer with 30+ years experience, I totally agree with the advice given here. Spending several years as a major crime detective, I can’t begin to count the number of victims who told me; “I should have known better;” or “Something told me that guy was a problem;” or “I kind of had a feeling about him [or her].” Or the well known; “I never thought that would happen to me;” or “I never thought anything like that would happen HERE,” as if HERE is somehow a crime-free-zone.

    Those “feelings” were the result of millenniums of human evolution warning us about danger. It is only in our modern, “politically correct” society where social programming compels us to ignore those warnings. Why? Because we don’t want others to think we may be biased or prejudiced is some manner, based on ethnic, or cultural differences. We are conditioned to not “offend” some stranger. The predators know exactly how to use these “PC” behaviors against their intended targets. I’ve witnessed the threats and intimidation used by playing the “race card” to intimidate an otherwise law abiding person into a life of drugs, vice and criminal behavior, and / or death.

    Don’t fall for it. Trust your gut feelings! Survive.

  3. Something else that seems to never get covered in these kinds of discussions anymore is leaving space between your car and the one in front of you. Enough space for you to maneuver around and get away from any developing situation be it a carjacker, accident, etc. Use that rear view mirror!

  4. Carrying on the remark above about leaving room to get around the car in front of you (always stop where you can see the bottom of the leading car’s tires)…

    DO NOT get out of the car to see if there is any damage in a rear-ender UNTIL you have called for police. Likewise, DO NOT FAIL to notice if another car stops close in front of you to come back and see what happened, especially if it was that driver who caused the collision by sideswiping, a sudden stop, or similar tactics.
    Emotions run high in situations like that. Even if there’s no nefarious intent on the part of the other party, you don’t need to get involved in a shouting match or worse with some hothead. That’s especially true if you tend to get a bit hot under the collar yourself.

    Stay in the car. Call for assistance. Even if it seems you can work out a deal with the other driver, stay in the car. A ticket is better than a beating, or worse. As mentioned in the article, listen to your gut. If it’s wrong, you’ve created a bit of an awkward situation. But if it’s right…

    (Ex-cop; ex-chauffeur for CEOs and dignitaries.)

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