If you’ve never heard the term “situational awareness” before, let me break it down really quick before we dive into the strategies to become more alert. Because it’s all about paying attention. Situational awareness is proactively taking in everything in your surroundings, so you’re never caught off-guard. Because you’ve been imagining the possible scenarios and what to do, so you can react in a split second instead of freezing with your mouth open.
You’ve seen the car speeding towards the red light so you don’t step out onto the crossing, perhaps you’re the one that stops the guy next to you from walking out and getting hit. You’ve noticed the guys loitering at the entrance of the alley, and the friend that’s been following behind you these last few blocks. Instead of walking into a trap, you cross the street and use one of the stores there to give them the slip. Or to duck out of sight as you pull out your combat dagger. Simple scenarios like this are all examples of situational awareness in action, but it’s a little more complex than this.
The sliding scale of situational awareness
Now, Col. Jeff Cooper designed this scale for the military and police officers in the line of duty, as it’s just not possible to stay “situationally alert” at all times. It’s mentally exhausting. His reasoning was that the level of situational awareness needs to suit the situation you’re in, like a scale. Done like this it means you won’t tire yourself out when it’s completely unnecessary. Here’s the four levels:
Level 1: Relaxed. For situations where you’re safe, like at home. You can put your feet up, and totally tune out to the rest of the world while you watch a movie or read a book.
Level 2: Relaxed Awareness. For situations where there’s no immediate threat, but it’s important to pay attention, like when you’re going for a jog or driving a car.
Level 3: Focused Awareness. For normal situations that require a little more focus, like riding through a snowstorm at night, driving at high speeds, this sort of thing.
Level 4: High Alert. This is when the SHTF. There’s an immediate threat, like an active shooter or someone coming after you, and you’ve got to react. Fight or flight.
Depending on the situation you find yourself in, you should be paying the right amount of attention. At level 1, you’re safe and don’t need to think much at all. At a level 4, you need your head on a swivel, taking in your surroundings while planning your next steps.
Of course, most of us are good at level one awareness. But for those seeking to improve their skills at levels 3 and 4, there are a number of practice drills you can run.
Drill 1: Pay direct attention
If you’ve ever seen someone who looks worried or concerned, you notice by their eyes darting around, right? Their head is constantly moving, and it’s apparent to anyone watching that they’re freaking out about something. What you need to work on, is your ability to pay attention, without getting noticed.
Try this exercise…
- Using a reflective surface, like a shop window, a car mirror, or whatever is around, pick a mark and try to learn as much as you can about them, without ever looking directly. Look at their walk, what they’re wearing, estimate their weight and height, and keep practicing until you can do this almost instinctively.
Drill 2: Observe your surroundings
One thing we’re all guilty of is being too caught up in the rat race. We’re racing to work. Rushing to drop the kids off. or whatever it is that you’re trying to get done next, and you never stop and look around. What you need to work on developing is an understanding of the city you’re in, so you can identify when things are out of place.
Try this exercise…
- Go and find a space on a park bench, a street corner, or somewhere you can sit and watch all the people going by, and without any distractions just focus on watching. If you’re conscious of the people wondering about you, a pair of mirrored sunglasses can hide your eyes as you get a real sense of the “vibe” in your city.
Drill 3: Making your assumptions
If you’ve ever read about first impressions, you know these can be formed even at a subconscious level in a split-second. Your brain processes more information and learned knowledge than you’re even aware of, and gives you a judgement. Forming first impressions is a skill you can hone with practice, so you can recognize any real (or imagined) threats.
Try this exercise…
- Go somewhere public and instead of just looking at their race or their clothes, try to figure out what kind of a person they are from the way they walk, the way they stand, who they’re focusing on, and how they interact with others. The best criminals are skilled at blending in, so you need to learn to look deeper.
Remember to rely on your instincts
Finally, I want you to know how important your instincts are. They’re what keeps you alive and well, so if you ever get the feeling you’re in a dodgy situation, forget being polite or ruffling feathers. Do what you need to do to get yourself out, and get yourself safe.
The key to all of this is to get moving, it starts in your head with everything you’re taking in as you practice situational awareness in your day-to-day life, and then all you need to do is start moving your feet. Scale to the different levels of awareness as your current circumstances demand, while realizing that you can’t maintain level 4 type awareness for extended periods of time. It’s too exhausting. Think of it like choosing the right firearm, the right approach for the right situation. And the more you practice the easier it will get.