Situational awareness is more important than your gun, knife, pepper spray, kubotan or any other self-defence tool you may have.
Yes, I just said that!
Why would anyone say that, especially on a gun blog? Obviously, a good guy with a gun is the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun. Right? I mean, what are you going to do, aware your attacker into submission? Fool!
Well, Mr. Gun Owner, what are you going to do with your gun if you don’t see the threat until it’s too late to act? When the hijacker has his pistol against your window before you see him, your day isn’t exactly going to plan.
It’s a sad fact that most self-defence encounters have the intended victim on the back foot from the start. The attackers choose the who, when, where and the how of the attack. The defender never knows when (and seldom if) they are going to be targeted.
You’ll immediately notice the huge disparity here. The attacker has the deck stacked strongly in their favour. Additionally, they only have to pay attention during the time the attack is in progress. The defender who wishes to successfully fend them off needs to be ready at all times!
The one thing that can sway the odds in your favour is if you can identify a threat early and prepare to act. Ironically this is also something that can scare an attacker away. You see, most criminals look for easy targets. Crime is their job, and their job is dangerous, so just like everyone else they want to minimize the risk. If you’re sitting in traffic, constantly watching your mirrors and blind spots, evaluating every person walking around, they notice that. The chances are that they’d much rather take a chance with the guy three cars back, obliviously staring at his phone.
There are many, many sources out there telling you how situational awareness works. All kinds of things about colour codes and human reactions to threats. It’s incredibly interesting, and I’ll leave some links at the bottom of the blog post for you to peruse. And yes, please do research this. Because it is a multifaceted subject containing everything from psychology, to physical reactions, to human behaviour.
What is this tactical-sounding thing called “situational awareness”?
Situational awareness (SA) is the perception of environmental elements and events with respect to time or space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status after some variable has changed, such as time, or some other variable, such as a predetermined event. It is also a field of study concerned with understanding of the environment critical to decision-makers in complex, dynamic areas from aviation, air traffic control, ship navigation, power plant operations, military command and control, and emergency services such as fire fighting and policing; to more ordinary but nevertheless complex tasks such as driving an automobile or riding a bicycle.
Let’s boil that definition down to “Being aware of your surroundings, the presence and movement of people and things in your surroundings, and making decisions based on continuous changes therein”.
As you may notice, this is a dynamic process. Driving a car is a good example for most people trying to get their head around the concept. You are constantly busy when you’re driving a car: you steer, accelerate, brake, change lanes, use indicators, wipers, change the radio station, adjust your visor to keep the sun out of your eyes, and so on. Some things are massively important, and some are not, so you’re constantly prioritising and evaluating. And you’re constantly keeping an eye out for risks. Like the pedestrian who takes a stupid chance, or that idiot skipping a red light, or the tired driver who changes lanes without checking his blind spot.
Situational awareness in other aspects of life is similar. You go about your day, prioritizing your tasks, and you look out for risks to your safety. The problem here is that risk comes in many different forms, and has many levels of severity. An old woman pushing her trolley in the supermarket can be a risk to your child’s safety if she bumps into them, though the injuries caused may not be anything serious. A pickpocket is a risk, but probably not one that will cause injury. A can of beans falling on your foot is a risk. An armed confrontation can start out as a risk, and turn into a very real threat.
It’s up to you to evaluate each situation, grade each risk, and act accordingly. That’s much harder than it sounds, but it’s also something most of us do subconsciously to some degree. Here are a few things most people can improve on in their daily lives.
There is a time to scan the crowds lazily, looking for what’s out of place. There’s a time to pay a little more attention to somebody doing something unusual. And there is a time to laser-focus on a threat and be ready to take action. Most of the time nothing will be out of place. When something is amiss, most of the time it won’t be a threat. When it is a threat, it might not be one that warrants your intervention or reaction at all.
Unfortunately this breeds complacency and a very low motivation to act. A lot of people notice something, but before they can make their minds up to do something, it’s too late. You should always evaluate a situation on its own merits: watch for small deviations from the last 50 times you’ve seen the same thing. Don’t just sit there fat, dumb, and happy.
Who wants to be the person who sees something mildly suspicious in a public place, and then instantly turns and runs away down the passage like lunatic? Nobody, that’s who. I wonder if the first bunch of people who got shot in Nairobi’s Westgate mall had the same problem?
This is why it is important to study behaviour and practice observing people: so you can know when you should react to a possible threat. We’re looking for a leg up here, remember? We specifically don’t want to wait for the hairs on the back of our necks to stand up before deciding a person is a definite threat. If you’re unsure whether a person or situation is a threat to your safety, you may decide to wait just that little bit too long because you don’t want people to think you’re a weirdo.
The same goes for politeness. Don’t be so polite that you feel closing your window or crossing the street would insult someone and make them think you’re stereotyping them.
Don’t ignore that instinct that tells you to leave, to turn around, to move out of someone’s line of sight, or even to run. And don’t die of embarrassment.
I touched on this a little in the previous point, but human instinct is a powerful thing. How often have you heard the words “I just knew something was wrong” from both people who miraculously escaped disaster, and those who ignored their instincts and became victims? People usually can’t quantify what was wrong, just that they had a bad feeling about a person or situation.
This isn’t ESP or aliens sending you mind waves. This is your subconscious trying to get your attention. You’ve observed something out of the ordinary, even if you don’t know it. Once again, studying the subject can bring these observed irregularities into the light, so you know what’s bothering you. But if you suddenly feel uncomfortable or threatened, there’s probably a reason, trust your instinct and act on it.
We all have our little biases, it’s natural. A blonde broke your heart when you were 14, so now you don’t date blondes. Two white Audis cut you off on your way to work ,so now you’re extra suspicious of white Audis on your way home. Our minds are built to collate data like this to find patterns and identify things that will hurt us. Even if it doesn’t always make perfect sense.
While never dating any blondes (because one broke your heart in High School) might make you miss out on meeting some lovely people, in a survival situation overestimating the threat has almost no penalty. On the other side, underestimating a threat can mean that you have a very negative experience. Your natural instinct will be to avoid that experience at any cost in the future, which will increase your bias towards a similar situation significantly.
The key here is not to fall into the trap of judging only by what your bias tells you. If you see a lot of robberies perpetrated by guys wearing Uzzi branded shirts, and you’re suspicious of everyone wearing an Uzzi shirt and watch them like a hawk, you might miss the girl in the Guess shirt stealing your wife’s handbag. Learn to judge a little finer than these broad biases, and be prepared to accept that a lot of threats will break the pattern you’ve constructed in your head.
And cut the Audi drivers some slack, some of them are probably nice people!
A few years back I was working as a reservist in the Linden SAPS robbery task team. It was exciting and rewarding work, but it systematically made me more and more paranoid when I was off duty. One day I was standing with my back to our apartment’s wall, ready to draw my pistol and with my head swinging from side to side like I was watching a tennis match. All of this was happening while my wife calmly unlocked our security gate in our complex where nothing had ever directly threatened our safety. This was the day I realised I was really paranoid. The constant vigilance and high risk factor of my weekend “hobby” meant I was labeling everything around me as a threat, with no grading system and no measured response.
Paranoia is entirely counterproductive. You cannot possibly be 100% ready for action 100% of the time. That’s why something like Jeff Cooper’s awareness colour codes are useful. You need to know which level of awareness you need to maintain, and when to escalate that level of awareness. If you think every person and every movement is a threat, you’ll end up actually missing the real ones because you’ll be busy scanning a granny using a walker for signs that she’s going to attack.
Being relaxed but observant is a much more productive state of mind, both for assessing threats and staying sane. If you’re at full battle ready without having identified an exact threat, you might want to de-escalate things in your mind just a bit.
You’re in the mall with your wife, she’s buying shoes, and you’re bored (and hopefully not staring at your phone). Suddenly, people scream nearby, shots ring out. What do you do? For some people, the answer is “draw my gun”. For other people that’s always the answer.
Information gathered by being aware and alert should help you choose which action to take in such a situation. Should you draw your gun and get ready for a fight? Sneak a knife into your hand? Run? Barricade yourself in the store? Duck behind a pillar? There are many variables that inform this decision: just imagine what goes on in a mall. Cash in transit guards transporting money, security guards walking around, teenagers up to no good, disgruntled shoppers screaming at disgruntled employees about inferior services. Where did the shots come from? If don’t know, maybe drawing a gun in a crowd isn’t such a good plan, unless you know for sure that it’s necessary.
You cannot be a one-trick pony, and you can’t respond the same way to every threat. You need training so you have options. That means training both in the different response types, and training in how to evaluate situations.
You will notice that I’ve been talking about threats and situations, not people and attacks. This is deliberate, because armed attacks are not the only places where situational awareness is useful. Knowing what’s going on around you, evaluating it and deciding what to do in a structured, practiced manner can help you in many areas of your life. From pre-empting changes in the work place, to missing the dog poop on the sidewalk, this is a skill that can change your entire life for the better.
Apart from the reading list below, here’s some homework for you. It’s entirely voluntary and you may never be tested to see if you did it, but you should know that the pop quizzes other people may give you can be pretty brutal.
Go on Youtube and search for some crime videos. Sadly they won’t be too hard to find. Good or bad outcomes don’t matter, just put yourself in the intended victim’s shoes and evaluate what happened.
- What were they doing right with regards to being aware of/in the situation?
- What were they doing wrong?
- Was anyone else in the video reacting before the victim was? Why?
- At which point would you have decided to act? Would you have observed that trigger if you were in that situation, viewing it from his/her perspective?
Don’t bullshit yourself here, honesty is crucial. If you know you were sitting at the petrol station playing with the radio just like the person who got robbed in the video, it’s pointless to say “But I would have been reacted faster!” You’re only lying to yourself and robbing yourself of an opportunity to grow.
Go ye forth into the world. Start somewhere you go on a regular basis, be it the mall, the hardware store or anywhere else with a diverse group of people doing diverse things. The gym or a family gathering might not be ideal for this. It would also be an advantage to be able to sit and watch, but doing this on the move is possible.
- Observe the people around you. See if you can judge who they are and what they’re doing just by what you see.
- Are they, happy, sad, irritated or angry? Why do you think this?
- Are they armed and are they trained?
- Do they appear to be in a hurry, or are they relaxed?
- Are other people also observing them? Why?
- If you see a group of people together, who is dominant in that group?
- Are the behaviours you’re picking up specific to a single culture, or universal?
- Are they pretending to do, think or feel something they’re not? Can you tell?
- Is anyone else observing you while you do this exercise? Why do you think they picked up on you? What would make you stand out less?
- Do they seem to be curious, annoyed or threatened by you? Why do you think they feel like they do?
Continually ask yourself why you think what you think about the people you observe. This helps you quantify your observations, which means you can repeat them consciously in the future, instead of relying on intuition.
Links for further reading
This is not an exhaustive list of topics to read or places to read them, merely things you can read to get you started. Human nature plays a big role in situational awareness, so knowing how people react to specific situations will mean you can judge their intentions better
Left of Bang by Jason A. Riley and Patrick Van Horne
Can I See Your Hands – Gavriel Schneider
Jeff Cooper’s Colour Codes
Fight, flight or freeze
Diffusion of responsibility
Written by David de Beer.
David is an ex-Reservist who served in a station level robbery task team and is currently a part-time range officer who enjoys training new shooters. His main weapons are 9mm pistols and sarcasm.
5 years ago
Excellent advice and something we all need to be aware of. I just have to wonder why we pay so much attention to what to do with a firearm as if we have some certain knowledge we are always going to have a firearm. We make that assumption without a care in the world pretending some guardian angel is going to make sure we do somehow always have a firearm to defend our lives, loved ones and property. Being good citizens we also want is for everyone because one day our children should also enjoy this choice.
So what are we doing about ensuring our continued safety which if one thinks about it is far more important. All the training in the world cannot replace the firearm you no longer have.
5 years ago
Good article David. What seems to be missing though is that people should know that once one visibly exudes a ‘Situational Awareness’ mindset, (and no matter how subtle the signal is, it really does radiate), it’s easily picked up by those who would do you harm, because their total existence is based on their ability to pick up on even the smallest sign given off by intended targets.
Researching for our book, my colleague -and principle author- Dr Wesson, spent more than a year with two eminent criminal Psychiatric Professors at UNISA, who told him that following decades of research, with thousands of (incarcerated) violent criminals, most of their subjects confessed that if they’d paid more attention to ‘reading their prey’ beforehand, they would not have ended up behind bars, in hospital, or like many of their co-workers, on a slab in the morgue.
Not that one needs to go through life acting like a nervous impala on the Serengeti, but a quick surveil before entering a Mall, or on exiting your vehicle, will always be picked up by people who’s entire lifestyle is based on selecting soft targets, because a soft target is an easy mark, and picking ‘easy marks’ leads to a long and successful career in crime.
Going through life acting like a Conditioned Victim often results in becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy.
5 years ago
Excellent article David.
In a recent walkabout in the inner city the watch the hands technique proved very handy – person walking straight towards, hand going in pocket, POW mobile out and texting. Colleagues walking with me were oblivious, did not even see it.