Never Let Your Guard Down: Adventures in the City, by B.D.

The rustling came again from the back of the shotgun-style apartment. Was it squirrels? We had a few of the little gray buggers living in the trees around us and they made quite a racket. I assured my wife via text that a squirrel wouldn’t come through our window screens.

She got up and looked into our bedroom just to make sure and saw a head and back sticking through about half way onto our bed. Letting out a blood curdling yell, she screamed and ran towards the window as the perp backpedaled out and ran off down the alley. Slamming the window, she called me at work, had me call 911, and waited for the police who quickly arrived on the scene. Everything worked out well in this case. The guy, homeless, was arrested within half an hour and booked on an outstanding bench warrant and for burglary. He plead guilty and did time for misdemeanor trespass.

We live in St. Louis, a city known for crime, and at the time lived in an area which is well on its way to gentrification. Still, on the edges things were a bit spotty. Case in point our apartment where across the alley stood what we later found out was a house central to the local heroin trafficking market. Over in our ground-floor apartment, we didn’t know that. All we could tell is that it was pretty busy with high school age looking kids most days.

The week of the robbery, we were moving in having just gotten married and hauled my wife’s stuff in from out of state. We had boxes all over the place and they were still there the week after the honeymoon. We also didn’t fully realize that our landlord had left the master keys to our apartment building on the front porch the week I was gone to the wedding; someone had already been inside to case the joint and steal my Glock.

It was the perfect setup for a burglary or robbery. Our apartment was at the end of the road by a busy intersection and was beside the major footpath connecting our road with the alley and the road behind it. Many folks walked that path daily to cut the corner and some would stop and sit in the chairs in our back yard enjoying the shade. It was hot, above the century mark for most of the previous month, and everyone had their windows open…especially those of us trying to move. Out back, we had a pile of boxes stacked in and around the dumpster. The inside of the house was such a mess that I wasn’t even sure if my gun had gone missing. And, worst of all, our land lord, experiencing the early stages of Alzheimer’s left the keys out for the taking.

There are so many things that went wrong which set us up so well to be the target of Maurice that day. Each one is something that is small in itself, but when added up, can in the blink of the result in horrible things. Everyone survived that day and although traumatized, my wife and I have come away better for it, I believe. The important thing is that our experiences be used as a lesson for others. Being newlyweds and just starting off in a new city in a cheap apartment is no excuse to allow your safety or alertness to be compromised.

Situational awareness, or the act (or art?) of being alert to your surroundings in a way that allows you to react appropriately is not one of the sexy parts of prepping. However, it is one of the most important. It is a skill that needs to be both practiced and utilized daily. Situational awareness can be seen on numerous levels of time scales. In our case, we were moving into a new apartment and we needed to practice both short term and long term situational awareness. This article will examine both of these in detail providing some general ideas on how to better prepare yourself. Each situation is different and every second changes your individual needs. Use this as a guide and build up your own system depending on what your life requires. Remember to keep alert for any need to change your system. Don’t wait for a failure to revamp; you might not get the chance.

Long-term Situational Awareness
Long-term situational awareness deals with things that are not an immediate threat. In these days of collapsing culture and declines in neighborliness it is even more important to know your neighborhood and those who live near you. Our neighborhood had an online email list as well as regular meetings. We utilized these fairly well and we knew that there was a crime spree in the neighborhood. Unfortunately, there was not enough data before the week of our robbery for even a map-geek like myself to pinpoint the source of our problems. Interestingly, within a few weeks of our break-in, the crime spree focused around a few blocks of us and the correlation was painfully obvious, even to a casual observer. Find out, preferably before you select a place to live, where the problem areas are. Get updated on the neighborhood situation before you even move. The same applies to areas where you work or often frequent. Prior planning is a good thing.

Once you’re in place, keep an eye out on neighborhood traffic. We probably could have spotted people who didn’t belong if we had been more attentive. I should have especially noticed that people walking by our windows had an easy way to look inside and make sure to make that impossible for them and also to deny them access to the chairs in our yard. With them being moved often, I did not think anything of it when one of them was moved under our bedroom window just hours later to be used to vault up into our life.
Most importantly, don’t let your awareness get displaced by something like moving. When you are moving, you are perhaps at your most vulnerable. Trips to and from the moving van provides anyone around a perfect view of everything you are moving and a good idea about where you are putting things, even if all of your blinds are shut. With doors open and air conditioners useless, windows being open in such heat are very tempting. However, this just adds to your advertisement power!

Short-Term Situational Awareness

Short-term, or immediate, situational awareness, is what most people think of when they hear the term. This is not paranoia, it is remaining alert for any potential threats and mounting your guard accordingly. In his book Combatives for Street Survival, Kelly McCann discusses the effects of a surprise attack on the victim: loss of fine motor skills, shaking, tunnel vision, rapid heart rate, etc. These responses make dealing with any threat more difficult, which is why Kelly stresses the importance of seeing the attacker before any attack can happen. As McCann notes, many times just making it clear that you are aware is enough to deter an attack. This is where your short-term situational awareness comes into play.
There have been many systems developed to help people logically process one’s situational awareness in a systematic way. Jeff Cooper’s color code, which he introduced in his classic Principles Of Personal Defense is an easy system to use in today’s world of TSA rainbow threat levels. Cooper’s color code is in essence a categorizing of a person’s mental state (roughly alertness/preparedness) given their ability to respond to various potential threats. The code is as follows:

  • White: You are walking down the street with ear buds in, music on, looking down to text. Basically, you are blissfully unaware of anything going on around you and you are in total denial that anything bad may happen to you. Stress, tiredness, and intoxication all help push you towards this level.
  • Yellow: Often described as “relaxed alert,” this is the level where one should strive to be at even the “safest” times. There is no observed or suspected threat, but you are alert to your surroundings and are minimizing distractions.
  • Orange: At level orange, you are on alert. You have spotted a potential threat and are ensuring that the source of this potential threat has your attention. At this point, should the potential threat become a real threat you move to level Red. Should the potential threat show that it is not a threat, you will return to level yellow. For example, you are walking along and a dog starts growling at you. Were it to charge you, threat level red comes into play. Were you to notice that it is chained and behind a solid fence, threat level yellow may be your choice.
  • Red: The potential threat is now a threat. Actions must be taken to nullify that threat. “Fight of flight” is in play and it is likely that things will get ugly.

Col. Cooper’s system does not directly translate into a system for situational awareness, rather it alerts you to the most important element of surviving a threat- your mental state. No matter how good of a shot you are or how “tacticool” your carry weapon is, if you are caught by a mugger at level white awareness…well, you’ve got a big hole to dig out of at best. Evaluation of your mental state using Cooper’s system (or another that you prefer) should become second nature. It should be a process that runs quietly in the background allowing you to focus more on potential threats and how to deal with them.
Using the example of our break in, let’s walk through how this works using the clarity of hindsight to see what should have happened. Given the presence of known criminals and a drug house, my alert level should have been at a level yellow when my wife and I left the house that morning. Walking to the car, I should have been scanning the house for broken basement windows, “self-walking furniture,” moved plants, loitering strangers, etc. I would have noticed that a chair was placed under our back window and gotten suspicious and moved it, thus denying entry to our windows.

To this day, I do not know where our robber was, but I suspect that he could see us getting in the car and driving off, but couldn’t see that my wife re-entered the house a short time afterwards having walked back from a coffee shop. This means he was somewhere in back of the house (where our cars were). Could I have noticed him? Maybe. Perhaps he was inside the drug house? Regardless, lines of sight work both ways, if he could see us, we could have seen him.

Let’s say I had spotted him standing watching us behind the drug house in the alley as we drove out. He posed no direct threat to us, but he was out of place. I’d be moving my mental state to orange. Driving back around the block and calling the cops in the process giving them his description would likely have sufficed in this case, he had a bench warrant outstanding and wouldn’t have stuck around long if the police showed up. With the potential threat gone, I would return back to yellow.

While looking for potential threats is a topic that would never be completely covered no matter how much ink is spent on it, there are some key points to remember. First, your situation is unique. Much of situational awareness is intuition and gut feeling. If it feels wrong, don’t. It’s much better to be wrong and leave a non-threatening situation needlessly than it is to go against your gut and wind up dead.

Secondly, if you see someone who doesn’t seem to have a reason to be some place, be careful. McCann demonstrates this by using the example of a guy standing in the middle of the parking lot just looking around with no keys out. What’s he doing there? Most people who lose their cars have their keys out and this guy doesn’t even look too confused. This rule can be expanded in any number of ways. Another example: unless you’re a kid playing hide and seek, most people don’t have a very good reason to be hiding behind bushes. Trust your gut and use common sense.

Third, be on the look out for bottlenecks and cover. Most of us do not daily have to worry about armed ambushes. However, criminals like to take advantage of situations which make their job of jumping you easier. The old “dark alley” adage applies here. So does the “don’t be foolish, trust your gut” theory.

Lastly, be aware of how you present yourself. People at level white are obvious to spot (for a fun exercise, go out on the street and count how many people you see who are clearly at level white) and make great targets for crooks. It’s also very easy to make it clear that you are not at white. Why take a hard target when there are so many easy fish out there? That’s the crook mentality. Most of the time, they would prefer not to have to work…that’s why they’re involved in crime in the first place! Walk with purpose. Don’t have your arms full if you don’t have to. Don’t be distracted. Make it clear you’re not a tourist (even if you are). Give off an air of confidence and alertness. It is always better to avoid a confrontation than to have to win one the hard way. This one simple step almost certainly is the one thing that keeps more people safe than anything else.

Situational awareness is clearly a subject about which much has been written and all of us could improve each day of our lives. It is a skill which is improved with exercise and one on which there are many views out there. I don’t feel that any view is mutually exclusive of the others. In this article I have presented Cooper’s color-based system of mental states because it is easy to remember and makes sense to me. There are certainly others. The US Government uses a system known as TEDD (Time, Environment, Distance and Demeanor) which is discussed in an article at STRATFOR: “Threats, Situational Awareness and Perspective.” There is also Col. John Boyd’s OODA (observe, orient, decide, act) loop. For further information on this topic, I would recommend, in addition to the works already mentioned the following sources:

Home defense is about more than a shotgun or that security system and decal. It is a part of our lives that requires active participation on our part. With the lingering depressed economy, raging drug problem, and criminals with no respect for life, it is a sad fact that we must face this reality. Best of all, these key steps to home defense are free; it only takes a few seconds and alertness. So, for those readers who live in urban areas especially, take some time to reassess your security strategy. Do not let yourselves grow complacent, even if you have a security system. Let our lessons learned the hard way be an example to get you thinking so that something similar doesn’t happen to you. Oh, and if your landlord starts leaving keys out, move.

About the Author: B.D. lives with his beautiful new bride in St. Louis where they are expecting their first child in May.