One of the World’s Most Useful Skills, by S.V.

My father impressed upon me a useful skill that has saved my life on more than one occasion. Whether it be traveling on dangerous highways in the saddle of a motorcycle or watching for a gun in the hands of a suspect, constant and consistent situational awareness is a critical survival skill. When the grid shudders to a stop or money becomes more useful as toilet paper than currency, our exercise of practical situational awareness will mean the difference between life and death on a daily basis. This is why we should take actionable steps to continually hone this perishable skill.

Basis of Almost Everything We Do

First and foremost, it is important to understand that situational awareness is at the basis of almost everything we do. It will help determine the choices we make and the situations we find ourselves in. For example, a veteran police officer once asked me a hypothetical question, “What is the best way to win any gunfight?” The answer he gave was simple. He said, “Never end up in a gunfight in the first place.” His point was that many dangerous situations can be completely avoided if we are aware of our surroundings and know what to look for. If we have our eyes up and head on a swivel when we are walking down the street, we are more apt to spot potential dangers ahead of time. Then we can anticipate them and take appropriate action.

Situationally Aware, Taking in World Around You

To be truly situationally aware means to be present in the moment and constantly taking in the world around you. This principle sounds simple. However, it may be harder now, more than ever, to engage in this practice because technology is everywhere we turn. In our homes, in our cars, in our offices, and in our pockets, we have screens that are built to capture our undivided attention. Obviously, after the collapse of our modern society, we will have fewer of these technological distractions. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work towards developing this skill now so that it comes as second nature when it is needed most.

Professionals

Professionals who deal with dangerous individuals on a daily basis, such as law enforcement officers and our military members, rely heavily on situational awareness to stay safe on the job. An important situational awareness tactic that they can teach us is to always try and put yourself in a position with the observational advantage. For example, most cops will always put their back to a wall while eating in a restaurant. This is so they can subtly monitor the entrances and exits to give themselves the best possible edge if a threat were to present itself. Along these same lines, many military members will advocate setting up outposts on the high ground whenever available. This ensures that they have 360 degrees of observational coverage. Their high vantage point will allow them to spot hostile actors as far in advance as possible.

What’s Going to Reach Out and Hurt You?

Another awareness tactic military and law enforcement officers use is to always be on the lookout for what is going to actually reach out and hurt you. This is why officers will ask you to take your hands out of your pockets or to put them on the steering wheel during a traffic stop. An individual’s hands are what is likely going to pose the threat to your personal safety. A constantly awareness of what they are doing or where they are can give you more time to react if they were to attempt to harm you. These tactics are simple and can be easily practiced on a daily basis.

Practicing

The next time you sit down at a restaurant or wait in line at a grocery store, try practicing counting the exits and standing in a position that you can observe others without putting your back to individuals. See if you can keep track of what people around you are doing with their hands. You can take this process a step further by asking yourself, “What would I do if the man in front of me in line pulls out a gun instead of his wallet?” By running through these hypotheticals, you can set yourself up to react in a moment’s notice.

What Doesn’t Belong?

Another critical tactic for developing situational awareness is to look for what doesn’t belong or doesn’t fit within the current situation. Your gut instinct can be extremely helpful, especially when you ask yourself what doesn’t seem normal. For example, when you look out into a crowd of people during the summer, it wouldn’t make sense for an individual to be dressed in a thick, winter-weight trench coat. If a situation or a person doesn’t feel right, pay close attention to this feeling. Oftentimes this is our instinct trying to warn us of danger.

Gavin De Becker’s book, The Gift of Fear, offers many lessons on how we can train ourselves to be more aware of our body’s natural ability to sense danger. Additionally, his book covers a wide variety of situations and signs to look for in individuals that could mean us harm. By familiarizing ourselves with these signs and behaviors, we can not only be aware of potential dangers but also work towards anticipating them before they occur. Therein, we can respond appropriately.

Behaviors Out of the Ordinary

It is critical that we pay attention to behaviors that are out of the ordinary. They may give you insight about the true motivations for why an individual is there. Law enforcement officers use this tactic regularly to help identify suspects. For example, one of the main reasons that the Boston Marathon Bombers were identified was because their behavior stood out from the crowd. When the first bomb initially went off, everyone in the crowd turned to look towards the explosion. However, the man who planted the bomb turned and began to move in the opposite direction (CBS, 2015). In the first few seconds after a loud explosion, our natural instinct is to look towards what made the noise.

However, the bomber already knew what made the noise of the explosion. Since turning away was a completely unnatural reaction and didn’t fit with the current situation, it gave observers critical insight on the individual’s motives for being there. The Boston Bombing may be an extreme example, but it lends authority to how constant and consistent situational awareness can give us key insight on the motivations of those around us.

Increasing Awareness After A Collapse

As the danger around us increases so should our level of awareness. After a collapse in the rule of law, looting, rioting, and other forms of crime tend to become exponentially more prevalent. Some concrete actions you may want to consider to bolster your situational awareness can be to set up a listening/observation post(s) around your residence or camp. If the man power is available, these posts can and should be staffed 24/7 to ensure that your family or group always has someone keeping a lookout out for possible dangers, such as hostile actors or hazardous weather.

When possible, these look out posts should incorporate 360 degrees of observational coverage. The shoul also be difficult to spot by approaching individuals. In urban environments, attics, tree houses, and top floors of abandoned buildings could be used. Additionally, screens or camouflage netting can all be used to conceal look out posts. In rural environments observation posts can be constructed from deer blinds, holes dug into the earth with natural foliage covers, and above ground shelters built from readily available materials in your environment.

Alerting Your Group

When considering where to place and how to construct these look out posts, it may be helpful to also think about how your spotters can quickly evacuate and alert the rest of your group. If possible the use of whistles, horns, sirens, bird calls, or radios can also contribute to your collective situational awareness. These tools can be used to give your group a way to communicate impending dangers without giving hostile actors a complete picture of what your response might be. For example, you may tell your family that three sharp blasts from your whistle means there are armed individuals immediately headed your way.

Hearing those whistle blasts should prompt them to get into their defensive positions. Alternatively, radios can give you a sense of situational awareness over a much larger distance. For those of us who may chose to homestead in remote locations, a working knowledge of radios can be used to communicate with your local group members. We could use radios to communicate our efforts to scout out resources or alert of possible threats headed in your direction.

Without Luxury of Others On Guard, Inexpensive Tools

Unfortunately, not everyone has the luxury of having others on guard while we they sleep. This does not mean we can’t take steps to bolster our awareness of our surroundings. An inexpensive and effective tool to alert you of approaching individuals has been to set sound traps or trip wires. These can be as simple as a wire with cans strung up at ankle height around your campsite. If your trip wire is set off, it will make a considerable noise to warn you of intruders. This can also be done in homes or hotels by stacking glass cups, cans, or bells near doors and window ledges. The trick is to set these items up so that they will easily be knocked over if the door or window is opened. This advanced warning time will give you a chance to prepare for whatever may be headed your way.

Has Someone Been in Your Office, Home, or Car

Another useful tip that can alert you if someone has been in your office, home, car, or hotel is to set small objects sublty in very specific places. Your specific placement let you know if they have been moved since you last visited that area. Place a small string or folded slip of paper closed in a car door. Place it so that if the door is opened, it falls to the ground. This can be an effective method to see if your vehicle has been tampered with. If you have an office that can’t be locked, it may be helpful to arrange papers and pens in a specific order that only you will notice if they have been shuffled around or adjusted.

For example, place pens exactly one inch away from the edge of your desk or mouse pad. This is a way of making it easy to spot if someone has played with your mouse or gone through your desk, as this movement will likely shift the pen from its precise placement.

A Perishable Skill

If not practiced, situational awareness is a perishable skill. Therefore, it may be helpful to play awareness games with yourself or your family and friends. One common method of doing this while out and about is to play the “License Plate Game”. This is a game that teaches you to not only look for vehicles but also pay attention to the small details about them as well. Growing up, my father would ask us to play this game by noticing the numerics on out-of-state plates on vehicles around us while driving down the road. He made the game more complex by asking us also to be able to recite the color, make, and model of the vehicle so that he knew we were truly actively participating in our own situational awareness.

The trick to making these games effective is that they require us not to just observe our environment but actively pay attention to the details in it. Games like this can make increasing your family’s situational awareness fun while also training them to actively take in the world unfolding around them.

Different From Paranoia

Finally, it is important to remember that a healthy curiosity and situational awareness are different from paranoia. It isn’t healthy or realistic to be in the mindset that everyone is out to harm us. Situational awareness is different from paranoia because it takes a down to earth approach to perceiving the world around. We practice this so that we can put ourselves in the best possible position of advantage if a threat to our safety should materialize.

In summary, it takes practice to be truly situationally aware. By engaging in these activities we can give ourselves the best possible edge during uncertain times.

  • Sources: Becker, G, (1997), The Gift Of Fear Survival Signals That Protect Us From Violence. Dell Publishing.
  • CBS,2015, Boston Bombing Jurors See Video of Tsarnaves Before Blast. website

SurvivalBlog Writing Contest

This has been another entry for Round 75 of the SurvivalBlog non-fiction writing contest. The nearly $11,000 worth of prizes for this round include:

First Prize:

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Round 75 ends on March 31st, so get busy writing and e-mail us your entry. Remember that there is a 1,500-word minimum, and that articles on practical “how to” skills for survival have an advantage in the judging.




32 Comments

  1. Situational awareness saved my behind once recently. I pulled in at a drive-up fast food restaurant, and started looking at the menu (outside my driver window). Meanwhile I saw two sketchy looking guys walking into the parking area behind me from the left. I paid attention to them as they disappeared behind my car, and only one came out on the other side. He was standing still, looking at my car. I was suspicious so instead of opening my window to push the button and order, I looked around. The “missing” guy was pressed up between the order screen and my car where I would never have seen him if I hadn’t been deliberately looking. He was in a prime position to mug me, grab my wallet, or stab me the second I rolled down my window. I threw my car into reverse and got out of there fast. Now I carry a healthy snack so that I don’t have to go to a fast food place at all. Also, I pay attention when I park anywhere.

  2. Good reminders here.
    My Wife and I use large windows as mirrors to monitor the space behind us when walking through the town.
    We are also hyper alert when visiting new places. Do not get caught up in a crowd or demonstration. Make purposeful decisions to avoid these areas. If it is not possible to do so, stay alive and alert while paying attention to exit strategies as recommended by the author.

    One thing that amazes us is how many sheeple walk around with their heads buried in their cell phone. I have yet to find a need to search the web or make a call while walking or driving.
    Tech is a double edged sword and can cause people to lose situational awareness.

  3. 1) In addition to situational awareness, one idea Army manuals have is to also develop immediate action drills — fast responses to threats that are executed at once. Because realizing you are in the middle of an ambush is not the best time to convene your group for a discussion of tactical planning.

    a) For example, if the forward scout signals a possible threat, every one halts/falls flat or finds cover. No one calls out “what’s wrong?”

    b) In an ambush –which should not happen — the squad in the ambush fires back hard, the other squad flanks the ambushers and attacks from the side. On signal everyone breaks contact with the attackers, flees and reassembles at the rally point. And everyone knows where the most recently designated rally point is, right?

    2) An interesting illustration of combining situational awareness with on-the-fly tactical planning/immediate responses/adaption to a shifting environment was the movie “Long Kiss Goodnight”. Geena Davis is a goofy schoolteacher who in reality is an assassin with amnesia caused by a head injury. Unknown to her she is being hunted by an enemy group. It is hilarious to see tough guy /private detective Samuel Jackson gape in astonishment as schoolteacher Geena reflexively turns into a sudden killing machine when threatened.

    For example:

    ((Note: A minute earlier, before this portion starts, Geena Davis had noticed a sign pointing to a pond in the back of the train station as she went into the front door.)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6FWlT9eGv5c

    3) “Long Kiss Goodnight” was made in 1996 and is also noteworthy for having a CIA executive planning a major terrorist attack here in order to get a bigger budget — and smirking about how he got a passport for the terrorists who attacked the World Trade Center in 1993.

    That portion of the movie sometimes appear on Youtube with Arabic comments in subtitles.

  4. Ask yourself, what do I see, what do I hear, what do I smell, followed by, what don’t I see, what don’t I hear, what don’t I smell. These six actions when habit greatly increase situational awareness. PR

  5. When I worked in a big city I would leave enough space in front of my car to be able to maneuver out of line to move to another lane or even over the median strip to escape a bad situation. One place where I worked had two left turn lanes into the office campus. One day a terrorist walked down the middle of the two lanes shooting drivers of the cars stuck in the lanes. He killed 7 people and wounded more. I was already at work because I choose to work early hours, but that incident taught me not to get stuck where I couldn’t move.

    1. Always a good idea to leave enough space in front of your car when stopped in traffic to maneuver out of the way. It’s saved me getting into an accident twice so far. Whenever you stop in traffic look in the rear view mirror to see what’s coming up behind you. It may be a distracted driver who isn’t gong to stop in time.

    2. Agreed. When you stop behind a car, you should have a clear view of the top half of his rear tires, but no more. That gives you enough room to easily maneuver around him should you need to. I make this a habit. Also, while it may seem obvious it is often overlooked, lock your doors. Ladies especially. Carjackings really do happen.

  6. Situational awareness is key at all times. Unfortunately, people get distracted because they are having a good time and are not watching their surroundings, which can be very bad in some cases.
    I have practiced situational awareness since I learned to drive, keeping an eye on what is going on all around me as best I can. It helps when I am not driving too.
    The problem is as mentioned in the article and comments, is that people today are being constantly distracted by something, and it is difficult not to be distracted.
    I suppose the best way forward is for us all to identify as many distractions as possible that we encounter every day, and to try and start eliminating them as best as possible. For those distractions you can’t eliminate, like cell phone communications because of family responsibilities, then be as aware as you can where you are and how you are situated while responding to a call or text.
    That way you don’t end up standing in the middle of an aisle or doorway while responding blocking others, or sitting in traffic with people honking at you because you have not noticed that traffic is moving again.
    Try to save all but critical communications for when you have time to actually respond within an environment conducive to doing so.

  7. A note about to spot someone who is trouble and about to do you harm. One thing is to watch how they walk. Walking with too much calance (I guess that’s the word) with no care at all. Also when talking to you they will if they are right handed touch their left hand on their chin. Doing so will create with their arm a block if you swing back at them. Next they will slightly crouch turn to the right like the are going to leave then surprise you with a sucker punch. A main defensive tactic is keep your distance or a object between you and them like a tree sign post etc because especially if your older and slow distance is your friend. The best defense against being hit is don’t be there when the hit arrives grasshopper. So watch some surveillance videos on u tube and pause them a lot and see what they do.

    1. I never let a stranger get within two arms lengths of me. Particularly when they single me out and approach me as if to ask for directions or something along those lines. Never get caught unawares.

  8. Have to say women grow up with situational awareness in them, that is we all know not to wait at the bus stop where there’s no streetlight and big heavy bushes, we all walk down a block to the next stop where its safer, we all know to back away from a strange car that pulls over by us when we are walking down the street, we all know to lock ALL the car doors the minute our butt hits the seat, and we all know to go INSIDE the bank and go up to the teller window instead of standing outside to use the ATM. If a possibly threatening stranger gets within arms length of you you can put up your hand and yell “thats close enough!” or in an emergency in a grocery store parking lot someone tried to put their hands on my cart and I yelled loudly MISTER YOUR CAR’S ON FIRE!! to get other people to look my way and notice, they want a compliant victim and will not usually pick you if they think you will fight back.

  9. 1 Peter 5:8 King James Version (KJV)

    8 Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour:

  10. A lifetime ago I was in the Watts area of LA and took the wrong off ramp from the interstate. Knew it immediately. The car in front of me was stopped at a stop sign. I stopped way short of it, as both back doors opened up and legs were coming out, I threw it in reverse as I had one eye in the rear view and it was clear. Obvious situation adverted by caution and awareness. The two immediately got back in their car and drove on. I did too….

  11. women grow up with situational awareness in them ?…. sorry , no they don’t !,MOST women today are walking targets ! targets for mugging , rape, murder , etc , etc , far too many young men are the same way…

    speaking of tactics to use, some examples, …

    1. Trains, I always am the last out of the doors, and last exiting the platform /steeps/ escalator, you make sure no one is behind you and are watching all in front exit.

    2. Car parking: Always park rear to wall/ kerb ( shopping centers ) you DO do that don’t you ?.

    3. Buses, sit if possible in seats along a wall side if possible ( easy to observe in 3 directions.

    4. Your pets, we all know about dogs, but cats also give away tell tales of intruders, ie body language, eye’s, tail.

    5. make sure you have a working dome light in your car, that either turns on when you hit that anti-theft alarm button while walking to your car after work AND you carry that tact flashlight with you don’t you ? ( to see IN your car if need be ).

    A illustration, my wife was walking to the local gas station a few months ago, with her pocketbook in her hand, 7.30 am, sunlight, cars around, almost no people walking, what could go wrong ?, a bag snatcher, walked behind her, grabbed her pocketbook and ran away, lucky for her a tradesman working nearby saw what happened, chased down the guy, and got her personal stuff back, she was all shaky and now has a fear of it happening again, she was not paying attention to her surroundings !. Too many people walk around like my wife, not paying attention, I am now retraining her to be safe but aware !.

    There are dozens more, start thinking and use your brain ! be alert but no paranoid as the author say’s.

  12. Sometimes the harm from lack of awareness isn’t even intended. I was in a hurry on the train & looking straight ahead so I didn’t notice a passenger slightly turned with a foot in the aisle (he was talking with someone across the aisle). As a result, I have 2 damaged knees, one I’m still getting medical help for. And I can blame only myself.

    I’m much more careful now.

  13. I knew better but I did it anyway. While heading back home on a four day motorcycle run (by myself) I came riding in to a small Arkansas town that was mostly boarded up and in a horrible state of neglect. As I headed down M.L King street I found that the highway signs were missing and I needed some directions and about that time I saw an African American gentleman leaning up against the outside of a convenience store wall so I foolishly pulled in to ask for directions. WRONG! When I pulled my motorcycle to a stop in the parking lot (about fifteen feet from him) he stepped up to me and smiled with a mouth full of silver and said “You need directions.” My next thought was “How does he know this unless he was the one who took down the highway signs?” Then his buddy showed up from nowhere and stepped up to me so close that he was up against my left leg and in front of my saddle bag. As he stared me in the eye the first guy was looking at him as if to say “Are you going to punch him now or wait all day?” I could tell he was trying to figure out how to get in a good punch but was having trouble figuring it out because my left hand was still on my clutch lever and I had on a helmet and that was limiting his ability to get in a forceful swing. I made a split second decision that saved me. I throttled my bike and dumped the clutch and instantly lurched forward probably hitting the second guy with my saddle bag and then shot across the parking lot and out into the street. If a car would have been coming down the street at that time I would have had an impact with him but I had a clear shot so I just took off down the road as my heart was trying to beat regularly again. I had just escaped a mugging. If I had been knocked off of my bike I would have come back up with my 38 and probably would have had to kill them both. The lessons I learned is to keep on moving through a town like that even if your going the wrong way and also to listen to that little voice that says DANGER.

    1. NEVER blunder onto a street that has been renamed for Martin Luther King, or into housing areas with the names “Pride” “Heritage” “Dignity” or “Community”.

      Leopards and spots and all that…..

  14. Here’s another I knew better but did it anyway. Sitting in the aisle seat of a moving city bus, in the back directly across from the the back exit, with my napsack out of hand loosely balanced on my knee, while I read a folded up newspaper. A perfect set up for snatch and run.
    So here’s where instincts took over. In spite of being absorbed in my newspaper and seemingly oblivious to my surroundings, I suddenly became very alert and physically uncomfortable. I casually looked to my side and back and instantly became alarmed, without of course showing it. Because there stood a very anxious young man, tense, sweating, and repeatedly glancing quickly at my unsecured napsack! Yikes. We were within a block of the next stop and I knew exactly what was about to go down.
    But I was concerned about how wild this kid was looking. Like he was at a point of no return on his intended theft. So I casually yawned and quickly slipped the napsack through my arms and onto my back. Then I casually moved over to the aisle seat. Didn’t dare get up fearing he would knock me over. I could see in my glances that it still took this guy the length of the full block for him to de-escalate.
    Which brought to mind for me never ever create temptation. Because young men can be very impulsive and have great difficulty stepping down, even when the temptation disappears.
    I have always trusted my physical instincts. It’s one of my gifts from God. But now I work also, to use my head a little more. For those wishing to develop their instincts working with or training dogs can be useful.

  15. Thanks for the article, I enjoy these.

    Knowing what is normal for an environment is absolutely critical. Normal for that specific environment. Human behavior in NYC is very different from a rural town. Behavior in Starbucks is different from behavior in a pre-game football parking lot. When you know what the baseline is, it’s easier to see the outliers.

    The difficulty is spotting someone that is knowledgeable and attempting to blend in.

  16. Great article! As the author points out, situational awareness is more than just paying attention to your surroundings. It also means playing the “what if” game. What if that car ahead of me stops short and people start to get out and come at me? What if the guy in front of me at the convenience store suddenly pulls out a Glock in a robbery attempt? What if this stranger walking my way freaks out and starts stabbing people? Playing the what if game prepares the mind, body, and muscle memory to be prepared for “what if”. Even if the answer to what if means running away. Thanks to the author and to all the great commentators! GREAT INFO!

  17. If something unusual happens on a bus or train call their police immediately when you are sure you are safe.
    Once a person on a wheel chair came onto a bus at a stop that could be used to cause a big problem because it would be difficult to locate and to explain the location.
    The person did not look handicapped as seeing a lot of people in Para transit just stood out to me. The person in addition to holding up the bus for 3 minutes and abruptly leaving for no reason which seemed strange for someone waiting to be taken somewhere when they usually travel less often.
    When he left, the bus would not start.
    The driver tried to force the ramp up and down and close the door as to no avail the bus did not start. We sat there stuck for 8 minutes more, as he called in.
    I moved when it looked hopeless to the driver; to look at the ramp and discovered as I suspected that a small pebble had been dropped between the ramp and the normal floor and a micro- switch (I had guessed after working in embedded software ) had triggered to keep the bus from starting thinking the door was not completely closed and unsafe for the passengers.
    I picked up the pebble and asked the driver to try again. The door closed the bus started and we moved on. I then reported to the transporting police what happened after leaving the bus. I never saw that person in the wheel chair before that time or since. I just thought it could had been the start of something big if the bus did not start moving ASAP. I was afraid to ride the bus for several days after that although I was assured the report would be taken seriously. Since nothing happened I feel the police and the transportation people did a great job !

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