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The one with situational awareness [ARTICLE]

In my opinion situational awareness is one of the more abstract concepts of personal security. "Keep you head on a swivel" is probably the most common summation, and it's about as useful as "Careful, the water's wet!" Yup...noted. I think many approach the topic like Ross from Friends. There's an episode where Phoebe and Rachel take a self defense class and Ross comments on how unprepared they are because they didn't take years of "karate" and gain Unagi, something Ross describes as "total awareness". He boasts about how conscious he is of his surroundings at all times, and I feel many security minded people have a similar belief. You have to give everything that has even the most remote chance of being danger conscious attention, sit with your back to the wall in a restaurant, look for the hands of everyone between the ages of 3 to 99+, and dedicate every waking moment if you're to be truly ready to defend yourself. But is that really practical?


Throughout the episode Ross shouts "DANGER!" to either startle his friends and shame them for not noticing him, or to acknowledge a change in his environment that is generally innocuous. You've likely seen someone very similar to this, however probably less comically overt. He's constantly searching around him, looking for...ninja assassins maybe? Everything he pauses on and gives bandwidth to is one more assessment cycle that he'll have to run through in his day, which become exhausting, and it's taking bandwidth away from picking up on something that could actually pose a threat. There may be things in our day to day life that could pose a threat to our well being. That's why we put on our seat belt, safety glasses, gloves, a med kit, a gun, etc. But at the same time not everything or everyone in our environment is a potential threat to us, especially a malicious threat. 


Take a look at commuting through traffic. You might be in bumper to bumper traffic, but do all of the vehicles in your line of sight need conscious attention? I would say not. Unless it has been launched toward you in some sort of Michael Bay explosion, the Prius two lanes over and 5 cars back probably isn't much concern to you. However, the '89 Caravan that's hurtling its way across your path of travel to try to get into the fast lane going 45 might require some reaction. It's not very different outside of your car. The mom in Target trying to corral her 3 kids doesn't need to be considered, save to avoid stepping on the rambunctious toddler. The guy that quick peaked you from around the corner on your way back from your evening date probably deserves more attention however. Things that break the baseline of your environment are where our attention needs to be directed.

Patrick Van Horne and Jason Riley have an exceptional book titled "Left of Bang". The book is based on the curriculum they created for the Marine Corps' Combat Hunter program. It's not an exceptionally heavy read (it is, after all, meant for Marines), but it's a terrific basic introduction to situational awareness as a concept. A central piece that I picked up from that book when I first read it as a boot Marine, fresh to the fleet, was the idea of baselines. Humans operate inside of what is "normal". We have our everyday habits that are executed more or less along the exact same time line over and over again inside a community that likely shares a similar pattern. This is the input that can lead to something known as normalcy bias. Basically, as something in our environment strays further and further from our baseline people will work harder and harder mentally to believe that things will continue as normal because every other day has fit the baseline of "normal". You can see this in a lot of CCTV footage from different catastrophes, from active shooters, severe weather, muggings, etc. A specific recent example to look at is the church shooting in White Settlement, TX. Look at the crowd for all the people that may have ducked in response to the noise but didn't react beyond that for the duration of the event. I would be willing to bet that most of those people failed to actually process what was going on. 


So to the solutions. The first is adjusting how we interface with our environment. Varg Freeborn has discussed the theory of broad band situational awareness. Maybe to some it would seem to be something along the lines of "the force", but if you stop to consider it, most places you would go you already have a baseline for what is normal, even if it's a new venue for you. If I go to a new family restaurant, I have a baseline for what the environment in a family restaurant is. If it's a new bar, a new grocery store, a new gas station, you already have experience in those places that can be transplanted to the new local. So when you step into that environment there isn't necessarily a need to stop and dress down all or the other patrons in there like you're some galactic bounty hunter after a quarry. As you're occupying that space you can take a subconscious pulse of the place, and don't necessarily need to be sitting staring at the door. Above that you can stop and consider the space as you enter it.


Second, there is no shame in listening to the signals that your body sends you. An adrenaline dump is not a regular occurrence for most. If something starts to make the hair on your neck stand up, if you stop and consider something that breaks your baseline, if someone just makes you uncomfortable, leave. Now, I'm over simplifying it some, I understand that there's some predisposition to not risk offending the people around us. But if someone in the elevator is setting off alarm bells and you don't want to board with them, don't. Chuck Haggard brings this up in the second part of the video I linked with Active Self Protection, watch the video here. Your safety is far more valuable than you risking insulting some dude you'll never see again. 


The final part that I would add for now is the one that turns into homework and I think takes the most effort. Learn what an actual bad actor starts to look like and how they might manifest themselves in the environment around you. A very easy source for this is to go the the Active Self Protection YouTube page and to start watching all of the content that John puts out breaking down encounters with violence that happen in a public space. It's like seeing creatures around you in the wild. If you have never hunted before it can seem like the experienced hunter has super human vision, picking up on animals you had no idea were there. But as you begin to learn how those creatures move through their environment you can more easily and quickly start to see them. This is no different with violent offenders in our day to day environments. 


If you are newer to the self reliant life style all of this can seem very overwhelming. It can seem that there is an astronomical amount of information to process all of a sudden in your everyday life. But don't stress too much about it, as you learn more about how to process that data the less overwhelming it will become. Tapping into sources like Left of Bang, Violence of Mind, and ShivWorks, just to name a few, can teach you how to orient to this new data and properly intake it. Ultimately I believe that fear will be your biggest obstacle. It's easy to be scared into inaction. Acknowledge that the fear is there and then learn how to harness and overcome it. This might be an unpopular opinion, but those that use bravado to overcome their misgivings have hubris tied to their decisions in preparedness. Hubris will fail you, but clinically looking at what is causing your fear will help you create the best tools to keep you and the people around you safer. We can learn nothing from what we shy away from or write off, but if we orient to it we can learn from it and grow. 


At the end of the episode, after being counter ambushed and humiliated, Ross goes to a women's self defense instructor to try to learn how an attacker would better proceed with his ill intended actions. While meant for the sake of comedy, this I think the best lesson that can be pulled from this episode. How best to learn how to be safe than to study those that would violate our safety. If you were playing checkers but already knew all of the moves that your opponent was likely to make wouldn't it be much easier to beat him? I think one of the most critical components to personal safety is not only to study the reaction, but to study the playbook that we may need to react against. 

 If you are skimming like I do through articles sometimes; action beats reaction, know who actually requires your attention, don't ignore your gut. This topic has been discussed in many different forums for, probably, centuries. I'm sure I'm wrong and eventually enough people will read this that I will get lectured on why I'm wrong. That's fine, there's a good chance that down the road I will come back and edit this article because my opinion on something has changed or I have learned something new or better that I can put in this article to try to help the readers out. 


Awareness, and personal safety in general, is a processes, it's a journey. We can't just take a class or read a book and say "I am totally prepared for whatever I may encounter for the rest of my life". It's like going to the gym or learning to play an instrument. I played piano for around 10 years growing up. I didn't start out playing Grieg, and when I quit I still couldn't just sit down and play Bach. It took time and practice to succeed. Don't create a destination in your mind that is daunting and difficult to achieve. Embrace the process and allow the journey to be the destination. 


Final note, here is the playlist with the full lecture that Chuck gave over on the Active Self Protection Extra page.