Today I want to take a few minutes to talk about basic situational awareness. Situational awareness has a lot of different meanings and interpretations depending on what situation you are in and what you need to be aware of. A law enforcement professional will have a different situational awareness need than personal security. They both may be looking for similar red flags, but they will react differently to them. When we talk about an everyday person who wouldn’t expect to encounter the hostility or scenarios of most armed professionals, we need to look at situational awareness in 2 pieces, environment and events. This is my interpretation from experience of what people should know, it’s not what you will learn when you go to a class focused on tactical situational awareness. This is more usable for everyone and can be taught at any level.
The environment is exactly what it sounds like, it is the location you are in and the surrounding areas. When we talk about situational awareness of your environment, we are really talking about the conditions you see, conditions you can anticipate, and how you will respond. For instance, when you enter a restaurant, do you recognize how many emergency exits there are? It seems simple but in the event of a fire, care driving through the front door, or an active shooter, how will you escape? Taking time to catalog exits as you enter an unfamiliar area is a basic building block of situational awareness. A great routine to get yourself into when going to a restaurant is to immediately excuse yourself to the restroom once your seated. This gives you an easy way to survey the area and identify less visible exits like one towards the back of a building, or the ones typically found in the kitchen. On the way back to your seat you can get another glimpse of the area from another angle which can show you the direction of possible attackers.
Another aspect of environment is how you move through an area or position yourself. In the idea of a restaurant or any public place you will always hear people say never sit with your back to a door. That’s a great practice, but unrealistic. I would say position yourself with the best vantage point to give yourself options. You may find you have your back to a door, but that door is to the kitchen where there is a lesser likelihood to be attacked from the kitchen than the front door or patios. As you move through areas you should be looking at not only exits and vantage points, but bottlenecks. Areas that people could pile up making escape less viable. Humans are creatures of habit so they will typically exit using the same door they came in, even when there are several options. Identify your best route and exit to avoid crowds.
Once you have defined your route, identified your exits, and picked a position that best gives you line of sight to possible incidents, you can relax a little. Now you can focus on identifying potential threats. I’m not suggesting you are looking at every person in the room and doing a risk assessment on them. I am talking about determine how you would recognize the first signs of trouble. It could be smelling something burning and smoke from the kitchen, it could be someone near the bar getting louder and belligerent, or the sound of the first round fired from a gun. That is the difficult one because our brains are trained to identify the safety of a situation based on experience, and most of us will not have heard what a gunshot sounds like in a confined area, without hearing protection. Our brains will try and calm us by making us thing initially it was a shattered glass from the rowdy guy at the bar, or fireworks nearby, or a car backfiring. Our brain will lie to us to prevent us from panicking. Most people will freeze at first because their brain lied to them and they are arguing internally between what their brain is telling them is safe and what their eyes are seeing as danger. These precious seconds are where you need to decide…Run, Hide, Fortify, or Fight.
I can’t make the decision to act for you. You need to have the situational awareness to be looking for these threats, your exits, and how you would respond. The more often you practice your situational awareness, defining exits, bottlenecks, and planning your actions the easier it gets. You will learn to do it instinctively, which is what you want. When shit hits the fan, you want your actions to be muscle memory, you don’t want to waste time thinking of what to do next. Training is key, “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training”, Archilochus.