Freehold Friday: Situational Awareness

Howdy muchachos!

Welcome back for another edition of Freehold Friday.

The past several weeks, I’ve been posting information on preparedness and such topics as Going Gray, why be prepared, and the different labels that people justifiably or unjustifiably apply to those who are prepared and take personal responsibility for their own safety and security.

Along those lines, today I thought I’d talk about something that has popped up a lot recently as more and more reports of crime both here and abroad tend to surface in the news. Situational Awareness.

This is one aspect of being prepared that deals specifically with personal safety and security. Situational awareness can get you out of more tight spots than just about anything else out there, including a gun. With situational awareness—or a heightened sense of what’s going on around you—you can avoid trouble itself and not even have to pull your gun if you’re carrying.

I guess I should start my post what situational awareness is. It’s a fancy tactical like term simply means being aware of your surroundings. It does not mean you’re paranoid. It does not mean you constantly suspect the worst of every human being. It does not mean you walk around town brandishing a shotgun and an M4 carbine.

Situational awareness is a skill that can be used in everyday life—in fact I do all the time. I used it at the grocery store this morning to avoid an accident. Let me explain.

I was walking down the aisle, searching for the rice and chili mix I know my family likes. My particular supermarket carries them both at the end of one aisle that’s right at the corner of the store where people naturally flow from the produce department into the deli before they are shunted down the backside the store toward dairy. I’ve seen people ram carts together at this spot more than once. Since people are moving at a fast walk at best, the damage is obviously minor—we’re not talking about a tractor-trailer at highway speeds here, muchachos.

However, when I go shopping I typically have my 2-year-old with me, so I’m naturally on high alert lest he does some damage to the store or something happens to him. Having an old lady blindside me going around the corner could potentially harm a child. If nothing else, he likes to wrap his little fingers on the edge of the cart and pretend it’s an actual car. Where he keeps his hands is right where the front of another cart would smash into my card should I get hit.

So how did I avoid an accident today using the preparedness skill of situational awareness?

Observe your surroundings.

The 1st step in becoming situationally aware, is to observe your surroundings. You can’t react to anything if you don’t know what’s going on. As I approached the corner, I slowed down. Typically the cart I pick is the one that makes the most noise and has squeaky wheels. I’m talkin’ this thing is so loud I can hardly hear myself think, let alone hear someone else approaching in the other aisle.

So out of habit, I slow down—as most people do—when I approached the corner. I pause for a second, listening to see if I could hear someone walking around the other side. I did not, and so concluded it was safe for me to make my turn and head into the aisle. However, because I don’t rely on only one sense when it comes to the safety of my children, I also glanced down at the floor and noticed a shadow.

The shadow was connected to a little old lady who was paying absolutely no attention where she was going. She was moving slow enough that I didn’t hear her footsteps or the shopping cart on the other side of the aisle, but she was back-lit by one of the large lights hanging from ceiling and her shadow was cast directly into my path. I saw the movement, stopped my cart just in time, and instead of jarring my son as our carts collided, I was able to smile as she shuffled past—oblivious that someone was even standing there.

Granted, a shopping cart collision is not exactly what you’re expecting from this blog, but the point remains—situational awareness can be applied to just about every situation life.

Imagine you’re at the gas station. It’s a cold, wet night, and you just want to get enough gas to get home. It’s been a long day at work and you’re tired. The average person would think nothing of stepping outside and pumping the gas. If you are in a nice neighborhood, you might hum and idly tap the roof of your car along to the music being pumped out of the speakers near the pumps. You might have no care in the world other than what you’re going to reheat when you get home for a late dinner.

If however, you’re in a large inner-city or in a certain part of town you know to be on the rougher side of the law, you would naturally be more alert. Without knowing it, you’re taking stock of your surroundings and looking for threats. Whether you do it or not intentionally, that’s the way your mind is wired.

Some people allow themselves to be so wrapped up in their own thoughts or concerns that they don’t pay attention to what’s going on around them…on purpose. Case in point—walk down the street of any major city and see how many people are looking down at their cell phones instead of where they’re going.

But you’re someone who is prepared. Someone who practices situational awareness is very hard to surprise. You could be standing at the gas pump drumming your fingers on top of your car, yet your ears are still attuned to any noise that’s out of the ordinary. At the gas station, you expect to hear crappy music blared over loudspeakers. You expect to hear people talking on their cell phones—despite the big signs that say shut off all electronic devices and engines. Hell, you even expect to see the occasional fool who sits there with his engine running while pumping gas.

What you* don’t* expect is the shuffling feet of the hooligan up to no good who approaches the gas station in the dark of night. Your ears can hear these noises, but your mind must be able to sort them out and filter them to be able to act on the information your body is providing you. Don’t just rely on your hearing, though. Take a glance at the windows of your car while you’re pumping your gas. You may have your back facing whoever is sneaking up behind you, but if you look at the reflection in the mirror or the window, you might give yourself a few seconds notice that there is someone approaching you.

Granted, the person who’s approaching you might just be at the other bay and he or she might just be stepping up to grab the little squeegee to clean their window.

They might also be a criminal up to no good.

The point is, the person who is situationally aware will be able to have the information they need to make the best decision on how to react at any given moment. Do they ignore the person who is approaching them from behind? Do they recognize that the figure behind them as a middle-aged woman just moving past the adjoining pump to put gas in her car? Do they recognize the hooded figure of the young teenager with pants hanging down around his ankles is not exactly someone you want to have your back turned to at night?

It all depends on the…wait for it…situation!

Whatever you decide the person is—friend or foe—you now have an advantage. They are—if they’re up to no good—counting on you being oblivious until the moment they strike. You have gained a few seconds’ advantage. Now it’s up to you to act. Turn and face them or run for help or scream, the choice is up to you—but at least you have a choice, because you were paying attention.

If you are not aware, you are at the mercy of those who may wish you harm.

Placing ourselves at the mercy of someone else is not one of the basic tenets of being prepared. Personal responsibility means not only taking responsibility for your actions and safety, but for protecting yourself from the actions of others.

To be situationally aware, you need to trust all of your senses. Use your ears to listen for footsteps were they shouldn’t be—sometimes silence itself is more telling. For instance, when you’re taking a stroll through the park or the woods and suddenly you realize you don’t hear any birds chirping or squirrels parking. Many animals, especially those that are considered prey for others, will go silent when something unusual or dangerous approaches their location. That in itself is a huge tell and now you can be a little more prepared for danger.

Use your eyes to see when something is amiss, whether it be a shadow on the floor moving toward your around the aisle in a grocery store, or the reflection of somebody approaching you from behind at the gas station. Your eyes provide some of the most valuable information possible to make decisions in any situation. Use them.

Touch is often overlooked but shouldn’t be. In many cases such as when there’s smoke in a house, your sense of touch should be something utilized before exiting any room. Safety experts and firefighters always talk about testing the doorknob or door with your hand before grabbing it. If you can feel heat radiating from the metal doorknob or through the wooden door, that’s a pretty good indication there’s a fire right of the other side of that door and opening it will be a very bad decision.

Hearing is right up there with vision. As just mentioned, the sudden appearance of dead silence is unnerving for reason. Your body is used to hearing sounds. When you hear nothing, that tingling you feel between your shoulder blades or that uneasiness in your stomach is your body telling you, “Hey, wake the hell up! Something bad is about to go down.”

When you use all your senses in concert, it provides you a wealth of information in any given circumstance to make every decision that you need.

How many times have we heard stories on the news were someone who is the victim of a crime reported to the police that the suspect ‘came out of nowhere’?

People don’t just come out of nowhere. The bad guy was waiting for you in the shadows, he was walking behind you, or he was approaching you from the other side of the car. You just didn’t notice him. You either had your head down because you were staring at a cell phone, you had your head up because you are talking on a cell phone, or your head was in the clouds because you were thinking about something—maybe talking on the cell phone—or some other myriad distractions that plague modern humans took your attention away from your immediate surroundings and left you vulnerable.

If there are two people walking down the street, one chatting away on their cell phone or occupied by some other distraction and the other confidently walking down the street secure in their surroundings, listening for anything out of the ordinary, looking for anything out of the ordinary and making sure to every now and then glance behind them or use reflective surfaces they pass to look behind them—who do you think is going to be seen as a better target for someone up to no good?

The average criminal is smart, despite what you may think about people who get caught. If they see a man walking down the street who looks in reasonable health and he’s walking with his back straight, his eyes open, and glancing to the left and right every now and then making sure there’s no one standing right behind him, the criminal’s likely going to look elsewhere.

Perhaps to the person right behind our situationally aware example, who’s staring down at his cell phone—hey, is that Billy?—is oblivious to the world around him. This person makes the perfect target. The criminal can walk up, smack him in the back of the head, take all his stuff, and be gone by the time the body hits the floor.

Situational Awareness can be applied to a larger scale.

Think of your neighborhood. What are the normal traffic patterns? Does everybody tend to leave at the same time in the morning for work or school? Do most people tend to return around the same time in the evening from work or school? Are there more cars in the street in front of your house or apartment on the weekends? On Friday a night? What about on Wednesday nights?

As I said before, criminals are not stupid. Most home invasions occur during the day when people are at work. Why would a criminal want to break into someone’s house in the middle of the night knowing there might be a shotgun waiting for him on the other side of that door? Why take the chance? Wait for people to leave for work and then break in.

There are TV shows devoted to this, where they hire criminals to break into people’s houses to test security systems. They show you the tricks of the criminal trade and the homeowners can then take appropriate countermeasures after the show is over. Things like that are great for people who want to be more situationally aware of their surroundings.

For example, burglars often times case the house they plan on ransacking. They’ll drive by your neighborhood in an attempt to see if anyone is home during the day. They might do it a couple days in a row just to check patterns. Maybe they’ll show up in a uniform and pretend to be roofing contractors (especially after a bad storm), just seeing if anyone is home on a weekday. How many times have you seen guys with clipboards walking through neighborhoods signing people up for lawn care? I’m not saying open the door with a shotgun, but don’t trust implicitly every single person who shows up at your doorstep 100%.

If you leave the curtains open, all the better for them to see exactly what you have in your living room and dining room—they might even see it from the street. They don’t even have to leave their car, how thoughtful of you. Likewise, at night if you’re sitting in your front room, watching TV on your big screen, sitting back in your expensive recliner with the curtains open, likely you’re not even going to notice the headlights that drive by your house.

Shoot, it’s nighttime, you can’t tell that’s the same car that drove by 5 minutes ago, can you? But the burglar out in the street who drove and got a good look inside your house can say, “Hey, he’s got a flat screen TV I might want.”

Under threats such as these, what’s the prepared person to do? How can you utilize situationally awareness to protect yourself?

Like I said, know the patterns of your neighborhood. If after 5 or 6 o’clock there aren’t that many cars in the neighborhood, then when a car does drive by, it should get your attention. As the sun goes down, pull the shades closed in your front rooms. Make it difficult for someone casually walking or driving down the street to see exactly what you have inside your house. (I will go in to more detail about this later, because we’re crossing over into another post for the future about home security.)

Suffice it to say if you take the time to actually be aware of your surroundings, or the surroundings of your home, or the surroundings of your state or even country depending on what potential threat you’re preparing for, you will make it that much more difficult for you to be considered a victim, prey, or a target.

Instead of things happening to you, you might just give yourself enough of a head start to avoid things happening altogether. In the case of a mugging, simply turning around to let the person following you know they’ve been made might be enough for them to change their mind about attacking. Knowing that a hurricane is coming and preparing in advance might give you enough time to beat the rush when the evacuation order is given, or have your house prepared for possible looting and rioting in the aftermath.

Situational awareness is something we can practice every day without drawing attention to ourselves–if you’re wearing sunglasses, constantly let your eyes roam. No one will know you’re looking if you don’t turn your head. But you’ll know what’s around you. And it doesn’t require a license, training courses, ammunition, or special training. All you have to do is look, listen, hear, smell, and touch.

Even if you only give yourself a few seconds notice before someone attacks you or tries to rob you, those few seconds could mean the difference between you getting a few bruises and scaring off the attacker, or being knocked unconscious and left completely at the mercy of someone who obviously didn’t care about your well-being to begin with.

Situational awareness. Learn it, love it, use it, do it. Another skill in the peppers tool chest.

You can apply it to driving. Situational awareness behind the wheel is technically called defensive driving. When coming to a stop light, a defensive driver typically leaves at least a car length between the car in front of them and their own vehicle. A good rule of thumb is watch the tires of the vehicle in front of you as you stop. At the point where you no longer see the the tires of the car in front of you touch the road, stop. The space that is now left between you and the car in front of you is enough for you to turn your wheel, hit the gas, and get out of harms way should something necessitate such a maneuver.

Perhaps it’s winter and there’s snow on the road, so you give yourself a slight gap between your car and the car in front of you. Then you notice in your rear view mirror–you are checking your mirrors even when stopped, right? –you see a car sliding out of control behind you. Because you left that gap in front, you now have enough time to get your car out of danger without smashing into the car in front of you, trapping you and letting you become the target.

You can use situational awareness at night at home, in bed. Get your mind out of the gutter, I’m not talking about that kind of awareness.

Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night, perhaps dreaming that you heard a loud noise, or perhaps hearing an ongoing noise from somewhere in your house? The second you noticed that noise doesn’t belong—the smashing of a window in an otherwise quiet house for instance—and you choose to take action, whether it be to call the cops, grab your gun and flashlight, or get out of bed with a baseball bat—you are putting situational awareness to use.

So what’s the 1st step? Situational awareness can be finely honed—just look at what the military and special forces do. These guys can walk into places and in a heartbeat know who’s where, what they’re doing, how to get themselves out of the building, what the target is, and what to do next. But they had years of training and that’s their job.

What is the average Joe to do? You can begin as simply as paying attention to what’s around you. Don’t ignore things.

Start with your vision. Try to take in as much of your surroundings at all times for fun. Make it a game—try to see behind you and figure out ways try to figure out ways to see behind you without letting the people back there know you’re watching them. The more you begin looking for reflective surfaces—say at the supermarket or at the gas station—the more you look for shadows that don’t belong, the more it will become second nature.

Once you feel comfortable you’re able to spot things that don’t belong in any given situation, try focusing on hearing things. Or try focusing on smelling things. What does the gas station typically smell like? Gas, diesel, oil. If you smell something acrid like smoke, or something vile like the stench of marijuana, you can immediately decide something isn’t right and move on to another gas station or at least raise your own level of awareness.

The point is, practice. Make a game out of it. The more you practice, the more you hone your ability to be aware of your surroundings. The more you are aware of your surroundings, the more prepared you are, and the less of a target you become. The less you’re a target, the better chances you have of surviving any given situation.

After all, that’s the point of being situationally aware, right?


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