Situational Awareness Part 1

One of these things doesn’t belong

By Jonathan McKee, President/CEO

of Stonewall Protection Group LLC.

Years ago, when I was a relatively new police officer, I was asked to speak at a community meeting at a local apartment complex. This particular complex was relatively nice but bordered by a very low-income neighborhood and there had recently been a rash of crime in the area. During the meeting, a lady raised her hand and told me that she had a question. She demanded to know what the apartment management was doing in order to keep her and the other residents safe. She went on to tell a story about how she had recently been robbed at gun point in the parking lot while unloading groceries from her vehicle. She went on to describe how she observed two males crawl under the fence of the apartment complex and begin walking towards her from the far opposite end of the parking lot. She said that the males were wearing ski masks and as they got closer, she saw that one of them had what she thought might be a gun. She said that at first, she thought it was just kids playing and then maybe it was a toy gun and then that she didn’t want to make assumptions because she didn’t want to “profile” based on the color of their skin. She stayed there in the parking lot by her vehicle and waited until the two males approached her and robbed her at gun-point.

Now, not everyone has or ever will be in a situation quite as dramatic as this lady but each of us has been in a situation where we have had that feeling that something just isn’t right here. What is that feeling and how should you respond to it? Is it intuition? A gut feeling? Author Gavin de Becker refers to it as our “Gift of Fear.” In his book, The Gift of Fear, he writes:

“We evaluate people all the time, quite attentively, but they only get our conscious attention when there is a reason. We see it all, but we edit out most of it. Thus, when something does call out to us, we ought to pay attention. For many people, that is a muscle they don’t exercise”.

This “gift”, as de Becker appropriately refers to it, is what will keep you safe when you learn to recognize it for what it is and train yourself how to respond accordingly with a little pre-planning. In police training, we often hear about a process called the OODA Loop. The OODA Loop is the process that our brain has to go through in order to react to something. First, we must Observe what it is that we are seeing. Secondly, we must Orient ourselves to what it is that we are seeing. That is to say that we must compare it to our past experiences and ask ourselves “have I seen this before?” Then we must Decide on a course of action. Only then can we Act on what we are experiencing. If something interferes with any stage of this loop, then we find a delay or the complete inability to ever make it to the action phase and we freeze.

Once we fully understand how and why this process is occurring, then we can begin to apply it to our every day lives and we can become AWARE and not fearful. If we can train ourselves to speed up our OODA Loop then we can respond faster and avoid or prevent a potentially violent situation. So how do we do this?

It begins with situational awareness which is the Observe and Orient stages of the OODA Loop rolled into one. Get in the habit of taking in “the big picture” wherever you are. Practice this by pausing and looking around when you first park your car and before you take the key out of the ignition or when you first enter a building. As you’re taking in everything that you see, ask yourself “What is normal for where I am?” Sesame Street certainly had no idea that when they sang “One of these things is not like the others, one of these things doesn’t belong” that they were in fact laying out the foundation of situational awareness. Unless you are visiting a place completely foreign to you, you should be able to identify what is normal for the environment that you are in and spot what doesn’t belong. Once you have processed how things “should be”, consciously search for any deviation by asking yourself the following questions:

How are individuals acting?

What is the collective mood of the environment?

What was here when I got here?

What has changed since I got here?

What changes along with my actions?

If the answer to any of these questions deviates from the norm for your environment then PAY ATTENTION. That’s the little voice in your head or the “gift of fear”, it’s the AWARENESS that something is out of place and thus potentially dangerous. Your brain is doing this automatically but by developing the habit of consciously seeking out what doesn’t belong through the continuous asking of these questions, then we have sped up the process of observing and orienting and we can move on to decision making where we will choose a course of action.

The only way to speed up decision making is with pre-planning. Begin developing a habit of entertaining “What if?” scenarios. “What if I’m sitting in church and someone walks in with a gun?” “What if I’m out walking with my daughter and I believe that a car is following us?” Decide on a course of action in advance for every scenario that you can think of prior to entering into that environment. Start fine-tuning your plan immediately upon arrival during the observation stage. Ask yourself “Where are the exits or escape routes?” “Where is the nearest concealment or cover?” “What is the terrain and lighting?”

You can practice these skills any time you leave the house or even by watching Youtube videos of violent encounters (active shooters, suicide bombers, assaults) and see if you can identify what stood out from the norm prior to the attack.

The lady at the meeting who was robbed was perpetually stuck in the Decision phase of the OODA Loop because she had not given prior thought to the fact that she could fall victim to an armed robbery in her apartment complex and certainly didn’t have a pre-planned course of action in place. Her mind tried to tell her “I’ve never seen people walking through this parking lot in ski masks with a gun before. This isn’t normal!” But the lack of awareness of what her brain was trying to tell her, along with the lack of planning, caused her to attempt to rationalize away her fear, freeze and ultimately fall victim to a violent crime.

Learn what’s normal for your environment, consciously look for deviations to that norm, have a plan in place and TAKE ACTION. Never doubt your plan. It’s better to trust your observations and walk away from a situation that wasn’t dangerous than to ignore them and stick around and become a victim.