On Situational Awareness

One of the things that is so chaotic about emergencies, including criminal acts like home invasions, riots, and other disasters like tornadoes, floods, power outages, or even a SHTF event, is that they are unpredictable. They often come out of nowhere and the situation is made worse by the fact that most people panic.

Okay so now we know it’s the element of surprise that catches many people off guard. Precious reaction time is lost as you try to get your bearings, comprehend what’s happening, and then decide how to react. The sooner you are alerted to possible danger; the more time you have to make decisions.

So what can you do? One of the best things to do is to train yourself to be alert even when relaxed. It’s possible to train yourself so you are always aware of what is normal and routine in any situation. Then when something out of the ordinary occurs, you will notice immediately and be prepared to react.

If you’ve seen the series of “Taken” movies with actor Liam Neeson, if you’re a familiar with the character Jason Bourne, or have seen the more recent movie, “San Andreas” starring The Rock, you have seen situational awareness in action. In San Andreas, if you watch closely, you will see The Rock scanning the area on several occasions. He makes decisions quickly, seemingly randomly, but they manage to keep everyone safe. He is using situational awareness, well and a movie script! But you get the idea.

When you have trained yourself in situational awareness, you will be able to scan the area, get your bearings, identify potential threats quickly and then use that information to make an informed decision or at least an educated guess as to the best course of action to take next.

In a natural disaster situation, like in the movie San Andreas, or in an emergency situation or SHTF event, situational awareness is what keeps you from being just another panicked victim running randomly through the streets. It’s your ace in the hole, the thing you have that those masses of people running and screaming don’t have. It helps you, and your family, to stay alive longer. So how do you get it?

Observation/Alertness Training

The first thing to practice when trying to learn situational awareness is your observation skills, what you see, what you hear, or smell. You may think that you already pay attention in public places, that you are already trained to be on alert.

But remember, you don’t know what you don’t know.  Here are some actual exercises that you and your family can practice to train yourselves:

  1. When you enter a building, any building, get in the habit of noticing where things are that will come in handy during an emergency.
  • Where are the exits?
  • Where are fire extinguishers and fire alarm pulls located?
  • Is there a public pay phone in the lobby or a landline at one of the kiosks?
  • Where are the vending machines located?
  • Do you see a first aid kit?
  • Are there any vent systems large enough to crawl through if you had to move about without being seen?

If you practice finding the above items every time you enter a building, it will become second nature to you. In an emergency, you will “instinctively” know where items are located. You won’t waste precious moments frantically searching everywhere for a first aid kit, an exit, or a fire extinguisher. Your mind will know exactly where it is located and you can either go straight to it or direct someone else to it.

  1. As you are walking down the street or even driving in your car, pay attention to what is around you. Observe the shops, the street signs, the cars, people walking. Did you pass a police station on the last block? Did that last highway exit ramp have a sign for the hospital? If you practice noticing all of this on a regular basis as you travel, when an emergency happens, you will “know” how far it is to the nearest gas station or how far you must walk to find help when an emergency occurs.
  2. When traveling by car with a passenger, have them randomly write on a notepad. Then ask them to suddenly call out a number between 1 and 10. So you’re driving along, your passenger is doodling beside you and suddenly calls out “four”.
  • Can you name the colors of the last four cars that passed you?
  • Do you know if the last four drivers were female or male? Can you describe them?
  • What about the names of the last four streets you passed by?
  • Or the name and types of the last four businesses you passed?

If you wanted to, you could even turn this into a family game on a road trip. You’ll be teaching your family to be more observant and alert and having fun at the same time.

  1. The next time you’re at the mall or any type of public event where you are walking through a crowd, focus on listening to everything that is happening outside your line of vision. Is there a couple having an argument behind you? Or a toddler having a tantrum because mom told him he couldn’t have cotton candy? Do you hear the static on the security guard’s walkie-talkie before he comes into view?

If you practice purposefully focusing on what you hear that is out of your sight, it will become habit. In a disaster or emergency, you will be more likely to hear someone trying to come up behind you or the fight breaking out in the corner of the bar, and you can react more quickly.

  1. Set up a chair outside your home, under a tree or another comfortable spot and just observe the activity around you. Watch the cars that drive by, people walking or jogging by, or those that come to sit and wait at the nearest bus stop. Watch their activities at different times of day. After you’ve done this first exercise, do the same thing everywhere you go. Ask yourself what’s going on, what’s the baseline atmosphere in this café, store, office, or bus, etc. How do people behave most of the time?

Know the baseline activity in your neighborhood at different times throughout the day and evening. Do the same thing at work or out in the woods. If you know the baseline of a location, then when something is out of place or unusual, your mind will be trained to take notice and will automatically alert you.

  1. In crowds, pay close attention to how people move, such as the pace at which each person moves, whether or not they limp, how loud they are talking, and other movements. Is anyone moving at a different speed or in a different direction than the rest of the crowd? Observe people with a careful eye to detail to see who among them seems to be alert to their surroundings and who is blissfully unaware of anything other than the phone in their hand.

The more you watch the natural movements of people when things are normal, the quicker you will notice someone moving erratically or who seems out of place during a crisis.

  1. Most people read from left to right, we’ve been taught to do this. When we scan a room or enter a room we generally look left first. To practice situational awareness, when you enter a room or building, force yourself to scan the room from right to left first instead of left to right. Because it’s unnatural, you will find that you notice more than if you scanned left to right.
  1. It’s also important for you to take advantage of any information that is being communicated that could alert you in advance to potential danger. This means quick access to news reports, weather reports, traffic, etc. for your local area or the area you are traveling through. Consider a scanner for your home or even a mobile scanner app for your phone so you can listen in on emergency communications of local fire and police and get those few extra minutes warning if something big goes down.
  1. If you are a hunter, you’ve already learned some of these techniques as they apply to nature. How to identify animal tracks and dung, how to listen to the sounds around you so the birds and animals can serve as your early alert system if something is wrong. If you know the natural sound and patterns of animal movement in the woods, you will know right away when something is wrong.
  1. Memorization is so important to situational awareness. It’s important to practice memorization so you can train your mind to be better at it. This way as you take in all the information around you, it will be easier to recall the pieces you need later. There are tons of ways to improve memorization, including using cards, license plates when you’re driving on the highway, phone numbers, names of people, etc.
  2. At public events, sit or stand where you can see the exits and where it’s unlikely there could be a threat behind you, with your back to the wall, for example. You can now sit calmly and observe all that is going on around you.
  3. Use storefront windows to keep an eye on what’s happening behind you as you’re walking down the street. Is someone moving up very quickly but stopping when you stop? If you are walking with your spouse or a friend, keep some space between you so when you are talking you can turn and look at him/her and scan behind you with your peripheral vision.

All of these exercises are things you should be doing right now, every chance you get so that when SHTF and your life depends on it, you will be alerted early to danger and will have those precious extra moments to assess the situation and make a decision on how to react.

Identify Potential Threats

But how do you take in all that information quickly and at one time without missing something important?  Once you have trained yourself to quickly determine the baseline environment of a location, then all you have to do is watch for anything that stands out or appears to be abnormal. The odd man out, the anomaly.

Anyone behaving in an aggressive or angry way bears closer watching as a potential threat. Any person who appears to be tense or uncomfortable deserves a little closer attention. Anyone who appears interested in something when others are not or who appear not interested when everyone else is clamoring for information, is worth watching. Do you see anyone who is attempting to “act natural” and failing? Some times when people are “acting” natural they over or under exaggerate their movements.

Remember that context does matter. Someone looking uncomfortable or tense in a doctor’s office waiting room is probably normal. A customer who looks calm and relaxed during a bank robbery is probably either part of the robbery team or an off-duty cop. Always watch someone’s hands. If they frequently tap a pocket or pat an area of their body, it could mean they have an object hidden there that they don’t want you to know about (such as a gun or knife).


Now that you have trained your mind to observe everything going on around you and you know how to identify potential threats early to give yourself a few extra seconds to react, start planning. It doesn’t do any good to identify the bank robber as he enters the bank if you don’t have a plan of what to do next.

How do you make sense of it all and formulate a plan of action? Use all the data that you’ve collected through your observations to help you recognize patterns to understand the big picture and help you gain an understanding of how it will affect you and your family.

How will the flow of traffic impede your ability to get home? How could the level of awareness or more likely the lack of awareness in others impact you and your family? Reflecting on all of this information together as you make your SHTF plans gives you a more accurate big picture view.

Then formulate your action plans for each location or type of situation. Think if this, then that. For example: If a robber enters this bank through the front door then I will run for that side exit. Or if SHTF and the power is out, we will do this.

Have a code word and a hand or facial gestures that you can use to communicate to your family or others in the group that something is amiss. Practice communicating in this way so that you know when you signal them, exactly what they are going to do in response. Keep in mind that you may not want to communicate out loud in a crisis because it will alert your potential attacker to the fact that you are on to him.

Examples of Warning Signs

Animals can help warn us that something is wrong if we pay attention. Birds that take flight before you actually get to their side of the field could mean there is a predator of some kind in front of you. Dogs barking incessantly in the middle of the night can be nothing at all or could be a signal that someone is creeping around where they don’t belong.

Those of us who pay attention to the weather are already familiar with how weather changes that are hardly noticeable can alert us to something larger. When the temperature suddenly drops by ten degrees or the skies darken after it’s been sunny all day, you can expect a storm is moving in. Practice paying attention to weather patterns so you know when something is about to change.

Patches of earth in the woods that have no undergrowth and just some small stones with lots of gravel size rocks can be an indication of flash flooding. Although a clearing like this can seem ideal for camping, doing so could put your family in danger. Paying attention to where moss is growing can help you find your bearings if you are lost in the woods.

Standing in line at the bank, if someone comes in who seems to be overdressed for the hot summer weather, it could give you early warning that the bank is about to be robbed. Or perhaps while waiting in line for a concert, you hear an argument going on behind you, it’s escalating and maybe you need to get out of the way before you become part of the fray.

Other Tips to Develop Situational Awareness

Listen to your gut feeling. It’s that little niggly voice that we often ignore or try to explain away. That voice is your best friend when it comes to getting an early alert that something bad is looming.

Make sure you make time for proper sleep. This is especially important during a long term crisis situation or immediately following a short term emergency scenario. Being overtired can really affect your observation skills, your decision making, and your reaction times.

Things like using your cell phone while driving or texting when walking, can distract you from being aware of what’s around you. Avoid these types of activities that steal your focus unless you are in a secure location such as your living room at home.

With regular practice and some discipline, you will soon find that you can quickly “sense” when something is about to happen before others even know something is up. You’ll gain those extra precious moments needed so you can enact your getaway plan or take other action to prevent being injured. Did we miss anything that you feel is important to developing situational awareness? Let us know below.

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13 thoughts on “On Situational Awareness”

  1. WOW!!! Great article. I have been practicing SA, but you have brought up so much more for me to work on. The only thing that came to mind when you stated, ” if someone comes in who seems to be overdressed for the hot summer weather”; Many younger people wear ski hats, coats, etc. during these times. I just can’t understand that, but…
    Thank You for the good tips.
    Papa, J

  2. Nice article…I have a “thing” about ATMs. I never just drive up, or walk up, to them. I’ll drive by, or walk by at a distance, then come back. I always look for anyone “hanging out” near one, and observe if they’re watching someone as they withdraw money, especially if it’s an ATM in an area that I’m unfamiliar with. There are far too many “club and run” robberies in my area at ATMs. Most of the time it’s so they can get their next fix, so they don’t care if they injure or kill whomever their victim is.

  3. On a mega scale the prob5em of people just not acceptin6g the situation as it is real problem at times. Disasters that could have been avoided resulted from people being normal biased. During the invasion of Guadalcanal the allied fleet was anchored in two groups for the night. The Japanese slipped past the picket ships and hit one group at anchor with the crews asleep. As this groups of ships was being sunk the n6ght watch on the other group of ships saw and heard the gunfire and saw burning ships and they did nothing about it They refused to accept what was happening in front of their eyes. The Japanese came down and hit the second group of allied ships at anchor and the crews asleep also. No alarm had been given. The Japanese having hit this groups of ships turned an6d sailed for home. This was the battle of Savo Islan6d. The allies lost four cruisers and a Destroyer sunk and the Japanese lost 57 men probably from one of their own shells hittng a Japanese ship by accident. People were normalcy biased and refused to believe what was happening to them. Another example is the battle ot the bulge Everyone fell into lock step and felt the war would be over by Christmas. they did 6ot consider what could happen instead They did not consider the potential for Germany to attack and were in a form of self delusion. Self delusion is dangerous thing. In this case the first and secon6d SS panzer armies came out of the fog and rolled over some black divisions on a quite front in a few hours Not accepting what is in front of your face and being delusional about what can happen can be fatal. As a girl from Israel told me Americans live in a pink chiffon world of fantasy In 1855 the Bengal Army mutinied against the British killing every European they could find. The British had ign6ored the warnings that had got and said not my regiment. Massacres of Europeans followed and epic sieges like Lucknow resulted from normality bias Like a movie plot the relief army arrived cresting a hill in line of b5attle with flags flying an6d bands playing in the nick of time

  4. It’s getting uglier out there and this campaign season is unlike anything I have ever seen in my lifetime. With that, I have always said, if people would beat each other down to save $20 on a useless piece of crap on black friday, imagine what they will do when food and supplies are limited.

  5. Great article and its always good to be reminded. My wife and I practice SA every time we take a long walk away from the comforts of our home.
    One thing I try to practice when driving is to always be aware of what mile marker I am near. It can make for a long drive but if I need emergency assistance its a lot easier then saying, “there was a McDonalds around 4 miles back, I think”

  6. My Father raised be to be paranoid. He always said: “Paranoia will not destroy ya baby girl, It’ll keep you alive”. He always taught me to run if someone tried to force me in a car because the fate would be much worse if I went along. I alway load my groceries with my back to the trunk. I never let anyone unknown approach my car. Always be aware false commotions… They could be a distraction for something bigger going on. On and on and on… “Great Article”!


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