Tuesday, April 30, 2013

What You Need to Know about Situational Awareness

     With all the recent talk about the bombing in Boston and the ever-present potential for workplace or school violence, I hope that this essay will be of some help and reassurance for folk that there are ways that ordinary people can fight back and in some cases prevent malicious or deranged persons from causing havoc. Republished with permission from Strategic Forecasting. 

Situational Awareness: How Everyday Citizens Can Help Make a Nation Safe
By Scott Stewart

August 2011's Security Weekly discussed the important role that grassroots defenders practicing situational awareness play in defending against terrorist attacks by individuals and small cells, what we refer to as grassroots militants. Anyone who reads STRATFOR's security and terrorism material for any length of time will notice that we frequently mention the importance of situational awareness. The reason we do so, quite simply, is that it works. Situational awareness is effective in allowing people to see potential threats before -- and as -- they develop. This allows potential victims to take proactive measures to avoid a perceived threat, and it enables them or other observers to alert authorities.

While threats can emanate from a number of very different sources, it is important to recognize that terrorist attacks -- and other criminal acts, for that matter -- do not materialize out of thin air. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Terrorists and other criminals follow a process when planning their actions, and this process has several distinct steps. The process has traditionally been referred to as the "terrorist attack cycle," but if you look at the issue thoughtfully, it becomes apparent that the same steps apply to nearly all crimes. Of course, the steps in a complex crime like a kidnapping or car bombing are far more involved than the steps in a simple crime such as purse-snatching or shoplifting, where the steps can be completed quite rapidly. Nevertheless, the same general steps are usually followed.

People planning attacks are vulnerable to detection during various phases of this process, and observant people can often spot such attacks developing. Therefore, situational awareness serves as one of the key building blocks of effective personal security, and when practiced collectively, national security. Since situational awareness is so important, we thought it would be helpful to once again discuss the subject in detail and provide a guide that can help describe what situational awareness is and explain how it can be practiced at a relaxed, sustainable level.


First and foremost, it needs to be noted that being aware of your surroundings and identifying potential threats and dangerous situations is more of a mindset than a hard skill. Because of this, situational awareness is not something so complex and difficult that only highly trained government agents or specialized corporate security countersurveillance teams can practice it. Indeed, situational awareness can be exercised by anyone with the will and the discipline to do so.

An important element of adopting the mindset required to practice situational awareness is to first recognize that threats exist. Ignorance or denial of a threat -- or completely tuning out one's surroundings while in a public place -- makes a person's chances of quickly recognizing the threat and avoiding it slim to none. This is why apathy, denial and complacency can be (and often are) deadly. A second important element is understanding the need to take responsibility for one's own security. The resources of all governments are finite and the authorities simply cannot be everywhere and cannot stop every criminal act. The same principle applies to private security at businesses or other institutions, such as places of worship. Therefore, people need to look out for themselves and their neighbors.

Another important facet of this mindset is learning to trust your "gut" or intuition. Many times a person's subconscious can notice subtle signs of danger that the conscious mind has difficulty quantifying or articulating. Many people who are victimized frequently experience such feelings of danger prior to an incident but choose to ignore them. People who heed such perceptions are seldom caught off guard.

Levels of Awareness

People typically operate on five distinct levels of awareness. There are many ways to describe these levels ("Cooper's colors," for example, is a system frequently used in law enforcement and military training). But perhaps the most effective way to illustrate the differences between the various levels of awareness is to compare them to the distinct degrees of attention we practice while driving. For our purposes here we will refer to the five levels of awareness as "tuned out," "relaxed awareness," "focused awareness," "high alert" and "comatose."

The first level, tuned out, is the state of awareness a person exercises when he or she is driving in a very familiar environment or is engrossed in thought, a daydream, a song on the radio or even the kids fighting in the backseat. Increasingly, cellphone calls and texting are also causing people to tune out while they drive. Have you ever gotten into the car and arrived somewhere without even really thinking about your drive there? If so, then you've experienced being tuned out.

The second level of awareness, relaxed awareness, is comparable to defensive driving. This is a state in which you are relaxed but are also watching the other cars on the road and are looking well ahead for potential road hazards. If another driver looks as though he may not stop at the intersection ahead, you tap your brakes to slow your car in case he does not. Defensive driving does not make you weary, and you can drive this way for a long time if you have the discipline to keep yourself at this level, but it is very easy to slip into the tuned-out mode. If you are practicing defensive driving you can still enjoy the trip, look at the scenery and listen to the radio, but you do not allow yourself to get so engrossed in those distractions that they exclude everything else. You are relaxed and enjoying your drive, but you are still watching for road hazards, maintaining a safe following distance and keeping an eye on the behavior of the drivers around you.

The next level, focused awareness, is like driving in hazardous road conditions. You need to practice this level of awareness when you are driving on icy or slushy roads, or when the roads are infested with potholes and erratic drivers that exist in many Third World countries. When you are driving in such an environment, you need to keep two hands on the wheel at all times and have your attention totally focused on the road and the other drivers. You don't dare take your eyes off the road or let your attention wander. There is no time for cellphone calls or other distractions. The level of concentration required for this type of driving makes it extremely tiring and stressful. A drive that you normally would not think twice about will totally exhaust you under these conditions because it demands your prolonged and total concentration.

The fourth level of awareness is high alert. This is the level that induces an adrenaline rush, a prayer and a gasp for air all at the same time -- "Watch out! There's a cow in the road! Hit the brakes!" This also happens when that car you are watching doesn't stop at the stop sign and pulls out right in front of you. High alert can be scary, but at this level you are still able to function and quickly respond to danger. You can hit your brakes and keep your car under control. In fact, the adrenaline rush you get at this stage sometimes even aids your reflexes. But the human body can tolerate only short periods of high alert before becoming physically and mentally exhausted.

The last level of awareness, comatose, is what happens when you literally freeze at the wheel and cannot respond to stimuli, either because you have fallen asleep or, at the other end of the spectrum, because you are petrified from panic. It is this panic-induced paralysis that concerns us most in relation to situational awareness. The comatose level of awareness -- or perhaps more accurately, lack of awareness -- occurs when a person goes into shock, his or her brain ceases to process information and the person simply cannot react to the reality of the situation. Often when this happens, a person can go into denial, believing that "this can't be happening to me," or the person can feel as though he or she is observing rather than actually participating in the event. Often, the passage of time will seem to grind to a halt. Crime victims frequently report experiencing this sensation and being unable to act or react during an unfolding crime.

Finding the Right Level

Now that we've discussed the different levels of awareness, let's focus on identifying what level is ideal at a given time. The body and mind both require rest, so we have to spend several hours each day at the comatose level while asleep. When we are sitting at our homes watching a movie or reading a book, it is perfectly fine to operate in the tuned-out mode. However, some people will attempt to maintain the tuned-out mode in decidedly inappropriate environments (e.g., when they are out on the street at night in a Third World barrio), or they will maintain a mindset wherein they deny that criminals can victimize them. "That couldn't happen to me, so there's no need to watch for it." They are tuned out.

Some people are so tuned out as they go through life that they miss even blatant signs of pending criminal activity directed specifically at them. People can also be tuned out due to intoxication or exhaustion. It is not at all unusual to see some very tuned-out people emerge from airports after long, transoceanic flights. Criminals also frequently prey on intoxicated people.

If you are tuned out while you are driving and something happens -- for instance, a child runs out into the road or a car stops quickly in front of you -- you will not see the problem coming. This usually means that you either do not see the hazard in time to avoid it and you hit it, or you totally panic and cannot react to it -- neither is good. These reactions (or lack of reactions) occur because it is very difficult to change mental states quickly, especially when the adjustment requires moving several steps, such as from tuned out to high alert. It is like trying to shift your car directly from first gear into fifth and it shudders and stalls.

Many times, when people are forced to make this mental jump and they panic and stall, they go into shock and will actually freeze and be unable to take any action -- they go comatose. This happens not only when a person is driving but also when a criminal catches someone totally unaware and unprepared. While training does help people move up and down the awareness continuum, it is difficult for even highly trained individuals to transition from tuned out to high alert. This is why police officers, federal agents and military personnel receive so much training on situational awareness.

It is critical to stress that situational awareness does not mean being paranoid or obsessively concerned about your security. It does not mean living with the irrational expectation that there is a dangerous criminal lurking behind every bush. In fact, people simply cannot operate in a state of focused awareness for extended periods, and high alert can be maintained only for very brief periods before exhaustion sets in. The "fight or flight" response can be very helpful if it can be controlled. When it gets out of control, however, a constant stream of adrenaline and stress is simply not healthy for the body or the mind. When people are constantly paranoid, they become mentally and physically burned out. Not only is this dangerous to physical and mental health, but security also suffers because it is very hard to be aware of your surroundings when you are a complete basket case. Therefore, operating constantly in a state of high alert is not the answer, nor is operating for prolonged periods in a state of focused alert, which can also be overly demanding and completely enervating. This is the process that results in alert fatigue. People, even highly skilled operators, require time to rest and recover.

Because of this, the basic level of situational awareness that should be practiced most of the time is relaxed awareness, a state of mind that can be maintained indefinitely without all the stress and fatigue associated with focused awareness or high alert. Relaxed awareness is not tiring, and it allows you to enjoy life while rewarding you with an effective level of personal security. When you are in an area where there is potential danger (which is almost anywhere), you should go through most of your day in a state of relaxed awareness. Then if you spot something out of the ordinary that could be a threat, you can "dial yourself up" to a state of focused awareness and take a careful look at that potential threat -- and also look for other threats in the area.

If the potential threat proves innocuous or is simply a false alarm, you can dial yourself back down into relaxed awareness and continue on your way. If, on the other hand, you look and determine that the potential threat is a probable threat, seeing it in advance allows you to take actions to avoid it. You may never need to elevate to high alert, since you have avoided the problem at an early stage. However, once you are in a state of focused awareness you are far better prepared to handle the jump to high alert if the threat does change from potential to actual -- if the three suspicious-looking guys lurking on the corner do start coming toward you and look as if they are reaching for weapons. The chances that you will go comatose are far less if you jump from focused awareness to high alert than if you are caught by surprise and your mind is forced to go into high alert from tuned out. An illustration of this would be the difference between a car making a sudden stop in front of a driver who is practicing defensive driving and a car making a sudden stop in front of a driver who is sending a text message.

Of course, if you know that you must go into an area that is very dangerous, you should dial yourself up to focused awareness when you are in that area. For example, if there is a specific section of highway where a lot of improvised explosive devices detonate and ambushes occur, or if there is a part of a city that is controlled (and patrolled) by criminal gangs -- and you cannot avoid these danger areas for whatever reason -- it would be prudent to heighten your level of awareness when you are in those areas. An increased level of awareness also is prudent when engaging in common or everyday tasks, such as visiting an ATM or walking to the car in a dark parking lot. The seemingly trivial nature of these common tasks can make it all too easy to go on autopilot and thus expose yourself to avoidable threats. When the time of potential danger has passed, you can then go back to a state of relaxed awareness.

Clearly, few of us are living in the type of intense threat environment currently found in places like Mogadishu, Juarez or Kandahar. Nonetheless, average citizens all over the world face many different kinds of threats from a variety of criminal actors on a daily basis, from common thieves and assailants to militants planning terrorist attacks. Situational awareness can and does help individuals protect themselves in any environment. When practiced corporately, it can also prevent terrorist acts intended to shock and destabilize an entire society.

"Situational Awareness: How Everyday Citizens Can Help Make a Nation Safe  is republished with permission of Stratfor."

Monday, April 22, 2013

Race Results - Colemans Run, part 2

Got some more results from Coleman's Run:
There were 230 runners who raised over $10,900 for autism research
Donations raised will go to:
  • Funding global biomedical research into the causes, prevention, treatment and cure for autism.
  • Providing support to help families living with autism.
  • Raising public awareness about autism.
  • Supporting advocacy efforts for both state and federal initiatives.
Today, 1 in 88 children are affected by autism (compared to just 5 years ago when 1 in 150 were diagnosed)! With this increasing rate, the importance of continuing to raise funds has also increased. Every dollar raised means we are one step closer to finding the answers.

Please send donations to:
Autism Speaks
Attn: Autism Speaks U: Liberty
1 East 33rd Street, 4th Floor
New York, NY 10016

and here are two pictures of me, coming in 25th.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Things that go on in a library

     One of my colleagues shared this little gem with me this morning. 

     I thought you’d like something I overheard while I was pulling books yesterday! A student was wandering in the shelves with a friend and said “I wish I could barricade myself in the library and live out the rest of my days.” 

     What can I tell you? Deep in the Stacks is the way to live! 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Things that go on in a library

     So, for this week's bit of curiosity: Today we received a book donation from a student. The book was nothing exciting, an ethnographic work on Eastern Europe. The reason I mention this is that when I opened the book to take a look at its content, I noticed that the book had library markings. Our library's markings, in fact. I checked the back and sure enough, there was the card pocket with the old checkout card still in it. Then I went and checked our catalog records from the back end where I do most of my work, and found that this book was declared lost in an inventory conducted back in 2000. This book's record, and others declared lost in 2000, was just sitting on our server for all this time, and it even survived a transition to a new library catalog system in 2003. Curiously, this very week I made arrangements for these orphan records to be finally withdrawn from the system. In another week, the catalogers would have found it necessary to completely re-create the record to put this book back in. 
     Now, some might argue that this is an example of why libraries should not discard the catalog records of items that go missing. Well, I think the other 1200 records in that set for which the books have not reappeared undercut that argument. Thirteen years is too long a time to have orphan records cluttering up the system. What purpose do they serve except to uselessly inflate our holding records? The orphan records have been suppressed from the OPAC for years now, so if they're gone, the students will not ever notice it. It's stealth weeding! No, the weeding happened years ago, when the books departed the library never to return. Now, with this one exception, we're just cleaning out their lockers. I will be glad to be rid of these, so I can put more of my attention toward getting books on the shelves that the students want and need.

The Art of War - Kasserine Pass

     My older son and I are playing a new game of GDW's Bloody Kasserine wargame. I'm playing the Allied side this time so for eleven days of game time, I have to hold back the Germans & Italians in their drive to hold Kasserine Pass and capture my airfields.
      The game sets victory conditions upon the holding of important towns at the end of the game. Unit losses are not counted, only holding territory. There are three airfields: I hold Tebessa and Le Kef and the Axis holds Kairouan. Five towns are strategically important for victory: Kasserine, Thala, Sbiba, Faid and Feriana. I hold all but Faid at the start.

Photo from http://www.armchairgeneral.com/forums/showthread.php?p=2431604

     The red ovals are the strategic towns, the black rectangles are the Axis setup areas.

       I've played this game before, but this time I'd like to do something a little different. I've been reading Sun Tzu's The Art of War, and I am going to attempt fighting this battle as Sun Tzu would have done, taking what instructions I can from his book. The Art of War is arranged by chapter-and-verse, if you will, so when quoting from the text I will note it as such: Chapter II, verse 4, or (II, 4).

      In chapter one, Sun Tzu establishes five factors that must be considered in planning. They are the Moral Law, Heaven, Earth, the Commander, Method & Discipline (I,4). I think that all five have some representation in the game.

      The Moral Law relates to the soldier's willingness to fight; in game terms, unit morale. This comes least into the game, and is all in the realm of the player.
      Heaven relates to weather. We are using the optional rule for weather this time. Rain affects tactical air support and heavy rain grounds all aircraft, slows movement and affects supply.
      Earth relates to distance and terrain. The Allies start in the hill-and-wadi region and can easily use the terrain to their defensive advantage. The Axis must in the south cross a lot of open ground, and then run into restrictive ground with fewer options for movement.
      The Commander is the player. How clever and daring he is determines how well the armies will move. Knowing when to fight and when not to is critical.
      Method & Discipline relates to supply and the effective use of specialized units such as engineers, air power and artillery.

      As it stands at the beginning, the Allies will win a victory if I give up no Victory Point (VP) cities. The Axis must take at least a few to avoid defeat. This means I will be fighting a defensive battle. Offensive moves should be limited to relief of Allied forces or re-taking of a VP city.

      Sun Tzu said, “The highest form of Generalship is to balk the enemy's plans” (III, 4). So my goal is to prevent the loss of the VP cities. I can cede any other ground or town to the Axis if it will allow me to continue defending the critical locations.

      Sun Tzu said,"all warfare is based on deception" (I,18). Of course, the deception part is harder to do in a tabletop game that has all of the units face-up on the table. To simulate this, I will insist that neither side can pick up and examine enemy counters. So I'd better keep track of what units are stacked where. If I lose track of his flak units, my air support will be in trouble.

      Sun Tzu said, “If equally matched, we can offer battle; if slightly inferior in numbers we can avoid the enemy” (III,9) I will avoid whenever possible fighting at 1:1 odds, where I am least likely to get a Defender Retreat or Defender Eliminated result. Also, I will retreat from 3:1 or worse odds except when defending a VP city.

      Sun Tzu said, “there are five essentials for victory: 1, he will win who knows when to fight and when not to fight” and “4, he will win who, prepared himself, waits to take the enemy unprepared (III,17). I will ignore none of my units, even if I do not move them, and look for when the Axis has ignored them. Then I will attack where he does not expect an attack.

     Sun Tzu said, “The skillful fighter puts himself into a position which makes defeat impossible” (IV,14). I will make maximal use of rugged crests and cliff hexsides – I can attack down a cliff, but the enemy cannot attack up, nor does his Zone of Control extend up a cliff face. The heaviest Axis units cannot cross rugged crests either, so I will use them to channel Axis forces.

      Sun Tzu said, “The clever combatant imposes his will on the enemy but does not allow the enemy's will to be imposed on him” (VI,2). In turn two, I used my engineers to sever most of the bridges across the wadis. This does not prevent the Axis from crossing but it does slow them down. I will tie him down with delaying attacks well short of the VP cities.

     I'll write up a gaming report once the battle is over, with observations on how well I applied those lessons, and what I missed.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Race Results - Coleman's Run

      Coleman's Run is an annual fundraiser race in our area. from the website: Coleman’s Run is a benefit 5k event with the intention to increase autism awareness and support local charities. The eponymous Coleman was there, and he ran, and while I did not get to meet him personally, I did meet some nice dogs that also joined in the run.
   I was encouraged by a friend to get involved and as it happens I have a nephew who is autistic. Besides, I don't need much encouragement to run in a race. Unlike some I've participated in, this was not a very competitive race, as its primary purpose is fundraising.Check out the links above, and consider how you might be able to support autism research.
     So on a sunny and breezy Saturday morning I and about 150 other people ran, walked and rode in strollers along a country lane and over some wooden train bridges. I must make a point of going back and walking along that road, so I can appreciate the scenery, which was beautiful from what I glimpsed while panting along. I finished 25th out of the pack, with a time of 25:12. For my first race of the year, and coming off a long cold wet winter, I'm very pleased. As a bonus I won a pair of "compression leg sleeves" which are a new running 'technology' to me. They're patterned with American flags.

     Now, how to apply this to gaming? In many RPG's the profit motive is the most common motivation for adventuring, but what about charities? There are enough examples of real-world charities that adapting them to a game world should not be hard. 

  • A player character may have or gain some connection to an NPC who is part of a charity organization, or is afflicted with a malady that the charity is trying to cure. 
  • A player character may have a religious Duty or Oath to donate a portion of his earnings to a specific charity. If the PC gets in trouble, the GM can raise the percentage owed to the charity as penance.
  • A charity organization may ask the PC group for help:
  1. The charity needs protection while it transports its collected goods to the home office.
  2. The charity has already been robbed, and asks the PCs to recover the donations
  3. The charity needs help in locating a Macguffin that will help advance the charity's cause
  4.  Competing charities are causing strife in the community, and the officials ask the PCs to mediate
  5. Charity A may suspect Charity B of fraudulent activity and asks the PCs to investigate
  • A Charity group may be a front for some other activity - espionage, secret society, revolutionaries. Whatever it is, they will accomplish Big Badness if not stopped. Local citizens or the local officials ask the PCs to find out the truth.
  • And of course, there's the possibility of setting up challenges like races, obstacle courses or duels for the PCs to take part in directly as a public spectacle to raise money.
Happy charitable gaming!

Monday, April 8, 2013

76 Patrons - The Fighting Sullivans and Others

     As I watched the movie last night it was obvious to me that if one took the Sullivan brothers out of history and into an RPG world, they would be the cause of many adventures. Here are a few ideas that I came up with:

Adventure hooks/plots based on The Fighting Sullivans
Honestly, just about any scenario can be livened up by a group of five capable, loyal and organized brothers as allies or antagonists.

      The PC's owe the five brothers a debt of honor, which entails providing for their dependents after they're dead. This includes one very attractive widow.

      The five have been hired for a mission directly in opposition to the PC's mission.

      The five have been hired for a mission in competition with the PC's mission.

      The five brothers have a Destiny upon them and all five must survive long enough to fulfill it, to prevent Big Badness. The PC's are responsible for their survival during the big mission leading up to the Fulfilling of the Destiny.

      One of the five is lost/missing/kidnapped/captured and the remaining four hire the PC's to help recover the fifth.

      A Patron hires the PC's to eliminate the five brothers, as they stand between the patron and a large inheritance.

      The five brothers are a super-hero or secret agent team, and the PC's have discovered their identities.
Gender flip: it is a family of five fighting women. Gender split: a family of 3 men 2 women or 3 women 2 men that all operate together.

My wife is a big fan of audio books. We love Librivox! Also we love borrowing books on CD from the public library to listen to in the kitchen or in the car on long trips. My wife is a big fan of Agatha Christie and Elizabeth Peters, so:

Adventure based on Agatha Christie's Cat Among the Pigeons:
  The PC's have been hired to be covert security for a student at a private academy, and must take civilian jobs on the academy campus. No heavy weaponry is going to be allowed. This should be a brains not brawn assignment. 

Adventure based on the Amelia Peabody series:
     The PC's get involved in an archaeological expedition, either as security, as the dig leaders, or even as porters/staff. During the dig, rare and valuable macguffins are uncovered, stolen and in need of recovery. There may be international forces involved in the thefts. Murder of the archaeologists is not out of the question. A war may start up during the dig, which may or may not have anything to do with the dig itself. Depending on the genre, the macguffins could be magical or mystical.

Off the Cuff Movie Review The Fighting Sullivans

   This biographical film was produced during World War II, and inspired by events that took place earlier in the war. The five Sullivan brothers, George, Frank, Joe, Matt and Al, grew up in the town of Waterloo, Iowa. When the war broke out, they all enlisted in the Navy, and managed to get themselves all assigned to the light cruiser USS Juneau. The Juneau was sunk with all hands on 13 November 1942. During the war, a Fletcher-class destroyer, DD537 was launched bearing the name The Sullivans. The Navy changes its policy on assignments as a result of the Sullivan's family's loss, and siblings no longer serve together aboard ship.
     The film spends most of its two-hour run time on the childhood and early adulthood of the Sullivan brothers. As a slice of American life, it is a delightful, funny and touching movie about a big family of boys (with one long-suffering sister) and all their adventures. They get into fights (right outside the church even) with other boys, fight with each other, make up, find and (sort of) repair a rowboat, decide to cut a hole in the kitchen wall for a woodbox and try to smoke corn silk in the shed. Their railroad conductor father takes a firm loving hand in dealing with them, but even he gets pushed too far after one of the boys' escapades. As young adults, living in the late 30's their worries are the same as everyone's: getting and keeping jobs, having enough money, and for the youngest, Al, known as "Small Change", getting a date with a swell girl. Al gets married, despite a sabotage attempt by his brothers, and the whole family takes the new Mrs. Sullivan in as one of their own. When the war breaks out, the older brothers dissuade Al from joining up with them, but his wife convinces him he should go, because all their lives the Sullivans have "stuck together".
     The last we see of the Sullivan boys, four of them are lifting their wounded fifth brother off of his bed, hoping to get him to safety when the abandon ship order is given. Sadly, out of a crew of over 600, only 10 men survived the sinking of the Juneau. The film's final act digresses a little from published history, but not in a way that detracts from the powerful punch of the story. 
       We laughed our way through the Sullivans' childhood and cried a little at the end. This is a movie that is worth watching because it's funny, because it is moving, and because it is simple and true. Thanks be to God for all the men and women who have served in our country's military both in war and in peace. 
Now go rent this movie. That is all.