Situational Awareness: How Everyday Citizens Can Help Make a Nation SafeBy 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."