Situational Awareness | How to Identify and Predict Dangerous Situations

How did the human race survive thousands of years without falling victim to the hundreds of predators that can kill us and wipe us off the face of the earth?

Train Station Smoke

Imagine you leave work at 6 pm, and enter a crowded train station to go home. You’re standing on the platform waiting for your train, when all of a sudden at the other end of the platform you hear a loud bang, you smell smoke, and you see people start to run towards you. What do you do?

If you’re like most people, you will join the hordes of people and run away from the commotion.

Even though you have no idea what happened, you still acted. Why?

The answer is simple: situational awareness.

What is Situational Awareness?

Situational awareness is defined as: the perception of environmental elements and events with respect to time or space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their future status.

In layman's terms, situational awareness is when you see, observe, or feel things happening in your vicinity, you're able to understand what they mean, and you're then able to project what this situation means.

Click here for the Wikipedia page on situation awareness: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Situation_awareness

The process of situational awareness is used in many industries such as law enforcement, emergency response teams, military and government operations, aviation, nautical navigation, and sports. However the everyday person also uses situational awareness to navigate her everyday life. 

Let’s analyze the Train Station incident from above and discuss the three steps of situational awareness:

One, you perceived elements occurring in your environment such as noise, smell, and sight of people running away.

Two, you attributed meaning to the elements and your situation. You understood that these cues indicate there must be danger occurring at the other end of the platform.

Three, you predicted what would happen next. If there was a terrorist attack, the assailant may be close by and therefore you would be in danger. You ran away with the other people to flee the dangerous situation.

While all of this may have come instinctively to you, you went through the steps of Situational Awareness.

Situational awareness may come naturally to humans, but there are varying levels of it. For example if you have bad vision or slow reaction time, then you won't be able to perceive things in your environment well. Or if you aren't able to detect patterns and use your past experience, then noticing certain cues won't matter. It's all about using and building a well-oiled machine that is ready to identify dangerous situations.

How to Practice and Develop Situational Awareness

Human beings and animals naturally have situational awareness that’s associated with our innate survival instincts. 

However, we can develop our situational awareness further by practicing vigilance, mental acuity, and general cognitive abilities.

Perceiving Elements in Your Environment

Get regular checkups at the doctor to ensure your vision, hearing, touch, smell and taste are all operating at a high level. A healthy diet will aid in the maintenance of your senses. You should also reduce activities that put a strain on your body like smoking.

As you go through your daily life, test your senses out. Try to read the fine print on a faraway sign. Eavesdrop on the conversation occurring next to you to see how much you can decipher.

The best advice for optimizing your senses? Always be present. Smell the air in the room and try to figure out what little scents and aromas you can pick up on. Feel the seat that you’re sitting on and the shoes as they press up against your feet. Listen to the faint white noise of the ventilation system or the breathing of the person in the cubicle next to yours. As long as you’re present, and activating your senses, you’ll be able to maintain and even fine-tune your senses.

Attributing Meaning to Perceived Elements and Environment

The first step is to be vigilant and pick up on cues in your surroundings. The second step is to understand what those cues mean by attributing meaning to them.

The basics of attributing meaning to various cues is doing the Who, What, When, Where, Why, How questions.

Who: Who is this person? Is their body language very open and giving or is it closed off and nervous? Who is this person with? What is their behavior or language?

What: What are they doing? What actions are they taking? What is their job? What are they wearing?

When: What is the time? What is the general time of day? Is it a weekday morning and everybody is going to work or is it a Saturday at 2 am in the morning and most people out at this hour will be engaging in nightlife somehow.

Where: Where are you currently? Based on life experience, what normally occurs in this place?

Why: Why is this person doing this? Why is this person out at this time? Why is this person in this area?

How: How did this person get here? How is this person behaving?

After you’ve attributed meaning to the elements in your environment, you can project and predict what will happen based on your analysis.

Projection and Prediction of Future Outlook in Environment

This third step simply means processing all cues, indicators, and meanings that you’ve accumulated and determining what may happen next.

If you see a pregnant woman pushing a stroller late at night in an empty train station and she’s holding a pocket knife, you would probably assume that she’s not holding the pocket knife in a threatening way, but rather in a defensive way.

Conversely if you saw a young man with a face mask late at night in an empty train station carrying a bottle of water, you would most likely flee the scene due to safety concerns.

Even though the woman is carrying a pocket knife in plain sight, and the young man is carrying a bottle of water, due to other circumstances, you would view the second scenario as more dangerous for your safety.
You would predict that the woman would not attack you with the knife and she’s holding it simply to protect herself and her family. On the other hand, you might predict that the young man is wearing a face mask to conceal his identity and you are a vulnerable target for him.

Real Life Examples of Situational Awareness

Example 1

Shooter Wanted Walking Down Train Station Platform

It amazes me how only a few people at the bus stop are looking at the gentleman in the picture.

He's checking off every "suspicious checkbox" in the book by wearing a hood over his head when other people are wearing single layer clothing, clearly running or walking quickly in the picture, and to top it off it looks like he's holding something in his right hand.

If you are far away from this gentleman, it's best to not draw attention, get out of harm's way, flee the scene, and contact authorities.

Example 2

Homeless Tents on Sidewalk

This image shows an afternoon scene in an area with relatively lots of car traffic. You can see buildings in the background. If you're walking down this street what do you see and how do you proceed?

There are several tents set up along the sidewalk, most likely housing homeless individuals. The scene doesn't look explicitly dangerous to the extent that you have to contact police. As mentioned above, it's daylight out, there are a lot of cars driving by, and there's no visible threat in sight.

However with that being said, we'd advise you to take extreme caution in a situation like this. One, while there are cars driving through, there are no other pedestrians walking by. Two, the tents protrude across the entire sidewalk, leaving only a narrow walking path on the sidewalk. This creates a pinch point which makes sudden and unpredictable attacks easier to perpetrate.

In a situation like this, we would advise you to cross the street to the other sidewalk instead of passing by around a dozen tents of homeless people that have taken up the entire sidewalk. This prevents clear danger, but it also avoids any misunderstandings or potential concerns.

Safety First

Situational awareness allows you to stay safe and avoid or escape potential dangerous situations.

It's perfectly fine to cross the street if there's a suspicious person walking towards you, at the expense of offending that person.

With that being said, we should give people the benefit of the doubt. Many attacks have been perpetrated by good looking men in button down shirts, so we shouldn't profile and jump to conclusions.

The best approach? Everyone should always have a self defense weapon armed and handy, and use their gut instincts to stay safe. Always understand, improve and use situational awareness to navigate you through any everyday occurrence your come across and you'll avoid or escape many dangerous situations.


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