There are a lot of cliche statements repeated over and over ad nauseum in the training world. Many of those statements refer to situational awareness (SA), the most popular being, “Keep your head on a swivel!” While it is true that it depends on how you interpret it, honestly I think that any shallow interpretation is going to miss the essence of what situational awareness is and how it actually works.
If we think back to the conditions of awareness first laid out by Jeff Cooper (Google this if you have not seen it yet) we see that the main thing that changes with each condition is that our focus actually narrows with each increase in intensity. This is critically important to understand. The more tense and focused you are, the smaller your field of vision actually becomes. As the threat becomes more apparent, you become more fixated on that particular threat.
I’d like to point out the most common mistake I see in the gun carrying community: mistaking high intensity for wide-band SA. Picture the most ridiculous culprit, he’s wearing tactical pants, tactical boots, requisite shirt to hide obvious gun gear, and his eyebrows are pulled into the center with a purposefully intense look on his face as his head is literally on a swivel, attempting to look in all directions at once. While this is an extreme example, I think most of us have met this guy. Especially if you’ve worked in gun stores or gun shows! Either way, it’s indicative of taking the SA concept in the wrong direction.
It’s like looking and listening through a tube, as opposed to looking and listening without constraints. Imagine if you taped a large cardboard tube over your eyes and you could only see through it. Then walk into a public place. You would literally have to turn your head in every direction to see anything and would experience a total loss of peripheral vision. Having too much SA intensity can have a similar effect on your ability to see and hear things. As we can see with the conditions of awareness, your focus intensifies onto a specific focal point. The counterpoint to this is that, if you are not acclimated to functioning at this higher level of intensity, your broader awareness diminishes.
That is why stories about people involved in lethal force events have no recollection of outside factors like how many rounds were fired, who was around at the time, if someone other than the threat said or did something, and so on. This happens because under the threat of death or imminent serious harm our focus of awareness becomes so amazingly intense we actually experience auditory and visual exclusion. Our brain simply blocks out everything it does not deem vital to surviving the threat directly in front of you.
I can personally vouch for this. I have experienced all levels of this up to and including auditory and visual exclusion. I can even remember specifically having tunnel vision for several minutes after the engagement, where I clearly did not see what was going on outside of the direction I was looking in even without a specific threat to focus on anymore. I can also vouch for this happening less with subsequent events as I grew more accustomed to operating at that elevated level. You may not have the opportunity to spend years on end in hostile environments so that you can develop this immunity, so you must cultivate a wide-band SA through training and conditioning .
Condition yellow, as usually taught, should be a relaxed state of general awareness with no specific focal point. Being in a relaxed-ready condition will give you the widest-band of situational awareness radar possible. It is above the oblivious and not paying attention condition, but below the point where awareness focus begins to narrow. It is the sweet spot. This allows you to see a wider field and hear more of what is going on, specifically giving you the ability to hear in directions that you are not looking in. This is what will allow you to relax and enjoy your life, while you run a constant background scan for abnormalities in your environment.
Your daily environments are pretty “normal” most of the time. What I mean by this is that we usually spend our time in environments that we have been in before and have become accustomed to the way things should be while we are there. Because most public or social environments have a normal range of sounds and activities, what I refer to as noise level, we are able to pick up abnormalities in that environment very easily. It is also true that dangerous things have often have very recognizable sounds: gunshots, screams, screeching tires, raised voices sounding angry, to give a few examples. So, abnormalities are immediately recognizable because they are both out of place and they can be threatening in and of themselves. While both do not have to be true at the same time, you will typically get one cue or the other if you are paying attention.
Imagine you are walking down the sidewalk, very close to the street. You are enjoying your walk, maybe talking with a companion, and are surrounded by the normal sounds of the street: cars driving by, people talking, maybe even horns blowing. You are relaxed, but generally aware in your widest available band of SA. A quiet scan is running in the background listening and watching for abnormalities. Unless you hear or see one, there is no reason to become excited or to begin to narrow your awareness. You need to keep it as open as possible. Suddenly, somewhere behind you tires loudly screech across the pavement. Immediately you narrow your focus and assess the risk, “What is happening and how can this affect me?” “Is this danger coming toward me?” “Do I need to take immediate action to avoid, escape, or fight?”
The screeching tires were a highly recognizable abnormality in the environment. It required your immediate attention. You can not be looking in all directions at all times, so you must begin to cultivate a system of environmental cues both visible and audible, that you can rely on to activate your risk assessment as quickly as possible. We should, through thorough training and conditioning, begin to understand how the different components of preparedness all work together. Understanding Mission, parameters, rules of engagement, objectives, conditions of awareness, risk assessment…all of this comes into play when the moment arises. Any skipped or underdeveloped component will lower the effectiveness of your actions overall. The lack of conditioning, especially to stress, will cause you to fall victim to a blind narrowing of your focus. We should work hard to avoid this, even under direct threat.
Cues do not have to be immediately recognizable either. Abnormalities can be non-definite in nature. One example of this is sketchy behavior by strange individuals: You are walking down the street with your partner, at night, on the edge of downtown. People are milling about here and there, walking to their next bar stop or making their way back to their cars. In this environment people are moving or huddling with a purpose, typically. As you are walking, you notice two individuals, one on each side of the sidewalk, that look out of place based on their behavior and positioning. They appear to be together, but are not being social. They have hoods pulled up over their heads. They are positioned diagonally in what could be a superior ambush position. They have their hands in their pockets.
How many abnormalities can you count there? Take any one of those behaviors alone and it doesn’t seem very alarming. But, as things begin to stack up, our level of alarm goes up. Eventually, your brain will just automatically assess matches for cues and once it picks up on a minimum amount of matches your alarm bells will go off. This will cause your risk assessment to kick into high-gear and your SA will become more focused. (But remember, don’t allow your band-width to narrow to the point that you shut out the rest of your environment!)
At this point, Objective #1 avoidance will be your goal. You cross the street and walk on the other sidewalk. Now, you notice they also begin walking in that direction as well. Your focus narrows even more, but not too much! You are still swimming in open water, so to speak. Stay aware of what’s in front of you, any alleys or doorways, etc. They cross the street and now are directly following 25 yards behind you. Objective #2 escape is now a goal. You’re not running yet, but you do not want to let them close the gap on you.
These are only options chosen from a very large menu. You can imagine any type of ending to this scenario. The point should be driven home now that abnormalities in your environment can be your main cues for danger or possible danger and they are most observable from a relaxed state of awareness risk assessment will guide you through your risk assessment model and conditions of situational awareness, which will hopefully guide you through to mission success at the end of the day. Being able to be in a relaxed state and enjoy your family, friends, and life, yet still be aware enough to deal with serious problems as they arise, is the goal. Developing a system of cues based on abnormalities is a great place to start cultivating that awareness.
Deterrent behavior do’s and don’ts
We’ve all heard the phrase, “Look like a hard target!” That is not really the best advice, in the shallow way that it is usually presented without explanation. Again with the cliches, there are a ton of them in this category. “Look hard at anyone you suspect.” “Stand up tall, push your chest out, posture with authority and make eye contact.” The list goes on. While all of this may sound like good advice to not appear as a weak and easy target, the mistake is made by assuming that trouble only comes from bad guys looking for a weak and easy target! It’s simply not true. In fact, posturing this way can even incite the violence.
If you behaved in some of these ways in prison, puffing your chest and making authoritative eye contact, you very well may get the chance to back that up. No. You WILL get the chance to back that up, IF you see it coming. They might just decide to teach you a lesson about ambush tactics. Even within the trained and refined version of myself today, I can feel the convict rise up inside when some random guy makes authoritative eye contact or postures toward me. There are times when making eye contact at the wrong time will be an invitation. Why is what happens in prison relevant to the streets? Because the very type of people who make up the prison population and culture are the ones who get there by committing the type of attacks we are talking about. They also carry these characteristics back out into the world via the roughly 70% to 80% recidivism rate our penal system boasts in the U.S.
There is an art to appearing confident and capable without appearing challenging like an asshole. While there is way too much depth in that topic to delve all the way to the bottom in this article, suffice it to say that you need to put thought into how you will appear. One of the best exercises I have ever heard on how to get a perspective of this is to become the bad guy. What?? NO, I don’t mean become the bad guy. I mean think like him and choose victims based upon appearance. (I do not know where I first heard this so please forgive the lack of a citation or credit here.) The next time you are out in public, do this exercise by looking around and picking who you would and who you would not rob or attack. Categorize them and list the reasons why you would avoid certain people.
Next, take that list of deterrents and begin thinking about how you can emulate that behavior to make yourself seem less of a target. You will find reasons that are outside of the obvious cues that you are thinking about now.
While this is a great exercise at the basic level, but it doesn’t deal with the intricacies of the wide range of personalities and motivations that bad guys will have. However, it will work for the average resource predator (to borrow Rory Miller’s term). The one who wants something you have (a resource) will be looking for the easiest way to get that, and that typically does not involve fighting. So they will pick the easiest appearing targets.
For the real violent asshole, a different technique is needed. In the criminal combat culture, we developed a feel for this. What was the right amount of strength balanced with not issuing a challenge for no reason? That bad guy could very likely be a convict himself, or simply a product of the criminal combat culture in general. So he will see things very similar to how I am describing it here. I have had close calls out in public when I did not control my eyes well enough and locked too long with another predator. I can remember at least once where the guy escalated to the point of walking into me with the “shoulder bump” in the mall. Which I ignored, with some effort.
The ultra-violent are much more like the process predator described by Rory Miller in his works. The process predator doesn’t necessarily want a resource, but wants to use you for some fantasy or personal end. That could be, from my own interpretation, anything from beating your ass just for the sake of dominant violence, all the way to kidnap and rape. For our purposes here, I’ll stick to the low-level jackass that just wants to destroy you in a fight.
Walking around all jacked up with super-tight shirts and tactical pants and your pockets lined with the visible utility clips of knives, lights, multi-tools and whatever tactical badassery you found with a clip on it might work to deter the low-level resource predator, but it is not going to deter a truly violent individual. Honestly, the ones it will deter would be deterred by your presence and confidence minus all of the bullshit show props. If you are a smaller person, a female or have some visible limitation, don’t feel defeated. Your confidence will take you far. A properly concealed weapon you are trained with will take you even farther if it gets bad.
Real predators work hard to get close and not be seen. When most predators hunt in the natural world, they stalk and employ stealth. Humans can add to that the entire craft of social deception. How many of us have been approached with the well known “Hey man do you have a (cigarette, dollar, etc.)? Think back at how close this dialogue allows them to get to you. That is just one of an infinite number of tactics employed. Done well, this will allow them to walk right around all of the fancy shit you have trained to do with the cool gear you carry. And they will go around it easily.
Because you do not know what kind of bad guy you are drawing, my best general advice is to make eye contact enough to say “I see you and I am confident” but no longer. Your eyes can convey or betray your true emotions. Be careful with the message you send. In fact, do not look at people without consciously knowing what message you are speaking with your eyes, period. This is a good policy in all communications from business to romance or violence. Beyond that, you will need to trust your intuition and feel the situation out to determine if you need to avoid, escape or fight (even just on an eye contact level). There truly is an art behind silent communication, and it takes years to develop it. Begin working on that now. Confidence is the number one way to begin to cultivate uncertainty in the opponent, and as I preach over and over, uncertainty is the enemy of all fighters.
Situational Awareness in a Nutshell
Be smart. Relax. Remain generally alert and catalogue what and who is in your presence before you focus on whatever you are doing there. Set your awareness on the widest band possible. Develop a system of early warning cues based on acute hearing and vision, constantly scanning for abnormalities. Don’t look like a scared victim, but don’t go overboard and challenge everything that moves around you. Just be confident and relaxed. Need more confidence? Listen to people who have walked and fought in these worlds. Get training. Test your skills and your gear in force-on-force situations. Build your conditioning. Test your skills repeatedly.