We’ve spent a couple of lessons exploring Situational Awareness (SA) and how it evolves. Today we will get down to the nitty gritty of when we should extend the distance of SA to provide an earlier warning of a potential threat. We’ll also talk about exactly what it is we are looking for at a distance.
In an ideal world, I would walk around in the center of a bubble of SA. I’d be able to see, hear, note, and assess everything within that bubble. Unfortunately, the world is not ideal. Each of us can only perceive and process “X” amount of input at any one time. If I were to draw a picture of my actual SA, instead of a circle, it would be an elliptical (except when completely relaxed in a secure place). At times it may project more forward, more behind, or in any direction, including up or down, as the situation dictates.
During the last lesson, we discussed that being on unfamiliar territory dictated extending the distance of our SA, unless, of course, we note something close by of concern (such as the black Toyota in Kabul two blogs ago) that draws our focus inward. For example, when I walk or drive in an area of DC that is unfamiliar to me, I extend my SA’s distance. I concentrate one to three blocks ahead. I decide if I need to cross the street to put more distance between myself and a potential threat, or perhaps I need to take a turn at the next corner and detour around something that concerns me, for example, an area where the street lights are not working. Distance equals time. Time gives me the freedom to make choices.
I can choose whether to slow down or speed up. I might position my significant other Kim on the safer side before I reach a spot of potential concern. I also look for things that seem out of place or unusual. On a recent trip to DC, Kim, another couple, and I were walking from a concert at Nationals Park Stadium to a car parked eight or ten blocks away. Follow along with my thoughts on SA described below:
I see a plywood construction barricade along the sidewalk a block-and-a-half away. It obscures most of the street lighting. I notice a couple of people at the far end of the construction quickly pass behind the barricade, out of my sight. First, I quickly scan around me to see if there is a vehicle or any people positioned close by that might indicate a setup. Then, I note that I am approaching a corner where I could decide to turn left or right to detour and avoid the barricaded sidewalk altogether. Can we leave the protective sidewalk barricade if we need to? Did the people see me and then go behind the barricade, or were they just cutting through? Kim and another couple are with me; how is that going to affect how I react to any threat? Are the other people on the street or sidewalk acting normally? All are factors in helping me decide whether or not to turn at the intersection, continue ahead at a heightened state of alert while making ready to take action, or disregard the input and continue on in the same manner.
Note that all the data points above are viewable from a distance.
I cannot discern a lot of detail at a distance, and the information I have at the far reaches of my SA is often not conclusive as to whether or not something is an actual threat. I do not yet have enough data to know if there is malicious intent or not. However, the data, inconclusive or not, allows me to err on the side of caution if I choose.
Remember that “gut” feeling we discussed in Hard Lessons in Situational Awareness? In the situation above, let’s say I choose to take the detour. I will not know if there is an actual threat to justify spending the additional time and energy, but I am trading that expenditure for the peace of mind that comes from knowing I have provided for the safety of myself and the people accompanying me.
What would you do?
Sometimes erring on the side of caution pays off big time.
In Afghanistan in early 2002, a handful of us traveled to a meeting in the middle of a valley near Shar-E-Kot, not far from where Operation Anaconda took place about a month later. I was the tactical leader of the group, but another person was in charge overall. The site was a small store in a building with a couple of sheds and mud structures around it. It was in the middle of a valley surrounded by large mountains on all sides about a kilometer away. It was very isolated, and the single road through the valley went right by it.
When we arrived, the person we were to meet was not there. I’d seen a few markets like this one as I drove in different parts of Afghanistan. They were desolate outposts, not unlike the stagecoach way stations depicted in the western movies of our youth. We set up in a 360-degree defensive circle, using our pickup trucks, a pile of large wood, and anything else we could find as cover as we faced outward, again reminding me of an old western movie and settlers circling the wagons when expecting an attack. As we waited for the other person to show up to the meeting, I was concerned because our position was vulnerable. Some time went by, and I became increasingly more uncomfortable. I cannot remember if any customers had been at the store when we arrived, but soon after, we were the only ones there. After a bit longer, I told the person in charge that we were too vulnerable and that as important as the meeting was, we could only afford another 15 minutes before we needed to leave.
Those 15 minutes passed, and we left without the meeting taking place. As we wound our way back up into the mountains towards our camp two or three hours away, I felt somewhat concerned that I had been overly cautious. We had spent an evening planning the trip to the meeting and an entire day getting there and back. Had I cost an important meeting and everyone’s time because I was too concerned?
When we arrived back to the mud fort we were calling home that evening, we found out that a Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) unit had been listening to al-Qa’ida (AQ) radio communications that day. They heard AQ fighters talking about setting an ambush for some Americans. AQ had most of the attackers in place and were waiting on a few more to finish surrounding the Americans before attacking. The SIGINT came from the location we had been that day! To say I felt justified in insisting we leave is an understatement. Sure, we could have stayed, and if attacked, fought it out. But there were only six tactical operators present, not enough to fend off a significant assault, in my view. Any help or reinforcements were many hours away. Another in my position may have been inclined to remain and may have prevailed in a fight. Or all could have been killed. We will never know.
Let’s go back to the story of my recent trip to DC. and say I chose to detour around the block with the barricade. Erring on the side of caution may have cost my group more time and effort. I might have been embarrassed that the others might think the former “Special Forces guy” was afraid. Then again, that choice might have saved the four of us from a robbery or mugging.
In a different place under different circumstances, making a similar choice on the side of caution might allow you to walk away from a terror attack. Whatever you choose, in today’s world you will live with the consequences.
As you can see from both stories from today, looking for indicators visible from farther away gives you time to make choices before you are up close to the danger.
There are times when your focus must be in close so you can pick up slight nuances that indicate an attack or malicious intent. We will turn our SA to those in the next lesson.
Until then, here are some steps you can take now to practice your distant SA:
1. Identify places in your weekly routine where you should use distant SA.
2. Identify the actions and objects you can note at various distances to inform prudent decisions about your safety. For example, how far away can you see hands moving or objects carried compared to lighting, obstacles, or groups of people?
3. Focus on extending the distance of your SA to its fullest extent for this lesson. Do not worry about details in close to you…yet. How far out can you be aware of events taking shape? What senses did you use?
4. Now that you have practiced extending your SA in familiar places, take the time to put it to practice. Go somewhere new to you. Use your distant SA. Do you not feel more in control of what happens?
Remember, distance equals time, and time allows us to choose and prepare.
Consider conversations with your families about the lessons we learned today. Some of my best “teaching” moments come as we are riding in the car, taking a walk, or while sharing a meal. Let’s take every opportunity we have to help make the ones we love safer in a world that is increasingly violent.
Next lesson we will talk about when to focus in great detail up close and what to look for when we do.
Until then, be prudent and be well!