In the last blog, Hard Lessons in Situational Awareness, I described how I stood on a street corner in Kabul, Afghanistan, and paid attention to my Situational Awareness (SA) to try to be as safe as possible in what was, admittedly, a dangerous situation. In that story, you can see how my perception and scanning varied from as far out as possible to close in, and how I constantly updated my assessment as to the potential impact of every object within my field of perception.
Today we will discuss the fluid, dynamic nature of SA.
SA should never be static; it continuously changes and evolves. Each moment of data input and the resulting assessment as to its potential impact is only a Polaroid of that one instant in time, and any assessment you make based on it may or may not remain valid, even in the very next second.
Let’s try practicing situational awareness together.
Picture yourself stepping out on your front porch to go to work in the morning. You hear a dog barking from the house down the street. A car is approaching from the opposite direction. The sky is cloudy. You see the neighbor from across the street pushing a stroller along the sidewalk on your side of the street for her morning walk, and you hear the couple next door arguing.
You are in a familiar place, and almost subconsciously you are making assessments about the things you perceive. The car is far down the street, and you have not yet noted if it is familiar or not; your neighbor across the street always walks her baby in good weather about this time, and that darned dog barks like this every single weekday morning! The clouds do not look too ominous, but you make a mental note to check the weather forecast before you leave to see if you will need an umbrella for that meeting across town later in the day. The couple next door, aren’t they always fighting? You are subconsciously processing the data and have some level of situational awareness, whether or not you are even aware of it.
As you step off the porch towards your car in the driveway, the approaching car gets nearer, and you notice it is one unfamiliar to you. The driver is glancing at a piece of paper and looking at houses on both sides of the street as though looking for an address. The barking dog and the argument next door continue but are as usual. Then you notice the car has gotten closer, and the neighbor with the stroller is turning at the entrance to your drive to cross the street back to her house. She sees you and turns to wave as she enters the street; you now realize the driver of the car is not looking, does not see your neighbor or the stroller, and is headed straight for them!
What you do next depends partly on how you are wired, your past experiences, and your physical abilities, but how to enhance your ability to react is the focus of a later lesson.
Today, I want you to notice how you continually updated your SA as events unfolded. How being in a familiar environment affected your data input and assessment. If you had a similar experience in an unfamiliar place, you would not have known if the dog barking was due to something amiss, whether or not the neighbors’ argument was going to become violent, or that the neighbor with the stroller was going to cross the street.
What qualifies as familiar ground? I define it as places I visit enough that I know the layout and have an idea of what is “normal” or not, such as my home, place of work, worship, or restaurants and stores I frequently visit.
On the street corner in Kabul, I was in a place where the environment was somewhat unfamiliar. I knew being where I was incurred a high degree of risk, so I was wary. As I approached the corner, exiting a protected zone, I was already scanning the intersection and circle ahead, looking for suspicious activity. As soon as I reached the corner, I tried to observe as far out in the distance as I could and still identify objects. As I observed the activities within my perception, I disregarded things I could determine resulted from everyday activities.
This task is more difficult in an unfamiliar place and especially in a different culture. If I were on my front porch, I would process the sounds and sights almost unconsciously, but when I am in a strange place, or when danger is imminent, the process requires much more thought, intention, and time. When on unfamiliar territory and when the danger level is higher, I put more focus on extending my perception out as far out as I can, so that I gain the extra time required to process what I perceive.
That does not mean I ignore what is close by. On the street corner in Kabul, I kept returning my attention to the black Toyota, and as people and vehicles passed on the streets and sidewalks in or near the circle, I briefly focused on them. But unless something close catches my attention, as in the case of the Toyota, I quickly return my focus to the more distant things.
How much of your scanning should be focused out on the distance (breadth) versus close in (depth)?
I do not like to assign ratios or percentages, but in SA, as with most things in life-threatening situations, the answer is — almost always — it depends. For those needing to quantify it, I’d say that when in an open, high-risk environment or in an unfamiliar place, somewhere between 2/3 and 3/4 of my focus is on extending my SA as far out as possible, with the remainder reserved for occasional close scans and rechecking items of concern. If I notice something wrong or threatening, I focus on it until I either rule it out as a threat, determine it is a potential threat that needs to be monitored, or take an action to deter, mitigate, or avoid the threat it poses.
On that day in Kabul in 2006, I talked myself, unfortunately, into ruling out the black Toyota as an immediate threat. Even though I kept turning my attention back to it because its presence bothered me, I did not take adequate action to mitigate the threat it posed. I was simply lucky that the men driving it chose to try to kill others vice me and that I left the blast area five minutes before the detonation.
Let’s make sure you don’t rely on luck.
Today we concentrated on how the focus of your SA must vary and why. Have you been to an unfamiliar place, perhaps a foreign country, where it is difficult to interpret what you perceive going on around you?
Next lesson we will look at some specific examples of when to extend your perception in distance and when to focus very intently close-in. Until then, exercise your SA!