During our last lesson, we discussed instances when it is prudent to extend the sphere of your Situational Awareness (SA) as far out as possible. Today we’ll cover when to focus your SA on your immediate surroundings and how what you look for is different than when your SA is focused further out. As you work through this lesson, remember this: perceiving a threat at a greater distance gives you more time to react, and react in ways that take more time. The closer a threat is, the less time to respond and fewer options.
When to Focus Close In
One of the conditions you should factor into your SA prioritization is your distance from other people, vehicles, or objects that are unknown to you; this includes people in a crowd, cars passing close by, or parked cars in an unfamiliar neighborhood. Does this mean you need to focus on these things every time you are close to someone or something? Absolutely not, but when you are somewhere you are not comfortably familiar with, it is prudent to up your level of SA.
The size and layout of the space are also factors. Are you in a building, room, or enclosure where you have constrained space to maneuver and limited routes of egress? Examples include being on a bus, in a shop, a crowded bar, or a movie theater. The restrictions on your movement and the resulting limits on your options mean your SA needs to be able to pick up more subtle indicators.
One of the most important factors we spoke about several lessons ago in Hard Lessons in SA is intuition: are the hairs on the back of your neck standing up?
Here I must give a nod to the body of work done by Gavin De Becker and his book The Gift of Fear. De Becker does an excellent job explaining intuition and its role in keeping us safer. As he describes, and as I proved in the Hard Lessons Blog, we all too often ignore or rationalize intuitive warnings, and we suffer the consequences of events we could have avoided or mitigated had we heeded and acted on a feeling that told us a threat was present.
Often, the stimulus that triggers the response in your limbic system that caused those hairs to stand up is close enough to you that you are unconsciously able to pick up subtle nuances. I say subtle because if it were a glaring indicator, you would not be acting on intuition; instead, you would be in full “fight or flight mode”! We want to give intuition and subconscious perception of danger a little help by being intentional about our SA up close!
Another reason you should focus on your immediate surroundings is that you first want to rule out or address the closest potential threats because:
- you will have less time to react,
- have fewer actions you can take, and
- you are much more likely to be forced to confront a threat that is close to you (whereas you have a better chance of avoiding one you perceive at a greater distance).
What Should We Look at Up Close
I first look at people that stand out for one reason or another and then scan people’s body language:
- Is someone’s body language out of synch with that of everyone else?
- When everyone else is relaxed, is there someone whose shoulders raise up, and he stiffens? Is it because he is angry, afraid, or what? Raising one’s shoulders and stiffening are often precursors to striking out or pulling out a gun or knife.
- Look at hands. They might be holding a potential weapon.
- Look at arms. They might be moving to retrieve something from a waistband, pocket, or inside a jacket.
- Look at shoulders. They often turn slightly ahead of the torso and legs. Quickly-turning shoulders may indicate fright, anger, or preparation to make a sudden move. If the person is close by, I want to know why, and I watch for more definitive indicators of their intent.
- Look at the head and neck. People often indicate emotion by how they hold their heads and necks; much of our motion begins with the head and neck.
- Look at the eyes. Are they narrowing, or are they staring wide-eyed? If so, I want to know what the person is looking at and why. Is it a threat they saw first? Are they the potential threat?
These indicators can give you precious seconds or even fractions of seconds to deal with a close-up danger in time to take prudent action.
Here’s a scenario where close-in SA focused on body language helped me:
We were on a training exercise, practicing the rescue of hostages on a passenger airplane. I was a member of the rescue force. We were armed with paintball guns. The light was low, so hands were not easily visible from a distance. We entered the plane suddenly and noisily. My job was to run down the aisle of the plane as quickly as possible, drawing the attention of any “terrorist” and shooting any I encountered on the way to the end of the aisle. At the same time, other rescuers were reaching their stationary positions, scanning for targets, and shouting for everyone to get their heads down with their hands on top of the seat in front of them. There was a lot of shouting, some shooting, noise, and a lot of confusion. Some “passengers” were complying, some were not, and some were yelling.
As I ran down the aisle, I saw the shoulders of one man in a seat near the front suddenly rise, and his head and neck stiffened. He was facing away from me. This occurred while everyone else was bending over. I began focusing on him even as I hurried toward where he was. He then stood up with his back still to me. He could have been a confused and frightened passenger, so at this point, I certainly did not want to “shoot” him, but his actions were provocative in context to the others around him, so I pointed the gun towards him as I ran. I remembered another training incident a year earlier, when a man playing the role of a hurt and confused passenger during that exercise required firm handling, but without harming him.
The man standing up on the plane then began to turn quickly around towards me, leading with his head, neck, and shoulders. As his hands became visible, I saw the paintball gun in his hand even as he was raising it up to fire. But since I had picked up on the earlier indicators, my paintball gun was already pointed at center mass as I continued running, and I fired two paintball rounds into his chest before he could get his weapon into position to shoot.
As the training participants later reviewed the exercise, the man I shot stated that he thought I might have fired before I knew for sure that he was playing the role of a terrorist; he said he did not believe I had enough time to see the weapon in his hands and react as I did.
In truth, he was partially right. I did not have enough time to see the weapon in his hands and then react before he shot first, but I saw the indicators that allowed me to take preemptive action and be in a position to act once I confirmed he did, indeed, have a weapon.
This is precisely the margin that prudent use of SA can give you when you are close to potential threats. It might not be to fire a gun but to assume a ready stance to be able to move and react or it may be to move a loved one back to a safer position.
“Prudence gives us a margin in which we can react, even when up close.” – Gary Harrington
How you react is a matter of training and experience. Being up close often requires a more dynamic, interactive response than is possible when further away from a threat. It could be a physical response such as blocking a blow or weapon, escaping a grasp, or attacking the person posing the threat. It could also be by engaging in a verbal interaction with bystanders, or the threatening person/s. Knowing when to do what is a matter of experience, maturity, and it never hurts to add a little bit of luck!
One thing is sure, the more training and experience you have, the greater the chance you will walk (or run) away from the incident alive and well.
There are times when we are obliged to face or confront a full-blown or potential threat and deal with it on the spot. During our next lesson, we will discuss when it is prudent to do so and some steps to take when you do.
Until then- Embrace the Power of Prudence!