You’re walking out to your car in a dark parking lot, your arms full of shopping bags. From your right, someone steps out suddenly from behind a car and confronts you. You’re a little startled, but you focus on them without getting too close. Out of nowhere, hands grab your left shoulder and spin you around, pushing you down. You lose your balance and your head smacks off the pavement with a sound like slapping a watermelon, and a sudden, painful ringing fills your ears. The unseen assailant tears at your shopping bags, while the first man shouts at you to stay quiet or get shot. You’re on the ground in the parking lot now, the victim of a sudden and random crime.
What happened? How could you have prevented it? You were distracted by the first person, while his accomplice came up behind you. This classic scenario demonstrates what happens if you’re not using an important survival skill: situational awareness. As we will show, it can save you from injury or worse if you learn a few techniques and use them relentlessly.
The term “situational awareness” is perhaps best known from fighter-pilot training: being aware of the situation you’re in can save your life, being unaware can kill you. It highlights the human tendency to focus on the immediate target — in a dogfight, the plane you’re chasing — at the expense of the rest of the situation — the “MiG at your six,” the enemy fighter who has now slipped in behind you and has fired on you while you were focused in front.
Situational awareness requires learning ways to counteract millions of years of evolutionary adaptation, which force us to concentrate on an obvious, single threat to our lives. If you’re a primitive hunter-gatherer who suddenly finds himself in danger of being hunted or gathered, your natural instinct is to identify the threat — another predator who thinks you’d be a pretty tasty treat, with no horns or claws, just delicious soft flesh. (And maybe some not-so-primitive hunters, as anyone who’s ever stumbled across a bear or mountain lion while hunting for turkeys has ever experienced.)
The natural human response to threats, called “fight or flight,” is just that: our bodies release epinephrine and norepinephrine, two hormones that bring about a chain of physical changes. These hormones increase our heart rate to improve oxygenation, dump glucose into our blood so our muscles will have fuel for maximum performance, and in short leave us ready to fight, or run away and live to fight another day. The problem is that some of these mechanisms work against us: yes, concentrating all our attention on the immediate threat means we know where the bear or lion is at the moment, but unfortunately a serious cognitive side effect of the fight-or-flight mechanism is tunnel vision.
Tunnel vision is just what it sounds like: as your body begins the fight-or-flight response, blood is shifted into the muscles and limbs, and away from areas of the body that are “unnecessary” to protect you from the immediate threat. One of the effects of this is the loss of peripheral vision — you retain the central focus, but the edges of vision can “go dark” under extreme situations. Result: you lose the ability to observe items outside the center of your field of vision. Fortunately, stress hormones often make your hearing more acute, but this works against you, as the extra acuity sometimes simply adds to the stress.
Three Stages of a Situation
While these provide some advantages for protection against a single threat, they can prevent you from noticing additional threats — whether that’s the MiG at your six or the mugger’s accomplice walking up behind you. So how can you counteract this? Let’s start by analyzing the most common model of situational awareness, which addresses three stages of analyzing a situation: perception, comprehension and projection.
Perception, the first stage, involves noticing all the elements in your situation — not just what’s in your tunnel vision, but everything around you: people, objects, their locations, motions, actions, the entire setting or environment you’re in. What do you see? Look for people, but don’t limit yourself to those you see. Are there hiding places — doorways, driveways, alleyways leading into the route you’re taking? Are there automobiles or other objects blocking your view? Are any of these people, automobiles or objects moving — and if so, are their movements part of a pattern (the regular flow of traffic, for example), or do they change in some way (moving faster, changing lanes, etc.)?
Comprehension, the second stage, involves understanding and analyzing what you’ve seen. Those rapidly-moving vehicles, for example — are they perhaps moving erratically, coming towards you in a way that could put you in danger? Are any of the alleys or doorways in your route potential areas where an attacker could hide — or a potential route to safety for you? In this stage, you recognize, interpret, and evaluate the situation as you perceive it, from the position you’re in.
Projection, the final stage, involves looking ahead to the actions that the people and things in your situation are likely to take. Is the driver of that SUV texting on a cell phone about to run into you? The person walking behind you on an unfamiliar street — is he closing in on you? If I cross the street here, am I in an area with fewer potential threats and therefore less likely to be a victim? In this final stage, you consider what you’ve seen and what you understood, and you project it forward — for yourself and the potential threats — so that you have a sense of what is likely to happen.
In real life, situational awareness affects so much of what you do, from backing out of a parking space to walking through an unfamiliar neighborhood in the dark. And best of all, the most important piece of advice in learning to use situational awareness is simple: use it all the time. Practice not only makes perfect, it makes it automatic.
“…the most important piece of advice in learning to use situational awareness is simple: use it all the time.”
One practice for increasing your situational awareness skills is simply to observe other drivers when you’re on the road. My kids used to chuckle whenever I’d say, “I’m trying to figure out what that guy in the white truck is doing so that at least one of us knows.” Traffic gives an opportunity to notice unexpected actions, motions, and other breaks from expected patterns. It teaches you to scan (stage 1, perception) and recognize vehicles whose motion differs from the surrounding traffic (stage 2, comprehension). Stage 3, projection, comes when you take a subtle action to put yourself out of the way of oncoming danger — whether pulling to the right for an ambulance coming up behind you with lights and sirens or taking an exit to avoid a driver who appears to be drunk or exhibiting road rage.
Some examples may make things clear: A college friend of mine, who worked as a waitress in a family restaurant, told me about a night she closed the restaurant, which meant driving home about 11 PM. On the way, she noticed that the same set of headlights had made every turn she did. When the car got closer to her in traffic, she saw four young males who made suggestive gestures to her. She made a few quick turns; the car continued to follow her… right up to the point that she turned into the parking lot of the police station that she had been heading for. The car full of “youths” left the scene very quickly, considering they were directly in front of a police station; my friend waited several minutes, then drove safely home without further incident.
On foot, you need to follow the same three-step process: identify, observe, and prepare for potential threats from people or places. It might mean watching for doorways — especially businesses, if you’re in a commercial area — as possible avenues of escape or safety, as well as watching for threats and recognizing patterns. Another friend tells the story of an evening that she was shopping in a fairly upscale neighborhood in Portland when she noticed the same man going into every shop she entered. “He just looked out of place,” she said when she told the story later — alone, not shopping with a friend or partner, not dressed like the other shoppers in the neighborhood. “And he followed me into every store I went into,” even after she crossed several streets.
How she evaded him: after jaywalking (and being followed a few moments later), my friend slipped into a vintage shop, near where she had parked her car, which had a large display near the front door. She quickly ducked behind the display, out of sight. The suspicious man came into the shop and looked around, presumably trying to find her. My friend hurried back out of the shop, dashed to her car, and drove away with the doors locked.
“…being aware of the situation you’re in can save your life, being unaware can kill you.”
In both of these stories, situational awareness — noticing a man who seemed out of place for the situation, or noticing a pattern of headlights that made every turn the waitress made on her way home — keyed these two into the awareness of a potentially dangerous interaction. It’s that reaction itself, sometimes passed off as “gut instinct,” the result of thousands of years of survival of the fittest, that can serve to perceive, then comprehend, and finally strategically act to neutralize the threats in a situation.
How can you develop your situational awareness? I talked with Ryan Tuttle, CEO and president of Threat Dynamics, an immersive firearms training facility in Sherwood, Oregon. Ryan’s firm trains law enforcement and private citizens in the whole process of situational awareness, from recognizing and identifying threats to the most important part of the process: having the judgment to respond correctly to the specific threat facing you.
“We train people to break the tunnel-vision reflex,” said Ryan. “You have to recognize when you’ve got tunnel vision and learn to look around for all kinds of threats.”
Ryan’s company has an effective (and exciting) way of teaching you to do just that. They offer a number of immersive tactical training classes (including certification for concealed carry permits), which at the top level include classroom instruction in the theory of situational awareness plus an understanding of the legal issues in self-defense. After that come the fun parts: digital video simulations where you put theory into practice in real time, using modified Glock pistols that use CO2 cartridges to make the slides move back as in live fire (if with less recoil) and laser sights that interact with the computer to give you feedback after the training scenarios.
“The hardest thing to teach people,” Ryan stressed several times, “is NOT to shoot. If you’re carrying a firearm, it should be your last resort but it’s often treated as the first resort — if you have this really big hammer, everything looks like a nail.” To that end, much of the classroom time involves learning when the law says you can defend yourself; in many instances, given the legal ramifications, Ryan says, “once you fire, you’ve lost.”
Perhaps the most powerful use of situational awareness is just that: to give you an edge in a life-threatening situation that can let you avoid it, defuse it, or otherwise emerge the clear victor without the awful consequences (legal and otherwise) that come from the use of deadly force. One of the specific techniques Ryan teaches is “presentation of the firearm,” illustrated here: the pistol is held close to your chest but in front of you, the muzzle is pointed down, your finger is off the trigger, and your support hand is open at the butt of the pistol. From here you can rapidly raise the gun to firing position, a simple move that is drilled into you in the simulation.
“If you’re in a gunfight and your opponent has a pistol in his belt and you present your firearm like this,” Ryan says, “you’ve already won, without having to shoot.” And it’s the regular and disciplined application of situational awareness that gets you to that winning position.
Editor’s Note: A version of this article first appeared in the February 2015 print issue of American Survival Guide Magazine.
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