Situational Awareness

Let's take a quick poll to start today's post. How many of you had your head buried in your phones during your morning commute, or even better, how many had your headphones on this morning?

My guess is almost everyone.

Did you even notice anyone or anything that was around you? Do you even remember how you got to work? While you're waiting for your train or standing in line for a coffee are you paying attention to your surroundings or instead are you checking how many likes your latest Instagram post received? Probably the latter, right?! I’m guilty of that too. But by keeping your head buried in your phone, book or listening to audio you are opening yourself up to be a target.

A target for who or what you ask? On a daily basis, that will be mostly common criminals. People who want to steal your money, your phone, or even worse assault you. I wake up to at least one text message alert from DCPD that there has been some sort of assault, robbery, carjacking, or murder in the city while I slept.  And while these incidents don't often happen right in my neighborhood (some do) they are happening around me and in areas I frequent. I don’t want to be a victim. I want to be prepared in any way that I can to prevent bad things from happening to me.

These texts and news alerts should be used as incentive to train ourselves to take into account our situational awareness.  Most incidents can be avoided with situational awareness.

What is Situational Awareness?

Simply put it's being aware of your surroundings. It's the process of observing, identifying, and understanding what is happening in the environment around you. From driving, to walking, to conversing with a neighbor, you always want to be aware of what is happening around you.  You want to be scanning your environment and checking ‘your six’.  As you are taking in your surroundings you should be looking out for any red flags and have an understanding of what you might be observing.

You can sort of think of this as keeping your head on a swivel but not in frantic way. You want to be calmly scanning your environment…what do you see, smell, hear, and feel? By maintaining a calm demeanor, you’ll be mentally prepared to assess a situation if you notice any red flags. Additionally, by keeping your head up you project more confidence and appear to be more alert, which make you less likely to be a target.

We all tend to live fairly routine lives. We get ourselves on a schedule for work, school, or the gym and continue to add appointments to our growing list of commitments. We end up being so engrossed in our schedules that while good because we are getting stuff done, also tends to open us a little to potential threats. Rushing from one appointment to another while also multitasking like taking a call or answering an email causes us to be distracted, less alert, and vulnerable. This type of complacency in our routines leads us to be living in code white (see below).

What Are Red Flags?

A red flag is anything that seems out of place. This depends on your environment and what is normal for your environment. For example, is it 100 degrees outside and someone is wearing a down jacket. You want to look for things that seem odd, standout, or out of place.  You know the area where you live the best so trust yourself when something looks out of place. The environment you are in should dictate your level of situational awareness. 

Varying Situational Awareness Methodologies

There are so many articles published regarding different methodologies used to help with situational awareness that are broken down into color and category threat levels. It can be somewhat overwhelming but it's important to have an understanding of some of those and from there apply as much as the information you can to your daily life. The two most popular are the OODA Loop and Jeff Cooper's Color Code. 

The OODA Loop

The OODA Loop, which stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act, is a decision-making process that was created by John Boyd, an Air Force fighter pilot. This one is pretty common and is not only used for situational awareness but also for decision-making. This was his way of explaining how our minds react to different stimulus and it's a great tool for evaluating and avoiding a potential defensive situation. While the term might be new, we actually perform the OODA Loop numerous times a day. Here is a great example of the OODA Loop being executed in our daily lives (well maybe more like mine LOL):

  1. You observe that you are tired.

  2. You orient yourself by recalling that their is a coffee shop around the corner.

  3. You decide to go to the coffee shop.

  4. You act by ordering a coffee, drinking it, and letting that caffeine work it's magic.

When applied to situational awareness, observe and orient are the key stages. We must observe what is a happening in our environment, take in any red flags that we observe, and then orient ourselves based on what we observed in order to decide and act accordingly. Observe and Orient are the two most important aspects of the OODA Loop when it comes to situational awareness. Orient is not just about your physical position, it's about taking in what you have absorbed and understanding that situation so you can determine (decide) the best course of action and carry out that decision (act).

Taking it a step further let's use the coffee example to apply the OODA Loop to situational awareness. When you walk into the coffee shop, you observe how many people are inside, where the exits are, and if there are any red flags. You then orient yourself if possible by sitting closer to the exit, with your back to the wall that way you can decide on your exit strategy and easily act on it if a threat should arise. 

Jeff Cooper's Color Code

Jeff Cooper was a US Marine that was noted as the first to use this type of color code chart to assess one's state of mind. It wasn't originally intended to address situational awareness or defensive encounters. However, because it evaluates one's mindset from one level to another he adapted it to use and it's a great assessment tool for use in determining the mindset condition in which we live in and react.

Color Code of Awareness, Situational Awareness Condition Levels

There are four main color levels of awareness, white, yellow, orange, and red. But, more importantly, keep in mind that this isn't a threat level indicator. This color code is about your readiness to respond to a threat in terms of your mental state at any given time.

  • White: In condition white, you are totally unaware of what is happening around you. This is like someone who has their music on loud with their head down scrolling through Instagram while crossing a busy street. In this condition you are assuming there is nothing bad that can happen to you. While the example I provided is an extreme, it is very common to live in condition white while at home or at work where routine and security make us feel safe.

  • Yellow: In condition yellow, you're taking quick mental notes of what is going on around you. You're relaxed but aware. You're looking for things that are out of the ordinary by scanning those around you, the environment you're in, the sounds you're hearing, and even what you might smell. During your daily routine be careful not to fall back to condition white so start working on breaking those bad habits.

  • Orange: In condition orange, you have seen something that appears out of the ordinary to you which gives you concern. This may or may not be an immediate threat to you. You'll begin to observe the possible threat or threats and determining your next actions. It is still important to continue to scan your environment and not lose your situational awareness by only watching that potential threat. Create distance between yourself and the potential threat until you have determined it is safe or have found an alternative solution.

  • Red: In condition red, you are confronted with a threat and you are going to have contact with that threat. If you are attacked or assaulted, then you must be ready to defend yourself hopefully with a self-defense tool that is easily accessible. Be prepared to act and do not hesitate. If possible, deescalate the situation and create distance between yourself and the threat.

I like this color code because it's simple and easy to interpret. Next time you are out and about, assess which one of these levels you are at during various times of day. In reality, you should always be living in yellow.

Situational Awareness Tips

  1. Ditch the headphones. If you must listen to music, audio-books, or podcasts then use one earbud so that you can still have one ear available to hear what is happening around you. However, my suggestion is to ditch the earbuds all together when you are out in public. If you must take a call or text, stop somewhere safe, with your back to a wall so you can see what is happening around you.

  2. Keep your head up. Social media isn’t going anywhere. so ditch that electronic leash. Calmly scan your surroundings and casually look behind you when you’re walking so you know if someone is creeping up on you. 

  3. Make eye contact with people you pass on the street. Criminals are less likely to target people who they’ve made eye contact with. Keeping your head up and making eye contact projects confidence and makes you less likely of a target.

  4. Walk the perimeter of the crowd.  If you are in a crowded area, stay on the outside of the crowd. This allows for an easier escape should you need to and you are less likely to be trapped in the middle.

  5. Take notice of your position. Are your sightlines blocked? Are you standing or seated somewhere so that you can visually see all exit/entry points? Against the wall eliminates the need for you to be concerned with what is happening behind you. 

  6. Have an exit strategy. This doesn’t need to be complicated and takes only a few minutes. Make note of your exits, the possible pathways to these exits, and any objects to help guide you should your sight be compromised.

  7. Understand what is normal for the environment. Does something or someone seem odd or standout?  Are there any red flags?

  8. Carry a tactical flashlight or other non-lethal self-defense tools. The flashlight can be used to check under your car at night, to help light up dark streets, inside retail establishments, and can also be used as a weapon should you need it. Additionally, having some optional non-lethal defense tools on hand is never a bad idea just in case something were to go wrong.

  9. Avoid the phone call walk. I know a lot of people (women specifically) that call their friends, family, or spouses if they are walking alone at night. I've done this too. You may think because you have a person on the other end of that phone that you have someone that can help you but there really isn’t much they can do. This gives you a false sense of security. You are better off walking quickly and being situationally aware. 

  10. Change your routine. It's easy to go the same route. Sometimes it's a hassle to go around the block to get to your destination. However, is hassle worth more than your safety? Not changing up your routine could have varying consequences if someone was targeting you. Leave for work or run your routine errands at less predictable intervals so you don't create a pattern. You don't want to be predictable.

  11. Trust your gut.  If something feels off, then cross the street, go in the other direction, walk into a store, or find a police officer. Something I learned in my NRA Carry Guard training class was the acronym, JDLR, which stands for Just Doesn't Look Right and this falls right into place with trusting your gut. If something doesn't look right, then it probably isn't. Don't worry about being polite or offending someone. When it comes to your safety and personal security, that should be the last thing on your mind.

You want to put yourself in a position to observe, detect, and avoid/react. We are all walking through a fog most of the day and completely oblivious to what is happening around us. Being situationally aware means you are less likely to be a target and you are reducing your risk by paying attention. The point here in this post and at SMT is not to scare you. It’s to educate, inspire, and encourage you to become self-reliant. By being more aware of your surroundings, you'll not only know what's happening around you so you can be prepared but you'll be more present in your day.   

When you avoid the fight, you win the fight.


Disclaimer: The information provided here is based on my opinions and for informational use only. I am not an expert in this field and any items/services/products mentioned in these posts should be used at your own discretion and in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. You can read more about my privacy & disclosure policies here.