Beginner's Guide to Situational Awareness
Protect yourself. Improve your situational awareness with this beginner's guide. Read on for tips you can practice daily.
It's easy for things to slip by us, especially when we've got our noses glued to our smartphones.
The problem: Being oblivious to your surroundings makes it a lot easier for someone to take advantage of you while you're tuned out. Your purse could get snatched, your home could be burglarized, a snooper could steal your credit card number.
Staying alert, whether you're at home or out and about, is the key to heading off trouble before it has a chance to start. Sounds easier said then done when you’re woefully out of practice. We’ve got a quick crash course in situational awareness to get you back on the alert track so you can stave off would-be bad guys.
WHAT IS SITUATIONAL AWARENESS?
Basically, situational awareness means you're aware of what's going on around you at any given time. Or, if you want to get technical, it is "the ability to identify, process, and comprehend critical elements of information," according to the U.S. Coast Guard.
So, why does situational awareness matter anyway? Well, for one thing, it can help you avoid potential safety threats. If you're crossing a busy street, for instance, you wouldn't just step off the curb without checking the traffic both ways first.
It can also help you to protect your home. Research has shown that burglary rates go down in areas where residents all know one another. Getting to know the people who live nearby and paying attention to who's coming in and out of the neighborhood makes it tougher for a burglar to blend in with the environment.
KEY PRINCIPLES OF SITUATIONAL AWARENESS
You now know what situational awareness, but what does it look like in action? It really comes down to two specific things: observation and orientation.
The observation phase just means taking a look around wherever you happen to be and noticing anything that sticks out. There are a few things in particular that you'd want to pay attention to, including:
- People: Any time you're someplace where there are other people, you should be looking at what they're doing and how they're acting. Someone who's up to no good will almost always give themselves away through their body language or the way they're acting.
- Location: The next thing you want to take note of is your physical surroundings. When you're in a building, for example, look around for the exits. If you're someplace you've never been, do a quick check for landmarks so you can find your way around if anything happens and you need to get out quickly.
- Sensory cues: Besides being clued in to who and what's around you, you also want to soak up any sensory cues that could indicate trouble. That includes things like unusual smells or sounds.
Improving your observation skills
The only way to get better at being an observer is to practice. If you're at home, you can start by checking around for things like fire hazards or anything that may be an invitation to a burglar. Overgrown hedges or trees, for instance, provide cover that a burglar could use to get into your home unseen, so you'd want to trim them back.
You can also practice being an observer when you're at work, running errands or just having dinner. Don't expect to be able to memorize every single detail at first. Focus on something small, like what the people around you are wearing, and go from there.
Once you've gotten the hang of observing your surroundings, you can move on to the next phase of situational awareness: orientation. To be oriented means you know what a particular situation or place is supposed to be like. There are three steps to getting oriented:
- Step 1: Establish a baseline
The baseline is the status quo for what you'd expect to be going on at any given time. For example, the baseline at a public library would be people quietly reading or checking out books, while the baseline at a sporting event would be much louder and busier. If you're able to figure out what the baseline of a situation is, things that don't fit in with what you expect suddenly stand out a lot more clearly.
- Step 2: Study people's behavior
Once you know where the baseline is, you can zoom in on how the people around you are acting. Seeing someone do something that seems completely out of context could be a tip-off that they don't belong there. For example, if someone knocks on your door asking for directions and they're acting fidgety or nervous, their real purpose may be casing your home for a robbery. Knowing how a person would normally act in that situation can help you decide if something isn't right.
- Step 3: Form an action plan
"Be Prepared" is the Boy Scouts' motto, but it's one you can and should take to heart if you're serious about situational awareness. Even if a threat isn't apparent, you always need to have a back-up plan for how you'd react if things were to suddenly take a turn for the worse. That's why being observant and orienting yourself is so important.
Let's go back to burglary again as an example. About 60% of burglaries occur during the day when no one's home. Let's say you decide to take the day off from work and someone decides to break in. What would you do to stop the burglary or try to get help? These are the kinds of things that situational awareness encourages you to think about.
Situational awareness means making a conscious effort to know what's happening in the environment around you. It means learning to walk again without browsing on your phone. And it can take practice. If you're willing to put the effort into learning how to do it properly, it becomes almost like second nature. After awhile, you’ll feel like someone who’s so observant that you could solve crimes — even as your ultimate goal is to prevent a crime from happening to you.