Situational awareness is even more important to your defense than your skill with a firearm. Being able to observe your surroundings, assess potential threats, stay sane and respond appropriately–these are key to being a good protector and a bearable human.
There were years of my (John Lovell's) life when I was really good at staying on high alert, because that's what a Ranger battalion requires when operating in a combat zone. I was excellent with the tools of my trade and I was highly experienced and proficient at clearing homes, buildings and cities of enemy threats.
In those contexts, we were on a continual roller coaster ride between threat level yellow and threat level red. I guess you could say back in those days that (threat level) orange was the new (threat level) white.
In civilian life though, being situationally aware should not require these kinds of emotional/hormonal fluctuations. Instead, it should provide you with a set of disciplines and a paradigm for observing, processing and responding to situations with commensurate severity.
Situational Awareness (Should) Create Calmer People
Generally speaking, life in America should not (yet) require constant scanning, night-time vigils, you standing near your front door like the shotgun-wielding Principal Strickland in the movie Back to the Future. When I'm home, I should be hanging out with my kids, playing games with the family and trying to make out with my wife.
Obviously, of course, I'm making sure the door is locked and I've gotten plenty of contingency plans (and tools in every room of the house) should something happen, but for the most part my mind is at "threat level white."
"Threat level white" is situationally appropriate to the circumstances. How am I comfortable saying that? I can say that with a reasonable amount of certainty because I'm aware of the situation and, through experience and practice, I know when I should elevate my response through the color spectrum–from white to red.
Through good situational awareness, you're taking in and filtering available sensory data. As your filter becomes healthier and more attuned to what matters, you know what to dismiss and also what to keep watching for potential problems.
PRO TIP Learn the Threat Level Color Code:
White = Inside my secure home in a good neighborhood during a time of peace (no shooters on the loose in my state, no rioting or looting underway nearby, etc.)
Yellow = At the local Walmart, the mall parking lot, a grocery store, anywhere in public and I'm simply keeping my head on a gentle swivel making sure I'm just aware of my surroundings and noticing what people are wearing, doing, etc.
Orange = I've spotted a potential threat and am cycling through the OODA loop to determine next actions–to escalate or not to escalate.
Red = The threat is real and danger is imminent so I'm responding with force or evasive action.
Strengthen Your Ability to Profile and Stereotype
By no means am I encouraging bigotry and racism here, but when you're out and about casually but intentionally scanning your environment in yellow, don't be afraid to reasonably assemble a checklist.
PRO TIP Don't Be Distracted: If you're in a public place, especially transitional areas like parking lots, entryways, alleyways, empty hallways, restroom areas, gas pumps don't start taking or making phone calls or text messages (for example). You should be standing tall and with your head on a swivel.
I realize it's politically incorrect to encourage you to scan your environment and categorize people as potential threats, but, statistically speaking, you're a million times less likely to be attacked by an elderly woman in a dress than you are by a tattooed 19-year-old with a hoodie down over his eyes and his hands in his pockets.
One I'm ready to help stand up when she falls walking the half mile toward Belk. The other I'm thinking of how I'd take him down if he starts walking toward my family. I've got nothing against tattoos or hoodies, by the way, but i'm just being practical here.
Watch for Predatory or Criminal Tendencies
Usually there's not going to be a dangerous person lurking around every corner, especially if you take the time-tested advice to avoid stupid people in stupid places at stupid times of the day. But even if you're with your family, in the middle of the day, walking out of church or the local Kroger, you still don't want to be caught by surprise.
Predators don't want you to perceive them as a threat. They want to go unnoticed. So maybe they'll stare you down and quickly look away when you see them. Maybe they'll use obstructions like parked cars or grocery aisles to stay hidden. Or they could hide their identity and intentions in other ways.
- Oversized, unseasonable jackets
- Sunglasses inside
- Pieces of clothing being used to conceal a face or a weapon
There's also some behaviors that indicate bad intentions.
- Nervous scanning
- Hiding Their Face
- Clenched Fist
- Hands in pockets
- Staring you down
- Sudden appearance that's too close for comfort
Action Always Beats Reaction
One of these strange behaviors doesn't necessarily mean you're seeing an aggressor in action, but they should trigger a red flag to encourage you to keep watching and be prepared. If you can string together a few indicators of a problem person, chances are pretty good you might need to be on threat level orange.
The point of situational awareness is not to give you an excuse to use your hard-earned tactical skills to draw down on someone. Instead, you want to make yourself and your loved ones a difficult target for problem people so you can avoid having to empty your magazine. It's a way of giving your common sense the best possible chance of winning the day in place of so many other possibilities.
One of the persistent problems regarding situational awareness is that people think they have it. Unfortunately, the most common way people realize they don't is through real-life situations that shake them from their delusion.
Another, more desirable way to learn of your deficiencies in situational awareness is through good training. As with all important tactical skills, it's critical to Train Hard. Train Smart. Don't Let the Zombies Sneak Up On You.