What is Situational Awareness?
Situational awareness (SA) is knowing what is going on around you and proactively influencing the situation for positive outcomes. Situational awareness is not a skill, it is a mindset anyone with discipline can adopt.
It is important to recognize threat in the perilous world we live in. One doesn’t have to pay attention. Maintaining a mindset which denies the plausibility of being victimized is a choice. Denial of potential threats makes recognizing and avoiding them improbable. Awareness, being responsible for one’s own security, and trusting one’s intuition is the foundation of situational awareness.
Levels of Awareness
Similar to “Coopers colors,” people characteristically operate on five levels of awareness.
1. Tuned Out: The average person is usually in a tuned out state of awareness. This condition is introspective and unaware of the environment, it is like being on auto-pilot or being pulled along by routine. Tuned out is arriving at a destination and not remembering how you arrived there.
2. Relaxed Awareness: A state of being relaxed while scanning your surroundings for potential hazards or changes in environment. Relaxed awareness is similar to defensive driving and does not make you weary if disciplined. Without discipline it is easy to slip back into a tuned out state.
3. Focused Awareness: Concentrated and undistracted. Focused awareness is like driving in hazardous road conditions. Eyes are on the road looking for other drivers, potholes, ice, and other obstacles, both hands are on the steering wheel. Focused awareness is tiresome and difficult to sustain for prolonged periods of time.
4. High Alert: Hypervigilance, highly responsive to stimuli, constant scanning of environment for threats. High alert induces an adrenaline rush. High alert is like almost falling of a cliff and catching yourself at the last moment, or a car suddenly pulling out in front of you unexpectedly, “Watch out! Hit the brakes!” High alert can be frightening, but you are still able to function. You can hit the brakes and remain in control. The adrenaline rush aids your reflexes during high alert. The human mind and body can only sustain high alert mode for short periods of time before becoming mentally and physically exhausted.
5. Comatose: Unconsciousness, shock, petrification, total lack of awareness. When comatose the brain ceases to process information and you can no longer react to reality. Passage of time slows when comatose and a person often experiences a state of denial “this can’t be happening.” When this happens a person sometimes observes themselves in third person, rather than participating in the event. Victims of crime repeatedly report experiencing this sensation of being unable to act during a attack.
Determining the Right Level of Awareness
The human mind and body require rest, so we spend time comatose while asleep. When securely at home relaxing we spend time tuned out, and this is perfectly apropos. However, some people maintain the tuned out mode when outside the home, and in unfamiliar environments (e.g., on the street at night in a bad part of town), or they adopt a mentality of denial that they can be victimized “That won’t happen to me.” so they are unprepared and unaware, tuned out.
Situational awareness doesn’t just apply to watching out for potential criminal acts. If you were driving in a tuned out state and a child suddenly rushes in front of your vehicle, you would not have seen the problem coming and will fail to react fast enough. This is because it is difficult to change mental states quickly. Often when people attempt to change states quickly they panic and go into shock, unable to take action.
Because it is difficult to operate in a state of focused awareness for prolonged periods of time, and because high alert can only be maintained for shorter periods, the basic level of awareness that should be practiced is relaxed awareness. Relaxed awareness can be maintained indefinitely without stress and fatigue, allowing you to go about life while affording you an effective level of personal security. When in an environment where there is potential danger (basically everywhere), you should be in a state of relaxed awareness. Then if you perceive something out of the ordinary or a potential threat you can “dial yourself up” to a focused awareness and assess the potential threat. If the threat is a false alarm you can dial yourself back down into a relaxed awareness. If you look and determine a potential threat exists, spotting it in advance allows you to take action to avoid it.
If going into an area known to be dangerous, you should dial yourself up to focused awareness. There are specific times and areas that require focused awareness such as, city blocks controlled by gangs, ATM machines, parking lots at night, high speed traffic, elevators, severe weather watches, etc.
Developing awareness takes practice. What at first might seem awkward will become seamless and eventually a habit. Being aware of the world around you and practicing situational awareness can keep yourself and others safer. Groups practicing situational awareness together help keep towns, cities, schools, parks and workplaces safe from danger.