Situation awareness is a key component of personal protection. In fact it may well be the key component of personal protection around which everything else is built. Interest and appreciation for the importance of situational awareness is growing. One aspect that is sometimes overlooked though is the importance of tying it to effective decision making. The best situational awareness in the world will be of very limited use if you can’t immediately apply it to effective decision making. You will be aware of the threat and see it unfolding but be unable to take action if you don’t address this aspect.
We often discuss the need to establish baselines wherever we are and wherever we go as a key component of situational awareness. A baseline refers to the normal pattern of activity for a particular area (or pattern of behavior when applied to a specific person). Whenever we enter an area we should seek to establish what type of activity is normal there and what the pattern of normal life is. This then allows us to detect any anomaly, which is defined as any abnormality or inconsistency, in that environment.
The US Marine Corps Combat Hunter Program, the precepts of which form an excellent basis for enhancing situational awareness and can be found described in greater detail in the book Left of Bang, provides the following formula:
Baseline + Anomaly = Decision
This formula means that once you have established a baseline for an area and then detected an anomaly against that baseline you must make a decision. What that decision is will vary greatly depending on the circumstances. In some cases you will have the luxury to take more time assessing the person or the activity and in other situations it will require an immediate decision and immediate action to keep yourself safe. In many cases you may have time to gather additional information from a safe vantage point and make a more informed decision on what action, if any to take. It’s important to note that sometimes, many times even, your decision will be to do nothing, but understand this is still a conscious decision. When you approach the situation using this formula then you are not doing nothing because you are frozen or unable to make a decision, you are doing nothing because you have determined that (1) no threat exists (2) no threat is immediate or imminent and you have space to make a more detailed assessment. Other times the situation will dictate an immediate decision and require action be taken without delay.
This is the difference between applying critical and intuitive thinking. When our initial assessment indicates there is no immediate threat we can take our time and engage in more critical thinking to assess the situation further. Likewise, we can utilize critical thinking in most cases when we develop baselines and when we are training and developing these skills. The only exception or caveat to this is that there may be some occasions where we need to develop a baseline very rapidly, such as entering a new and unfamiliar environment where there may be a threat. This would likely be the exception not the rule though and even in these rare situations we would be pulling from information we learned on previous occasions in other environments. In some cases we may need to make a decision immediately based on very limited information and this calls for intuitive thinking. If we find ourselves confronted with a person or situation that we know is an anomaly and we believe there is a threat present we need to be able to act quickly and decisively. This is often no small feat given that we may not be accustomed to doing this. We have used the analogy of driving as it relates to situational awareness before, and it fits here as well. Often times when we are driving we will see another vehicle move suddenly or erratically and we automatically adjust to move our vehicle into a safer position and avoid a collision. We want to develop a similar ability to rapidly assess a situation and take action when it’s warranted.
First of all we need to develop the knowledge and experience to recognize potentially threatening behavior. There will be numerous times when you detect an anomaly against the baseline and while it is an anomaly, it’s also harmless. When you need to consider taking action is when the behavior resembles behavior we recognize and understand to be potentially threatening. This can include, correlating movement, undue attention, checking for witnesses and exits, concealing and furtive movement, tactical positioning or recognizable pre-attack indicators. It’s important to note that none of these are foolproof or ironclad. They must be assessed in the context of the situation. Developing skills to identify this type of behavior requires both knowledge and practice.
How do we gain knowledge? We do this by reading and studying about pre-attack behaviors, speaking to people who have experienced them and by watching videos of actual incidents. Once upon a time before the internet became omnipresent and before everyone had cameras on their cell phones (and before people had cell phones) serious students of this subject had to go to disreputable and dangerous places where violence happens to observe these events and get familiar. This presented a physical danger to the person, as their “research” might become too real if they were drawn into the action. Now with proliferation of CCTV cameras, cell phone cameras and the availability of services like YouTube, Liveleak and Vimeo, it’s easy to view a variety of criminal events such as robberies and assaults and to replay and study these events closely. This video aspect also allows us to “practice” and get familiar with different types of events across a wide variety of different environments.
As we become more familiar with the cues and warning signs that may precede violent action of some type we can consider responses or countermeasures that we can take. Experts generally talk about a “rule of three” when identifying anomalous and potentially threatening behavior, but we don’t want to get too rooted t this concept. If we can detect two and the threat is compelling we will need to act quickly and not waste time analyzing and searching for the third indicator. This is the time to employ intuitive thinking.
The OODA Loop is a helpful model to use for decision making and taking the initiative in the face of a potential threat and most importantly with incomplete and imperfect knowledge. The information you have will almost always be incomplete and therefore imperfect. Waiting to get all the facts or develop perfect information can result in injury or death to you. OODA is an acronym for Observe > Orient > Decide > Act and it is described as a loop because you are constantly cycling through these actions when you are making decisions under stress. The concept was developed by US Air Force Colonel John Boyd and its initial application was directed towards aerial combat. The idea being that the pilot that could manage the OODA Loop faster than his opponent would come out victorious. The same concept applies to personal security. If you can recognize and anticipate a threat before it presents a danger to you, then you can take action to avoid, preempt or mitigate that risk and therefore take the initiative.
Mindsetting and visualization can help us practice decision making. Running through a mental “what if” game on a periodic basis will help us develop the ability to make more rapid decisions based on our environment and potential threats we might encounter. As we work to train and practice our situational awareness, we should also work to develop rapid decision-making to accompany it. These skillsets work hand-in-hand and provide us with arguably our best method for self-protection and preservation.