Situational Awareness 101: What You Need to Know
The ability to know what is going on around you as you head out seems to be an incredibly rare skill set nowadays. People walk down the streets with their eyes on their phones, some maybe listening to music, completely unaware of their surroundings. We’ve all witnessed it, and we all fall victim to it.
Situational awareness is not so much about gathering every little detail about your environment, but more about knowing which details to pay attention to. During this guide we are going to be looking at how you can effectively enforce situational awareness within your life.
The fact is, it is YOU that is ultimately responsible for your own protection and that of your family.
One thing that your mind starts to rely on is what is known as normalcy bias. This bias leads us in to a false sense of security. Let’s say that you visit the local shop every morning to pick up some shopping. Nothing bad has ever happened here to you before and so this influences your mind in to thinking that nothing bad will EVER happen to you here.
Little signs could display that are out of the ordinary but your mind may dismiss them entirely. It is because of this, that you MUST be aware of your normalcy bias and learn to overcome it while practicing your situational awareness.
- 1 Establish Your Baseline
- 2 The Alert State
- 3 Minimise Blind Spots
- 4 Become Fully Present
- 5 What is Normalcy Bias?
- 6 Jeff Cooper’s Color Code for Situational Awareness
- 7 Exercises to Improve Your Situational Awareness
- 8 Conclusion
Establish Your Baseline
You must first establish your baseline in order to effectively perform situational awareness. This baseline is the state of what things look like, sound like and feel like at any given moment within the normal state of affairs.
Each place that you visit will have a different baseline. In your own town, it wouldn’t take you much thought to know the types of people that visit the area, the types of clothing that they wear, and the types of cars that are usually on the roads.
By establishing this baseline for the area that we live, we’re then capable of instantly recognising any variations to our baseline—which ultimately allows us to escalate the situation as appropriate.
The Alert State
Whilst practicing your situational awareness, your alert state needs to be right for the situation and environment. The best alert state of awareness is what is known as “relaxed alert” or the yellow color code. There is no particular threat going on around you but you have your head up and you’re using all of your senses to take in your surroundings.
Now, if you visit an area that you know has a very high crime rate, your alert state should be raised. In the same way, your alert state should change with any threats that occur at a moments notice – if something out of the ordinary suddenly shifts your attention.
Although your alert state is slightly heightened, it is important that you also remain relaxed. This will allow you to stay focused on what is going on around you. If you don’t have complete focus you can easily miss a warning sign that something is wrong. If we become nervous or stressed, we make more errors.
Minimise Blind Spots
Effective situational awareness is all about positioning. This one is a simple step that simply means that no matter where you go or what you are doing, you position yourself in such a way that allows you to take in the most of your surroundings whilst also minimising blind spots.
If you have a friend or partner that is also practicing their situational awareness, you can help each other by playing a game. It doesn’t matter if you are walking down the street or at a restaurant. Once the game starts you both start taking mental notes of the surroundings. Once you both leave you can start taking it in turns to ask the other one questions such as, “How many people were sat on the next table?”, “What colour was the car at the front?”, “How many people got up and went to the toilet whilst you were there?”, etc.
Become Fully Present
Once a possible threat has been observed, it is time to remove from your mind everything that is outside of this threat, and become fully present in the moment. Every other distraction in your mind is pulling you further away from the threat. This is more distance that your mind will have to cover to return to the threat, assess the entire situation, and come up with a viable response.
Let’s say that you are doing your morning shopping again and an armed man walks in and you make note of the threat. What do you do next? Situational awareness becomes useless if you can’t perform the necessary actions under stress once the threat has been detected. You must be fully aware of your abilities whilst operating under duress.
- Learn how your body responds in threatening situations
- Learn what happens to your emotions, thoughts, heart rate, muscles, etc.
Once you understand how you operate, you can then start to become accustomed to operating within this altered state.
Learn to have a basic plan of action upon witnessing a threat upon establishing your presence in any given area. Establish waypoints in your head that will be used as your go-to actions upon observing a threat.
Whilst sat eating in a restaurant be thinking about what your options are should a threat present itself. Is the fire evacuation plan blueprints on the wall? Learn where you are supposed to exit and take the table nearby. what we’re doing here is formulating mental exercises that give us options in the event of a sudden threat. These little mental steps will eventually become routine and with time, you will find your subconscious taking over the work.
What is Normalcy Bias?
There isn’t many people out there that like to admit that they have biases, idiosyncrasies and prejudices. We like to think of ourselves as rational human beings. An even few number like to admit that our brains are deceptive.
Take for example witnesses recalling an event. if you ask ten witnesses to tell you what had happened exactly, you will get told the event in ten different ways and the more that they retell the event, the more it will change. Why is this? Neurologists understand that we do not actually ‘recall‘ memories. Instead, we recreate them each time that we supposedly ‘remember’. We fill in more gaps every time that we remember the event.
I hope that made sense as I am about to tell you something else that may burst a bubble. Just as there is no such thing as Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny, there’s also no such thing as a rational human being.
There is no computer in this world that is able to match the incredible power of our brains. However, that doesn’t mean we are free of biases. Many of our biases are useful in everyday situations by providing us with short-cuts and assisting our decision-making process.
The problem is that these ‘helpful‘ biases can also be just as dangerous when they are used in the wrong situation. The first step in being able to address and confront our biases and fears is by actually recognizing them. There are disasters happening almost daily from hurricanes, tornadoes, ice storms, floods, terrorist attacks, economic collapse, etc. We think it won’t happen to us … until it does.
When we are familiar with certain things it is natural to gain comfort and security during those situations. We are creatures of habit. This is why, when we are faced with something out of those familiar settings, our stress levels increase to the point where our ‘fight, flight or freeze’ instincts kick in.
This desire for the status quo is called the ‘Normalcy Bias’ and although it can be a natural defense mechanism, normalcy bias is one of the most dangerous biases we have.
With a normalcy bias, we project current conditions into the future. It is a form of denial where we underestimate the possibility and extent of a looming disaster even when we have incontrovertible evidence that it will happen. We assume that since a disaster never has occurred, then it never will occur. Consequently, we fail to prepare for a disaster and, when it does occur, we may be unable to deal with it.
Our brains will deceive us into believing that just because it never has happened, it never will.
Our media and politicians lie to us continuously so that we are never told exactly what is happening. This is one of the many reasons why so many people are attached to inaction and delusion (“it may happen but not to me”) and in turn they refuse to accept that disaster, even when it’s staring them in the face.
Normalcy bias causes people to act as if life is going on as normal while the world is falling apart around them. They’ll say everything will pass as the disaster worsens.
There are many examples of such denial throughout history. Here are just a couple of examples of normalcy bias to better help you understand:
The Nazi Holocaust
The Nazi Holocaust provides us with an horrific example of normalcy bias. Normalcy Bias explains why so many of those Jews ignored and underestimated the obvious signs of danger even after the fact that they were required to wear yellow stars, possess a ‘J’ stamp ID card and discriminatory laws targeted them and their businesses. Many of those Jews could afford to have moved but they stayed and perished because of their Normalcy Bias.
Mount St. Helens Volcano
When Mount St. Helens volcano began to rumble in 1980, Park Rangers issued warnings for the residents to evacuate and they blocked access to keep the people out. Some of those residents chose to ignore the warnings and other campers and sightseers walked or drove around the barricades to get into the park. The issue was that they had camped there many times and since they had never encountered a disaster there before, their normalcy bias prevented them from understanding the possibility of one happening. Sadly the volcano violently erupted and 57 people lost their lives.
As you can see, some people will never take preventive action even when they have a disaster staring them right in the face. Too many people succumb to negative inertia and do not act until it is too late.
Prepping has gotten a bad name over the years not made any easier with certain TV and media companies. They may be seen as kooks for their perception of growing government oppression and their potential for armed resistance against a tyrannical government. The upside of this is that it encourages preppers to be secretive so the fewer friends and neighbors know about their prepping the better and the less likely that they’ll become the victims of robbery or overrun with freeloaders. On the downside, preppers who are simply trying to be responsible might be afraid to admit what they’re doing thus depriving other people of this best practice.
We live in an ‘instant gratification’ culture that makes it difficult preparing for a rainy day. In addition, the elitists ridicule people who prepare in response to the ‘chicken little’ survival industry; an industry that has cried “Wolf” so many times that people are discouraged from preparing. Nor does it help that we’re inundated by the ass media’s stories of a so-called recovery. Plus, our slow-motion economic train wreck makes it difficult to gauge our slowly declining standard of living.
Peer pressure also plays a part to the normalcy bias and the fear of being labeled as a nut. They may know that a disaster is imminent but are uncomfortable with the possibility that they will be scorned by their friends or co-workers.
How to Overcome Normalcy Bias
As with most things, there are also ways that we can reduce or overcome normalcy bias. If you think that you cant overcome human nature you’re wrong. You are already taking the first step by reading this guide. By reading up and gaining the knowledge of what normalcy bias actually is, you will be in a much better position to identify it in yourself and others as well as guard against it. The fact that you’re on this blog and reading this article means you are either already awake or at the very least are waking up to some of the threats that face us.
So how can you go about overcoming normalcy bias? Read our tips below to find out:
- Learn to think for yourself – you can’t just rely on the authorities to tell you what to do. And don’t expect them to come to your assistance in a disaster. Disasters will overwhelm them and their resources. Take the marathon bombing as an example, it took 10,000 government security personnel, martial law and the lock-down of the city of Boston to find one single nineteen year old kid. Learn to think for yourself.
- Acknowledge and learn – understand what normalcy bias is. Admit that you and your loved ones experience it to one degree or another.
- Be aware – who exactly is pushing your buttons? Humans gravitate toward comfort-driven messages and avoid unpleasant news. Being told our lives are in danger is distressing but ignoring such news could be deadly.
- Situational Awareness – pay more attention to your environment and the people around you at all times.
- Practice – practice by doing thought experiments anticipating possible problems and getting mentally ready for them. What would you do if you were mugged? How would you handle a job loss? The more you practice this, the greater the likelihood you’ll be able to choose between fight or flight rather than freezing up or surrendering.
- Real vs fake threats – all threats should be treated as if they are real until safe to assume otherwise. Ask yourself objective questions. How likely are we to get hit my an asteroid? It’s not impossible but it is highly unlikely. How likely are we to lose our jobs? That would be a much more likely scenario. How likely is the government and its media handmaidens lying to us that our economies are on the mend?
- Stay focused – start by taking baby steps. Stay focused and don’t try to do everything at once.
- Don’t let the media scare you – you have a much greater chance of being struck by lightning than being killed by a terrorist. Yet the media would have us believe that there’s a terrorist hiding around every corner.
- Be honest with yourself – wishful thinking and denial can be deadly. Hope is not a plan; hope is for the hopeless. If all you have is hope; you have nothing.
- Do a search – search for survival or prepper websites. Use your judgement to decide what make sense and what doesn’t.
- Plans – create and write down survival plans. What would you do in the event of a fire? Write down plans for various scenarios and practice them regularly to help you memorize them. Also, keep phone numbers handy for you and your children to call in addition to 999/911 i.e. friends, relatives, reliable neighbours.
- Understand peoples needs – take into account different individual’s physical, emotional and spiritual needs when you develop your plans. Plan on making everyone part of the team.
- Teamwork matters – ask your family or team for their ideas. You don’t know it all; nobody does. Several heads are better than one. Different people have different perspectives. Even children have ideas; not always the best but asking engages them, encourages them to think and makes them part of the team.
- Buy what you need beforehand – as you plan for various disasters, write down the gear, equipment or supplies you will need but that you don’t have and start to acquire them. For instance, many people do not have surgical, particulate or N95 face masks. The time to buy them is before you need them. Leave it too late and the stores will be cleaned out.
- Meeting points and communications – develop plans and meeting points if communication is out and practice them to uncover shortcomings and bottlenecks and alternate routes in the event of roadblocks.
- Have the right attitude – it is attitude that will help you to survive. You could have all the latest gear and skills but they are useless if you have the wrong attitude. What’s the right attitude? ‘Never Give Up‘.
If you believe that the government will save you during a disaster, you might as well kiss your behind goodbye. Don’t forget the epic failure of martial law in Boston after the marathon bombing where 10,000 donut eaters couldn’t locate a scrawny 19 year old kid until an old man found him hiding in a boat in his back yard.
Jeff Cooper’s Color Code for Situational Awareness
Jeff Cooper was a Marine, a self defense instructor, and a thinker. His thoughts have completely changed the world.
The system is simple and is built around four colors that each represent a different level of alertness.
In today’s society we must be ready for anything that comes our way whether it is an armed attacker, an intruder, or something completely different and the idea behind Jeff Cooper’s color code is to prepare your skills physically, but most importantly, mentally.
Let us not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around in awareness – James Thurber
Some people disagree with the system altogether and claim that you cannot go through life using this system without becoming an incredibly paranoid person who is not only a danger to yourself, but also to others. At the same time, those are the same people likely to become victims because they didn’t know how to be more aware and alert.
Jeff Cooper’s Color Code for Situational Awareness
It’s useful to remember and review these levels when you are practicing your own situational awareness.
Today, there have been many modern instructors that have added extra colors to the code which is just not necessary as the four colors already there cover everything that you need.
The four colors that make up Jeff Cooper’s color code are:
- White – relaxed and unaware
- Yellow – relaxed and aware
- Orange – carefully observing potential threats
- Red – confirmed threat, time for action
Jeff Cooper’s Color Code – White
The color white refers to the level at which a person is completely relaxed and unaware of their surroundings. This condition is never recommended. Even when at home you should have some form of alertness.
The fact is, most people spend their lives in the color white condition. You only need to take a short walk and you are likely to see many people walking around with their heads down in their phones, completely oblivious to the world around them.
You need to stop spending your time in this state of awareness. You need to fully understand the fact that no place is safe, it might just be a little safer than the last place.
Have you ever been in a situation in which “everything happened so fast…“? If so, it only happened so fast because you were spending that time at code white. There would have been warning signs but you were oblivious. If you had been paying attention, the situation could have been avoided.
Think about it, hundreds of people visit their local hospital every day and the majority of those injured, were injured because they weren’t paying attention.
Normalcy bias actually comes into play here which can often put us into the code white state. When we do things every day such as cooking, we have never had a kitchen fire before and so let our guard down and expect that it’ll NEVER happen. In this example, if a fire was to happen, you would be caught unprepared and that never ends well.
Will you be mentally prepared to help even though you are not in your normal routine? The goal is to never be in code white.
Jeff Cooper’s Color Code – Yellow
The color yellow is used to refer to the stage at which a person is still relaxed but are paying more attention to their surroundings. If somebody was to try and attack a person that is in code yellow, they shouldn’t be surprised or caught off guard. This is where you should try to spend most of your time.
During this condition, you’re not actively seeking out threats but you are fully aware of what can happen in different situations and places. Your head is on a swivel and you’re constantly monitoring the area around you. Always paying attention to the sights and sounds that surround you.
You need to be relaxed but always alert. This starts with controlling your stress levels. If you allow yourself to become too stressed, you will become unaware.
You also don’t want to become too aware in that you completely drain your stamina and put undue strain on your mind and body.
A lot of people like to think that they spend their time at code yellow while many of those are actually at color orange.
I will survive this encounter and win the fight.
Jeff Cooper’s Color Code – Orange
Orange is the level of awareness at which a person has identified an object or a person of interest that could potentially be a possible threat. During this stage, they would be expecting and preparing for an attack.
It is an active alert and because you are actively looking for problems, it can drain you and your focus. Spending all of your days in the code orange state is never a good idea.
Safety is something that happens between your ears, not something you hold in your hands. – Jeff Cooper
You don’t want to spend every living moment dealing with ‘perceived’ threats, it is certainly no life to live. I use the word ‘perceived’ here as most of those threats just aren’t real.
You only want to enter the code orange state when there is a an active, REAL reason to do so.
Condition orange also helps you to set a mental trigger like the “if this/then that” concept. Think of it as, “if the conditions don’t improve, then we must exit.”
Jeff Cooper’s Color Code – Red
The color red refers to the level at which the object/person of interest does something threatening, at which point your focus changes from a threat to a target.
The time for thinking has gone. It is now time for action. You need to carry out the plan that you formulated while you were in code orange.
The decision to take a certain action has already been made, but code red converts that decision to action.
I can’t tell you exactly how you should act here as every encounter will be different.
The police cannot protect the citizen at this stage of our development, and they cannot even protect themselves in many cases. It is up to the private citizen to protect himself and his family, and this is not only acceptable, but mandatory. – Jeff Cooper
Your decision making process will probably be all over the place so you will need to rely on muscle memory to get you through, which is why practicing different scenarios over and over is so important.
The time spent in code red will be short, intense, and possibly even life changing. All of your knowledge will come into play during this short time and if you aren’t prepared, you won’t survive.
There can be no hesitations, we know what we need to do and we carry it out.
You don’t need to be in the military or police force to use Jeff Cooper’s color code. In can be used in everyone’s daily life.
There isn’t always the means of a second chance, you need to get it right first time. By having the right mindset, you will be able to prepare for the worst case scenario and accomplish the mission.
Exercises to Improve Your Situational Awareness
We will be showing you some simple exercises that can help to improve your own situational awareness. Don’t try to do these exercises all at once, it takes time. Practice a little each day and you will be surprised at how quickly your situational awareness skills will improve.
Your Peripheral Vision
This is your ability to see more than just what is directly in front of you. Try to mentally note everything to the left, right, and behind the person you’re talking to.
Try to do this without turning your head or moving your eyes. You can practice this at home by putting something on a table in front of you to focus on.
The Toothpick and Straw technique is a great exercise for training your peripheral vision. Set up a central vision target like we mentioned above. Then, place a cup with a straw in it near the edge of your field of vision.
While focusing on your target, take a toothpick and attempt to place it directly in the straw. After a few days, try moving the cup and straw further to the left (or right) by 1 or 2 cm. Continue moving the cup further away as your skills improve.
Learn to Notice
You need to train yourself to actually notice the things around you. This is not as hard as it may sound either.
This starts with learning to scan your environment and then asking yourself a certain set of questions. You should learn to do this everywhere from going to the store, to your workplace, to even going out to dinner.
Every time you walk into a room you should do a “whole room scan” and mentally take a note of everyone and everything. You are essentially looking for the following:
- Where the exits are located
- Is there anything that could block your exit? If the lights went out, could you remember how to get there without hurting yourself?
- Is there anybody acting strange (nervous, on edge, body language, etc)?
- Is there anything that could be used as a weapon if needed?
- Are there any hiding spaces if a shooter was to enter the building?
- Are there any suspicious objects such as an unattended bag?
When practicing, you can start off by taking a mental note of how many people are wearing a certain color shirt or the different emotions of people when you walk in.
One thing you don’t want to do is always use the same mental questions to ask yourself or you will only be training your brain to look for those things.
Instead, you should change the questions that you ask yourself regularly. Start off by writing a list of 20-30 questions of things you could look for, and then pick 5 to use each week.
Another way of training yourself to notice changes is with a game that you probably played at some point while you were a child. In this, get a friend to place 10-15 items out on a table. Give yourself a little time to try and memorize what is there and then look away. Have your friend remove one item and mix up the rest of the items. Look and see if you can tell what’s missing.
Situational awareness relies not only on what you can see but also on what you can hear. The easiest way of training your audio skills is with the help of a blindfold.
If you have a free 30-minute block of time on the weekend, try going without your sight. You can start with 10 minutes, or you can be really brace and go for 30.
Listen to all the sounds around you. What do you hear? How loud is it? Can you hear soft, subtle sounds? What sounds near? What sounds seem far away?
Try navigating without sight. It’s a lot easier to do at home. Once you get good there, go to a park and try it there. Try to rely on the things you hear to help guide you. Make sure you’re not near anything that could pose a hazard though.
By learning to take in your surroundings you will start to see little details that you never saw before. Suddenly the world around you become a different place. We miss so much of this world because we fail to take notice in the finer details.
There are opportunists everywhere looking for somebody weak and vulnerable, an easy target. Good situational awareness can make sure that you do not become their next victim. Be aware and stay safe.