There are certain places and times when it’s good to have an acute sense of what’s going on around you, in order to avoid potential risks to yourself and others. Situational awareness is a skill (and a habit) that helps to focus your attention on your surroundings and hopefully allows you to be better prepared for, or avoid, nasty encounters with those who may wish to do you harm.
The key to the concept really falls to the second word ‘Awareness’. Without that element, you really don’t have much to work with. There are some formal structures that have been developed that involve color codes or loops that outline the various steps of the process. They normally begin with awareness, then move to evaluation and then action (or something similar). Pretty straight-forward, but you can see where it all begins. Early detection of a threat will give you more time to react and ideally help to ensure your safety.
I had something happen to me a number of years back that illustrates what a lack of awareness can potentially lead to. I was travelling for business on a highway in Tennessee and was just about out of gas, I had to get off on an exit that I wasn’t familiar with and found a gas station fairly close by. I parked in front of the little market that was attached to the station and was looking down at my phone. I was distracted for sure and was pissed that I was now running late. It was midday and I assumed that all was good. I looked up from my phone and found myself looking straight into the eyes of an older gentleman who was sitting with some friends just outside the shop. After a few seconds, he simply shook his head ‘no’ and continued to watch me. At first it didn’t click in, as my confused expression may have indicated. His eyes moved to his right and I followed his gaze. There were about 8 nasty looking locals in and around the pump area that were scoping me out hard. That shiny rental car and the thought of a potential score was pretty apparent from the way they were posturing. I looked back at my new buddy in front of the car, nodded and slowly backed out. Clearly I had no clue what I was about to walk into, and it was my lack of focus that would have been to blame.
Now with any kind of street sense or whatever term you want to use, there are degrees to which you can apply it. This could be dependent on the time of day, the environment, number (and type) of people in the area etc. You’ll still want SOME degree of awareness walking through the mall parking lot with your kids during the day (you never know) vs. being stuck in a sketchy neighborhood downtown after dark. It’s all relative.
Here are a few other things to consider:
Awareness of your surroundings is good – complete paranoia not so much. You don’t want it to consume your thoughts and behaviors to the point that being anywhere but your home becomes a completely negative experience. You also don’t want to look like a ‘victim’ by very obviously looking around yourself constantly. That just screams ‘Hey, I’m nervous over here!’
Get into the habit of quickly and efficiently scanning and assessing new environments for potential threats as well as possible routes to safety, on the chance that something does happen. Sometimes it’s as simple as other people to approach for safety, a business to walk into or being able to use a parked car for cover or as a buffer between yourself and an attacker. You don’t have to dwell on it, but a pre-thought plan can make a big difference in how you initially react.
When scanning any new area, it’s often the differences that stand out the most. In a slow or calm environment, is someone moving quicker, with more purpose or more erratically than the others? In a fast-paced or crowded scenario, is there someone standing still, maybe paying a little too much attention to you, distinctly moving in your direction? It’s the ‘what’s wrong with this picture?’ concept that can help to highlight certain threats. Being able to read body language and potential intent is a good skill to have.
Being alert and looking confident on the street doesn’t take a lot of effort, but it is easy to get distracted and lose focus. This is especially true when it comes to cell phone use. Look around anywhere and you’ll see most people with their eyes down and their heads in another place entirely. Criminals count on the element of surprise to get close to you and have you freeze-up when confronted. With some general awareness, you can give yourself time to prepare or get to safety.
Even with some training and situational awareness in-play, the threat of a real, violent encounter will be very stressful and overwhelming for most people. The vast majority of folks will never have to deal with this type of thing in their daily lives and there can be a certain (and very natural) ‘I can’t believe this is actually happening’ mindset that can cause you to panic or hesitate. If you’re able to stay calm (sometimes easier said than done) and try to make sound decisions as to how to deal with the situation, then you’ll definitely be ahead of the game.
It’s all fine and good to be aware, but if you’re not prepared to do something about it if confronted with a potentially life threatening situation, then it will only help so much. If you happen to be armed yourself, be sure to know your weapon well and practice effectively drawing and aiming in real time. You’ll also need to quickly assess if an assailant has a gun or other weapon and what your most appropriate response needs to be.
Sometimes it’s better to simply avoid certain situations or environments if you know what is likely to happen. I’m not talking about avoiding coming to someone’s aid if they’re in danger, but more like not knowingly putting yourself or others at risk by going down a certain alley or out into a parking lot with a bunch of bad assess (or wannabes) that are looking for trouble. What’s the point, unless you’ve got something to prove or have a death wish? It’s not a smart play.
Ultimately, you just need to be aware and alert when it counts, trust your instincts, do what’s necessary to protect yourself and always get out of Dodge if it’s at all possible.
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