Friday, December 4, 2015

Stop Sabotaging Your Situational Awareness

Not actually Erin.
& is used with permission.
I and others on this blog have talked a lot about the importance of Situational Awareness. This is because situational awareness is the key to being prepared; if you are surprised, it won't matter what your preparations are, as you will be unable to utilize them as your brain grapples with what is happening.* In many ways, situational awareness is preparedness, because if you can't react in time then all your preparations are for naught. It is a constant source of astonishment for me, then, when I notice just how often so many people willingly place themselves in danger while disabling their situational awareness.

Now let me be clear: there is a time and a place for tuning out all distractions, be it to get work done or to relax. After all, everyone needs to sleep sometime! This is what Col. Cooper calls Condition White, and it is best done in the safety of your own home. Barring that, do it in a place that you know (not think, not suspect, but KNOW) is safe, preferably among people you trust to have your back.

But just as it's possible to get drunk responsibly, it's also possible to become distracted irresponsibly. And worst of all, many people choose to be irresponsibly distracted. Perhaps they feel safe all the time; perhaps they think that society exists to protect them; perhaps they don't think at all.

However, if you are reading this blog then you have made a conscious decision to be responsible for your own safety. Here, then, are the things you will need to stop doing in order to give your situational awareness a chance to work for you.

Don't Lose Yourself in the Visual
There's an excellent scene from The Matrix which perfectly illustrates this point:

Were you listening to me, Neo? Or were you looking at the woman in the red dress?

Human beings are visual creatures. This can be an incredible advantage, as we are biologically primed to notice movement, facial expressions, body language, and patterns or behavior which seem out of place. Soldiers, police officers, and medical personnel are highly trained to notice important visual cues.

However, this biological optimization can also be a weakness. We are easily distracted by movement and color -- just try to have a conversation with someone when there is a television within your field of view. Your eyes will be drawn it, because you have millions of years of genetics telling you "Look at this flickering thing, it is important to your survival."

If you are reading in a book, watching a movie or television, or engrossed with your computer or smartphone, you are in condition white. Don't do this in places where you ought to be in condition yellow, or you are sabotaging yourself.

Don't Keep Yourself from Hearing
Sound is another immersive sensation for humanity, and is equally beneficial and distracting. While it is marginally safer to be out in the world with headphones than it is to have your eyes glued to a screen, there are still important audial cues that you can miss if nothing can penetrate your wall of sound.

Listening to music or a book is fine; just make sure that it isn't so loud that you cannot hear important things, like trucks backing up or someone shouting "Hey, look out!"

Don't Daydream (except at home)
Of course, you don't need a screen or headphones to miss out one cues; some folks are so good at concentrating (or daydreaming, which is concentrating without the focus) that they can miss cues necessary to their survival, such as the smell of smoke or a fire alarm going off.

It's okay to daydream, but don't zone out (or sleep) in public unless you have someone you trust watching over you.

Have Things Ready Before You Need Them
The classic example of this are your car keys: take them out of your pocket or purse before you step foot into the parking lot, because if you get to your car and then spend time digging for them, your focus narrows to "must get keys" and you lose the world around you. This makes you a very temping target, as all someone needs to do is get the drop on you and not only can they rob you, they can take your car as well. If you're a woman, this robbery-turned-carjacking could easily escalate into kidnapping and thence to rape if you are pushed into the passenger seat.

If you know you are going to need something, like keys or a flashlight or a knife, get it out and have it handy so that your attention can be used on deploying it effectively rather than getting at it.

Keep Your Head on a Swivel
That's a military phrase; translated to civilian it means "Don't just just straight ahead. Look to the sides and behind you as well." Be aware of your environment in all directions; danger can come from any angle.

Get in the habit of scanning from left to right as you go about your business. Occasionally look over your shoulder ("Checking your six" in military parlance) to make sure no one is following you; this can be done by moving your eyes to the side in the same direction that your head is sweeping and using your peripheral vision to check behind you. If something seems off, then turn your head (or whole body) and take a better look.

Do these five simple things and your situational awareness, and your ability to respond to surprises, will increase dramatically.

* It's a semantic quibble, but I differentiate between "Being startled or taken off-guard" and "Being surprised."  To me, the difference is that with the former, your opponent has the drop on you and goes first before you can react; in the latter, you are figuratively caught with your pants down and your brain requires several precious seconds to process what is going on -- seconds which put you at the mercy of your aggressor.

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