Enhanced Awareness: A Mindset of Observation

When asked “What is situational awareness all about?” most people believe it’s just a matter of ‘keeping your head on a swivel’ spinning your head around like security camera and slapping your eyeballs on everything in your vicinity. Although your eyes certainly are involved in the process of applying your situational awareness, there is substantially more to the equation than just exercising your neck and eye muscles.

Whether at home, at work, visiting friends or family, driving or on foot, practicing good situational awareness or S/A, as it is known in professional protective services parlance, can eliminate such threats as the element of surprise, keep you well-informed of what your environment is telling you and a step ahead of events that may be emerging or further developing around you. It keeps you at the ready, connected to your environment, and ahead of the action-reaction power curve.

Since this premier proactive measure can provide you such a tremendous tactical advantage in terms of threat avoidance and mitigation, how can your awareness be taken to the next level?

Active awareness is not the same as being paranoid or unhealthily alert.
Active awareness is not the same as being paranoid or unhealthily alert…but it is a soft skill that requires effort and practice.

Developing Your Awareness

Using your situational awareness to identify an active or emerging threat is what affords you the most time and opportunity to take control of that threat by formulating an immediate lifesaving plan. Once a threat indicator has been observed and identified, that information can then be used to determine your best plan of action and movement.

The very first step is to be aware. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition of awareness is “The quality or state of being aware: knowledge and understanding that something is happening or exists.”

Your awareness is like a muscle. Going to the gym, hiking, biking, running, or performing any other physical activity will strengthen that muscle through repetitive use. The same applies to your awareness—the more you use it the stronger it gets. Conversely like a muscle, it can also atrophy with very little or no use.

image of man lifting weights

To strengthen your awareness is to increase your understanding of what it is and how it works to a point where you can apply it to any physical situation. There are three essential elements to developing your situational awareness. These are: mental awareness, physical awareness, and subtlety awareness.

Mental Awareness

The body cannot go where the mind has not been. Therefore, the first step to developing your situational awareness starts with your mind. You must first be mindful of your awareness and then be able to outwardly project your attention onto your surroundings. How can you do this?

Any trained protective services or security professional will tell you that if you do not engage your mind in the observation process then you will not see. Your mind, if detached, will fail to input, internally register, and process critical and constantly changing environmental information. Your mental engagement is the key to situational awareness.

black and white photo closeup of an open eye, indication of mental alertness

The entire purpose of applying your situational awareness is to facilitate mental interaction with your environment. To effectively avoid, mitigate or defend against a developing or active threat, your mind must be mentally engaged.

It’s not enough to have your eyes on an object, scenario, or people, you must observe in such a manner as to intake that visual input and utilize your mind to evaluate each piece of incoming information to determine if it is, or is not, an actionable item.

Physical Awareness

In addition to mental awareness, the next essential element to developing your situational awareness is to engage your physical awareness. Applying your S/A you are best served by observing your environment to glean relevant information and determine if there may be something potentially harmful to you or those that may be with you.

Using your eyes, you can observe events, objects, and the people around you. You can determine body language, subtle cues, nonverbal signals, and vignettes or scenarios unfolding such as people arguing or a parent scolding their kids.

people arguing
(Photo: why.do)

You can use your ears to listen for gunfire, screeching tires, explosions, or people screaming. You can use your nose to detect smoke, gas, or other potentially dangerous odors. You can feel the change in temperature with your skin such as standing next to a fire or pressure from a blast. You can taste ash, pepper spray, or other airborne particles.

Data Points

Your five senses can be used as finely tuned environmental sensors to identify and deliver multiple data points for processing. It’s what street savvy cops call “tells”. For example, “Officer Jones just knew the suspect was carrying a firearm” because he could see him adjust his gait a certain way, favor one side over the other, look uncomfortable when standing on one side of his body, fidgeting on that same side, etc.,

Given this valuable incoming information, you can formulate an immediate response to your environment that could possibly save your life. However, you can only act as quickly as you can visually process information.

Subtlety Awareness

In addition to your mental and physical awareness, there is a third essential element to developing your situational awareness. The power of your awareness extends beyond engaging your body and mind and draws upon such subtleties as perception, intuition, a gut feeling or simply knowing by knowing.

Some people call it a sixth sense or a gut feeling. Sometimes called a premonition or intuitive hit, it is where you “just know” that something isn’t quite right. It’s the most fine-tuned of the early-warning tools you have on board, and something you cannot afford to ignore.

Enhanced awareness reaches far beyond that of keeping your head on a swivel. It means you are mentally engaged by interfacing your mind with your environment. The physical part includes all your five senses in addition to your mind. It would also serve you best to pay close attention to any perception, premonition, intuitive hit, or gut feeling. Regardless of how a blip may find its way onto your awareness radar screen, if it turns out to be a valid threat then it is an actionable item.

Steve Tarani is a former fulltime CIA protective programs employee, small arms and defensive tactics subject matter expert who served on POTUS 45 pre-election executive protection detail. He is the lead instructor for NRA’s non-ballistic weapons training program offered nationally. Tarani is also a DoD and FLETC-certified federal firearms instructor who has been on staff at Gunsite Academy (AZ) as a Rangemaster for over twenty years. Formerly sworn, he is also a former federal contractor and service provider for the US Defense Intelligence Community, US Naval Special Operations Command and other government agencies. Tarani additionally serves on the National Sheriffs’ Association Committee for School Safety and Security.

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