Situational Awareness

One of the primary lessons anyone attending a quality self-defense class will learn is that it’s always best to avoid a violent encounter whenever possible. By avoiding a fight, you completely remove the possibility that you or someone you care about will be injured or killed. Avoiding a fight also removes the risk inherent in dealing with the legal system after a use of force event. Avoiding trouble is always the preferred course of action, but avoidance requires one of the most important skills someone interested in personal protection can develop: situational awareness.

What is situational awareness?

In a general sense, situational awareness is simply knowing what’s going on in your environment. There’s a layer of complexity that gets added, however, if the goal is to protect yourself from criminal activity. You can be very aware of what’s going on around you, but if you don’t know exactly what it is you’re looking for you might not recognize the common warning signs that precede many criminal assaults until it’s too late. Even if you do know what to look for, there’s another problem: It’s impossible for anyone to pay attention to everything going on around them all the time. So, in addition to knowing what to look for, you need to know when to be looking for it.

The most important places to have a high level of situational awareness

“Transitional spaces” are fixed locations that people must pass through after they leave one environment but before they enter another. As a concept, transitional spaces also can be the mental break between one activity and another.

One of the more common transitional spaces that people commonly deal with is parking lots. A parking lot serves as a separation between the act of driving your vehicle and the activity associated with the location that you’ve traveled to. Many times, people in parking lots are focused on other things instead of their immediate surroundings. This means that it’s incredibly common to see very distracted people here. Why does this matter? Criminals know there’s a high likelihood that parking lots will contain distracted people moving along a predictable path. This knowledge allows criminals to target and select their victims more effectively.

So, what should you do? It’s a good idea to make sure that before you ever step foot into a transitional space, you’ve eliminated as many distractions as possible. For instance, walking through a parking lot while answering texts increases your chances of missing one of the warning signs that precedes a criminal assault. It also makes it more likely that an opportunistic criminal will target you in the first place.

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What information to look for in transitional spaces

While violence can seem to occur without warning, there are often signs preceding a criminal assault. These signs, known as pre- indicators, are commonly observed behaviors and tactics exhibited by criminals before an encounter. There are many different pre-assault indicators that a criminal might display before an attack—here are three to be particularly mindful of.

  • People loitering in transitional spaces – As we noted earlier, a transitional space is one that people pass through. If you notice someone who’s loitering in one of these transitional spaces, you should pay extra attention to them. While it’s entirely possible that someone may have an innocent reason to be where they are, criminals oftentimes place themselves in locations where they may observe who’s entering or exiting an area as a means of sizing up potential victims.
  • Movement initiated by your presence – Any time your presence or entrance into a transitional space appears to initiate someone else’s movement, you should be concerned. While there can certainly be a reasonable explanation for this as well, movement initiated by the soon-to-be-victim entering an area commonly occurs before many criminal assaults.
  • Direct/intercepting movement toward you If you become aware that someone’s path of travel will bring them in direct contact with you or intercept your current path of travel, prepare yourself to interact with them. Keep in mind that there are various non-nefarious reasons someone may attempt to force an encounter with you, but anyone willing to force an interaction is someone who should be viewed with some healthy suspicion. This would be a good time to scan the rest of your environment to see if there’s another person who’s acting in tandem with the individual moving toward you. Direct or intercepting movement toward you that’s preceded by a sudden change in direction should be viewed with extreme concern.

How situational awareness can help keep you safe

Resource-driven criminals that assault people in public rely on surprise and overwhelming force—and/or the threat of force—to accomplish their goals. Given the choice between assaulting a completely unsuspecting victim or one who has a high degree of situational awareness, the typical criminal is more likely to target the person who’s paying less attention. The simple act of paying attention can serve as an incredible deterrent.

If a high degree of situational awareness doesn’t serve as a deterrent, spotting trouble before it begins may still benefit you. If you’re situationally aware you’re more likely to see things sooner, which allows you to select and implement a reasonable and proportional response . This is much preferred to the alternative, which oftentimes involves responding to a situation after it’s already begun. The greatest benefit that situational awareness provides stems from the advantages of starting a response sooner. If you’re situationally aware, you may be able to avoid trouble altogether by simply not putting yourself in a bad situation. Since you’ll always win 100% of violent counters you avoid entirely, situational awareness should be considered a fundamental skill by anyone interested in living a safer life.

Situational Awareness FAQ’s

Situational awareness is the act of paying attention to your environment and the things that are going on around you. Oftentimes situational awareness is used in a context that suggests you’re only paying attention to things that may be dangerous to you, but the reality is that everyone has some degree of situational awareness toward even harmless things in their environment.

Let’s say you are walking down the sidewalk one day while it is extremely windy outside. As you walk you notice a large tree with branches overhanging the sidewalk in front of you. You also notice that the tree is swaying heavily in the wind. You decide to cross the street to not pass under the tree branches. Now on the other side of the street you pass the tree. As you do you hear a sharp crack and watch as a large branch falls directly on top of the sidewalk where you’d have been walking had you not cross the street. How did you know to cross the street? You knew because of situational awareness.

There are two things that are important to remember. First, you must be focused enough to notice what’s going on around you. Second, you must have enough knowledge to be able to recognize the significance of the information you’re receiving from your environment. For example, noticing a snake at your feet and hearing a rattling sound is only helpful if you know that a rattlesnake is dangerous.


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