Situational Awareness in an Urban Setting

May 14, 2014 by | 3 Comments

Most of us spend a fair amount of time in an urban setting, but few maintain a level of situational awareness that would allow us to respond quickly to a threat.

You can change this, but it will take a lot of training to become proficient in identifying potential threats, and discipline to consistently implement your new skills.

Your first priority is to identify exit routes. For example, I try to use the right lane while driving whenever possible because I can use the shoulder of the road or a side street for a quick escape. I sit in the back of restaurants near the kitchen whenever possible because it gives me easy access to the back door. You should know where any exits are available in any building because it’s always better to avoid the threat than try to push through it.

Potential exits/escapes

  • Doors
  • Windows
  • Elevators
  • Stairs
  • Fire escapes
  • Drop ceilings (like you find in most office buildings)
  • Ventilation shafts

Your next priority is to identify people who look out of place. Some may be obvious, like a guy wearing a heavy jacket in the summer, or some may be more subtle, like the guy who has been sitting in a car across from your office for the last three hours. This isn’t an exact science, but a good way to improve your skill is through people watching. The mall, coffee shop, or park are all great places to practice.

Signs someone is out of place

  • Overdressed/under-dressed
  • Wearing large, bulky clothing, like a jacket, in warm weather
  • Where they shouldn’t be (loitering in a parking lot, on a rooftop, behind a dumpster, etc.)
  • Opposing political, religious, or cultural views (like a vegan at a BBQ competition)

You should also pay attention to things around you. The bombing at the Boston Marathon was a perfect example; to the trained eye, an over-sized duffel bag sitting on a crowded street would throw up a huge red flag, but a crowd of untrained civilians didn’t even notice it and the results were catastrophic. Look for things that could either be a direct threat, or something that could give a person (or group of people) access to pose a threat.

Things to look for around you

  • Doors, windows, or gates that are propped open
  • Doors, windows, or gates that are locked or rendered inoperable
  • Open manhole covers
  • Vehicles parked where they shouldn’t be
  • Exposed wires
  • Large containers or packages
  • Expensive objects left unattended

Body language is another detail you’ll want to watch. Someone who appears nervous or agitated is clearly a potential threat, but so is someone who is completely calm and controlled during a chaotic situation, such as a fire or bombing.

Suspicious body language

  • Anxiety/aggression
  • Fidgeting
  • Excessive sweating
  • Awkward amount of eye contact
  • Avoidance of eye contact
  • Excessive interest in people or things
  • Trying to hide/blend in

Finally, think like a bad guy. If you were a burglar, how would you enter a home? What path would you take once inside? What would you do if confronted by an occupant? If you were a psychopath hell bent on a shooting spree at the office, what weapons and equipment would you take? What steps would you take to ensure the highest body count possible? How would you choose your targets?

I mentioned people watching earlier; you should try to fill in the blanks when you see a stranger in public. What kind of person are they? What do they do for a living? Are they along or meeting someone? How will they act? Watch them long enough to find out if you were correct—perhaps even follow them for a bit. Your intuition will improve with practice.

Play threat scenarios out in your head to identify potential weak points in your own situational awareness. As the scenarios become more complex, your awareness will become more refined. Practice Kim’s Game. When you’re ready to move up to the next level, role play scenarios with like minded folks. You can even add realism by utilizing training weapons like rubber knives and airsoft guns. Repetition builds confidence and confidence builds competence.

Learning to identify threats is the easy part, though. The difficult part is maintaining awareness throughout the course of your typical day. For most, life is pretty mundane so before long, you’re back in condition white, buried in your iPhone while you walk across a dark parking lot to your car. It takes tremendous discipline, but over time, it can become second nature.

Melanie Swick (a.k.a. Survival Chick) grew up wanting to be a rocket scientist, but when she realized she that required way too much math, she took to her second dream—spending time in the wilderness. Today, when she's not hiking, camping, or hunting, she's blogging about it. You can connect with Melanie on Facebook.

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