What one simple skill could keep you clear of most of the natural and man-made dangers that crop up every day?  Situational Awareness is the basis for women’s intuition and when people seemingly tell the future by side stepping dangers.  This skill is so important that Jason Hanson, ex-CIA Officer and author of “Spy Secrets that can Save your Life“, describes it as the cornerstone of his philosophy and devoted an entire chapter to it. 

The U.S. Coast Guard defines Situational Awareness as, “The ability to identify, process, and comprehend the critical elements of information about what is happening to the team with regards to the mission. More simply, it’s knowing what is going on around you.”  Many people focus on identifying the things going on around them but they fail in the comprehension element. This is usually due to mental biases and other factors that we will discuss in later articles.  It is important to understand Situational Awareness is more that JUST seeing what is going on around you. 

Bad things can happen when you lose situational awareness.

Here’s an example where Situational Awareness, seeing and comprehending, allowed me to avoid a potentially serious accident.  It was morning rush hour traffic on a large city three lane expressway.  We were boxed in with Jersey Barriers on both sides and heavy traffic front and back.  I was in the far left lane and cruising along with traffic when I noticed about a half mile up brake lights as the expressway went into a curve obscured by an overpass.  I let off the gas and opened the distance with the vehicle in front of me.  Very quickly all the traffic ahead of me slowed and came to a stop.  Something was going on just past the curve that I couldn’t see.  As we came to a stop I looked in my mirror and saw a police vehicle rapidly approaching.  The officer had his head down and didn’t see we were stopped.  Traffic to my right, I couldn’t go that way, jersey barrier to my left, without enough space to pass the car ahead of me.   I laid on my horn as I took up the space I had kept between me and the car ahead of me and turned sideways to give the Officer as much braking distance as possible.  With my laying on my horn, his head jerked up and he slammed on the brakes stopping short of T-Boning me.  I looked at him through my driver side window, he had the familiar “That could have been bad,” look.  After a moment, the traffic began moving again and I completed my trip without issue.  Let’s break down what happened. 

First, I always maintain a “stuff happens and Murphy has a Vote” mindset.  In other words, no matter how well planned out something is, things will still go wrong.  This is the first step is preparing to adjust your plan as needed to still reach your desired outcome.  My route to work usually took the same expressway, but as a backup I knew several alternate routes in case of road closures or overwhelming congestion. 

When in public, whether walking, driving or sitting, the situationally aware person is constantly evaluating and adjusting to their environment.  Looking for changes or threats.  While driving, that includes using everything in the vehicle to remain aware of what is all around you.  Looking out the front, scanning your mirrors and your gauges.  While many see driving as mundane or boring, driving is an incredibly dynamic event.  You are moving, traffic is moving, lights are changing, gasoline is being consumed and your hands and feet are responding to inputs from your brain.  Most of us do this so smoothly that we think we can occupy our focus with other things like cell phones, the radio, eat a burger, etc. 

On the day of my story, I was scanning up to three cars directly ahead of me, and then at every curve, rise or dip I was looking farther ahead for gaps in the traffic, brake lights, people changing lanes quickly trying to get ahead; anything that could cause people to slow or stop quickly.  In my side view mirror I remained aware of vehicles next to me, if someone was overtaking me, or if the lane was clear.  Could I switch lanes if needed to avoid some problem developing?  And finally, what was behind me?  Was that police officer behind me looking to pull me over or get to his next call?  In this case he was looking down at what I’m assuming was his phone. 

As we came up to the curve I saw more and more brake lights from the cars ahead, dominoing back towards me.  I comprehended what was happening and new I was going to need to slow, I took my foot off the gas.  Then I saw the cars ahead hit their brakes harder.  As each vehicle stepped a bit harder on the brake, the one behind it had to step harder still.  I tapped my brakes a couple of times to alert the officer behind me.  He was still looking down.  I looked forward and now the vehicles at the curve were stopped and the cars in front of me were stopping quickly as well.  Driving a Fire Engine had taught me to keep enough space between me and the car ahead  so I could pull out and around if needed. 

The vehicles next to me all dipped forward as they stepped hard on their brakes.  The Officer behind me still wasn’t stopping.  I processed what I was seeing, I couldn’t go right as the lane was full.  I couldn’t go very far left because of the Jersey barrier.  I laid on my horn, let off the brake, steered right ignoring the look from the driver to my right, then back to the left missing the bumper ahead of me as I was now nearly sideways across the lane.  Doing all I could do, the rest was up to Murphy. I looked to my left and could see the officer’s eyes, large behind the windshield, as he stood on his brakes.  He stopped with about three feet to spare, but about four feet past where my rear bumper had been.  I smiled at him, knowing how much paperwork I just saved this poor guy. 

Another, less dramatic, example is in my office.  We have mirrors at blind corners in my office and I’ve stopped coworkers from colliding.  ”Wow, how did you know someone was there?” They’d ask.  I smile and point at the mirror.  ”Oh, I never even knew those were there,” is usually the next response from coworkers that have worked there for years.

There were several other factors at play here, but maintaining a 360 degree picture of my surroundings allowed me to make the decisions to keep from getting hit.  Now here’s the great news, you already have Situational Awareness, you use it all the time and probably don’t even know it.  Think back, what is a time where your situational awareness kept you or a loved one safe?  Here are some tips on how to strengthen it: 

  1. When walking, are you looking at your shoes, or is your head up and you are looking around?  Do the people you pass look you in the eye or are they looking at their phones or the ground?   
  2. Be inquisitive!  Identifying objects and people in your path is the first step.  WHY are they there is the next.  If it is 3:30 in the afternoon and you see a group of teenagers walking down the street, that should seem normal.  If it is 3:30 in the morning, is that still so normal? 
  3. Narrate to yourself what you are seeing.  Is it so windy that that trashcan may blow into the street and into your path?  Is that person staggering around the sidewalk drunk, on drugs, or are they dancing down the street to whatever they are listening to?  Don’t just see it, but mentally comment on it.  What color was the dress he was wearing?  Or is that a kilt? What side is she carrying the bag on her shoulder? 
  4. Learn about Cooper’s Color Codes which we will discuss in a future article. 
  5. Kim’s Games, from Rudyard Kipling’s book Kim, are great ways to exercise and strengthen your observational and recall skills.

Learn more about Situational Awareness, we’ve included some books that you may wish to check out. Did we miss a book or concept? Leave us comments below.

2 thoughts on “Situational Awareness, A Primer”

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