Situational Awareness Guide – THE PRESENT

situational awareness guide

I was ready. at least I thought I was.

Over the years I’ve had six martial art instructors and attended seminars with world renowned martial art figures. I developed a well-rounded skill base, was athletic enough to jump over the hood of a car and never tired of sparring.

But when the time came to actually defend myself, I was lacking the one skill that could have saved me from being forced to the floor and having my arms tied behind my back with my own black belt (an ironic twist of fate that sent me on a mission to complete the self defense puzzle).

personal safety

Many martial art gyms sell their programs as “self defense” training. They proficiently teach various forms of striking, kicking and grappling and yet do not incorporate situational awareness into their teaching. I don’t believe that a self defense curriculum is complete without this essential element. In fact, situational awareness is possibly one of the first skills that should be scientifically broken down for the student to master.

What is Situational Awareness?

Situational awareness is a term used within policing, military and security circles.

The term is also used loosely around the dinner table. Cousin Jane recounts how her iPhone was stolen by two hoodlums that “came out of nowhere”. At this point uncle Wally clears his voice and lowers his glasses to the tip of his nose. The table quietens as the man who guarded the local library gates in 1957 against an imminent communist invasion is about to offer some sage security advice. “You need to be more aware” he tells the family. But, how do you actually do this, and why is it necessary? Let’s examine the mechanics of situational awareness.


There are several definitions of the concept, which differ in various contexts.  

On the battlefield senior officers will use the concept when referring to the position of friendly and enemy troops. In the health and safety field, it is used when briefing workers such as forklift drivers.

I will define it in personal safety terms. What this means is how a potential Peter Parker needs to get to work and home safely on a day to day basis.

For our purposes: Situational awareness is the use of the sensory system to scan the environment with the purpose of identifying threats in the present or projecting those threats into the near future.

The National Research Council (1998) refers to three hierarchical phases in the situational awareness process.

3 Levels Of Situational Awareness

Level 1:

Perception of key elements in the environment.

Level 2:

Comprehension of the current situation

Level 3:

Projection of the future situation

We will now discuss the first two levels of Situational Awareness.

In other words:

  • You use your sensory system to identify something unusual in your immediate environment.
  • You interpret that thing as a threat.
  • Or you anticipate that there are signs of a threat in the imminent future.
situational awareness training

Principle 1: Use the Sensory System to Detect Things Out of the Ordinary

In order to perceive threat, we need to go back to the five senses. Or maybe not just the five senses. According to Professor Barry Smith of London’s Institute of Philosophy, neuroscientists have dismissed Aristotle’s famous statement that we have five senses. The truth is we have between 22 and 33 senses.

self defense

Use All Of Your Senses

Apart from the usual five senses we are familiar with, there are a range of senses functioning all the time that we are not consciously aware of. For example, there are our senses of proprioception and kinesthesia. These senses tell us how our body is positioned in space. Whether it is moving, and in which direction. Our senses are continuously interpreting information via the process of adaptation and amplification.

Situational Awareness Can Improve With Training

It’s also worth knowing that situational awareness, powered by the senses can be improved and refined with training. In 1949 psychologist Donald Hebb described the theory of how brain pathways are developed through regular repetition. Today Hebb’s theory is commonly explained as follows: “Neurons that fire together wire together”. In other words, the sensory system, which is all about nerves, gets better at what it is doing with continuous practice.  

5 Day to Day Steps For Improving Your Sensory System:

1. Stop!

When you transition from one environment to another, STOP! As you step from the parking lot into your office or out of a bus or train, pause for a few seconds and let your senses take in the scene.

Who is moving and who is standing still? What sounds do you hear close to you and what sounds register in the distance? Are there any specific smells in the area? What is the temperature like against your face and arms? Is there anything in the environment that strikes you as out of the ordinary, or doesn’t seem to belong?


Criminals often create subconscious “tells” that they are up to no good via their body language.

One of the most famous examples of this behavior led to the capturing and conviction of the Boston bombers who set off two bombs at the Boston marathon in 2013. After assembling witness statements and perusing hours of video footage, it was the unusual body language of the bomber in the white cap that helped to tie the case together.  

2. Spot Something New Each Day

As you follow that same route to work that you have been travelling for years; try to spot something new each day that you have never noticed before.

3. Be Aware Of Temperature

Explore the sensation of temperature. You will notice that temperature sensitivity varies on different parts of your skin.

Try touching a surface right now with your palm. Now try the inside of your forearm and then just for fun, try your cheek. Don’t worry about what your family or that scowling lady on the bus commute think; you are in the process of enhancing your spider senses.

4. Be Aware Of Sound

Note that your sense of hearing tells you about distance. Of course, this is nothing new to dolphins, bats and rats, who have been using sound for thousands of years to give them information about their surroundings.

As you read this; notice the sounds in your immediate area. Now let your hearing leave the room you are in and venture onto further parts of the environment. Finally try to hear the sounds in the far distance.

5. Explore In Darkness

Become a night time predator in your home. Turn off all the lights and navigate from room to room. You will discover that this is a multi-sensorial exercise. Touch, hearing and special sensations become amplified. The more you do this, the more you own your nighttime space.

Principle 2: Use the Present Mind – Be Alert

As each day trundles on, our mind meanders through various states that can be measured in time. These states are often accompanied with internal dialogues and mental visualizations.

The Past

At some time during our day we may think of an event that took place in the past. This could be in reaction to something you recently said: “Why did I just say that?”. Or it could be an enjoyable childhood memory, which is triggered by the sudden aroma of ice cream.

The Future

At other times in the day our minds may project into the future. This could be a useful exercise like scenario planning. However not all future thoughts are useful.

awareness exercises

Worry is a common future projection. Our mental space is engrossed with horrors of what might happen.

In the book “Can I See Your Hands – A Guide to Situational Awareness, Personal Risk Management, Resilience and Security” (2017), Dr. Gav Schneider notes that stress and anxiety; both of which are products of worry, reduce awareness. Criminals are drawn to people who are in this state. You’ve seen the look as a seven-year-old boy is engrossed in a cartoon, or more likely nowadays a game on a cell phone! His eyes are glazed and he doesn’t register sounds around him, or the voice saying for instance, “Pick up your toys!” To a criminal; a motorist or pedestrian in this state screams TARGET!

The Present

Sometimes our minds focus on the immediate present. Our minds are alert and tuned into our direct space. Our senses absorb the environment. Intuitive feelings are produced compelling us to act against danger or toward delight. Psychologists nowadays call this mindfulness.

In the old days when swords and beheadings took precedence over “chill rooms” and lifestyle coaches; the Japanese practiced the skill of “Zanshin”; the continuous state of relaxed awareness.

The Yellow State – Calm and Relaxed But Aware

In his Colour Codes of Awareness, Col. Jeff Cooper referred to this as the yellow state. In this state we are calm and relaxed, but aware of the environment.

The moment our minds lapse into the past or future, we lose situational awareness and drastically reduce our reaction time to threat. But it isn’t possible to stay in a state of concentrated focus all day long.

Gav Schneider explains that in a ten to 12-hour period, it is only possible to devote 30 minutes of intense mental focus. So how do we get the most out of these precious 30 minutes?  Consider the following:

How To Improve Situational Awareness

  • Switch on your alertness when you sense something out of the ordinary, or when you have an uncomfortable “gut feel”. We will discuss intuition in greater detail in a subsequent post.
  • Focus your mind when you are arriving at or leaving from a location. Be especially alert when you are at road intersections or when your vehicle is stationary.
  • Known crime hot spots or locations that provide opportunity for criminal activity should make you instantly alert. This includes public transport areas, retail areas such as bottle stores, small checkout retailers and automatic teller machines.
  • Consciously switch on your alertness when using sharp objects or complex machinery. Your fingers will love you for this at the end of the day.
  • Choose not to look at your cell phone at times when you need your situational awareness switched on. According to researcher Thomas Mackain, one out of every four vehicle accidents can be attributed to the use of a cell phone. At the risk of mixing Marvel and DC metaphors; cellphones are like kryptonite to your Spidey sense.

Principle 3: Move your RAS

Luckily, we don’t have to switch on our awareness and alertness all on our own. Mother nature has equipped us with our very own Reticular Activating System or RAS.

The RAS is much like our brain’s internal firewall.

  • This system filters the thousands of bits of data that we absorb every second of the day, and raises the relevant information into our consciousness.
  • It is responsible for our state of arousal from sleep to wakefulness.
  • When we are under threat it warns us.
  • It stimulates us when we are interested in something and excites us when we interact with something desirable.  

For example, Peter Parker hangs up his webs and plans to take Mary-Jane Watson out for a night on the town. To get ready, he pops into a local clothing retailer and gets himself a new red and blue t-shirt (apparently, he likes those colors).

During the course of his date Peter, is horrified. Wherever he looks; he sees guys wearing exactly the same t-shirt.

People in the policing or security field will be attuned to spotting people carrying weapons or driving suspiciously.

The reason is that the RAS is bringing that item of information into your consciousness. The good news is you can develop your RAS to raise the alarm when you are walking into potential danger.

How To Attune Your RAS To Keep You Safe:

  • Note how specific activities around your home sound. For example, what do footsteps sound like as they approach your front door? What does the door sound like when it opens slowly? This might not need attention during your busy day, but it is very relevant at 2am during the dark of the early morning.
  • Armed criminals that target their victims in a public space need to conceal their weapons. This could be in the waistband of their trousers, under a shirt or jacket, in a pocket or even in bag. They most likely need to wear shoes that they can easily run away in; and may add a cap or glasses to conceal their faces.
  • Criminals aren’t good a playing poker. They often produce some type of sign that they have ill intent. This could be a person who deliberately averts his eyes when you greet him, or someone who subconsciously taps his waist to check that his .38 revolver is still in his belt. In his book the “Gift of Fear”, international security expert Gavin de Bekker refers to these signs as pre-incident indicators. These are types of unnatural behavior that are indicators that an impending incident.  
  • Become familiar with the driving patterns in your neighborhood. At 07h30 in the morning adults are on their way to work and children on their way to school. This produces a specific speed and style of driving that is different from a casual Sunday drive to pick up a copy of the Daily Bugle. Your RAS should alert you when a vehicle driving style is incongruent with the context of the day and time.

I am not attempting to get you to spot assassins under every skirting board. Paranoia is the enemy of situational awareness. The goal is that you sensitize yourself to danger signs in the environment, and then you take action. In other words, you are in your relaxed state of alertness, you become aware of something unusual via the sensory system and the RAS, and you say: “Uh oh, spidey sense is tingling!”. Now you need act. In my next blog I will examine some concrete action steps.

References & Further Reading (2016, April 26). Boston Bombing Day 2: How Authorities Found the Bombers in the Crowd. Retrieved from YouTube :

Barry, A. (2015, May 15). Timeline: How police caught the Boston bombers. Retrieved from

BSR. (2017, March 19). Jeff Cooper’s Awareness Color Code Chart. Retrieved from BSR-inc:

Coaching What Works . (2016, August 7). Neurons That Fire Together Wire Together. Retrieved from YouTube :

Enkamp, J. (N.D. ). Zanshin – More Than You Think. Retrieved from Karate:

Mckain, T. (2014, MAy 6). The Effects of Cell Phones on Reaction Time . Retrieved from Prezi:

National Research Council. (1998). Situational Awareness. In R. S. Pew, & S. A. Mavor, Modeling Human and Organizational Behavior: Application to Militatary Simulations (pp. 172 – 202). Washington DC: The National Academies Press.

Norman , J. (2019, February 26). Donald Hebb Formulates the “Hebb Synapse” in Neuropsychological Theory. Retrieved from Jeremy Norman’s

Schneider, G. (2017). Can I See Your Hands! – A Guide to Situational Awareness, Personal Risk Management, Resilience and Security. In G. Schneider, Can I See Your Hands! – A Guide to Situational Awareness, Personal Risk Management, Resilience and Security (pp. 59 -72). Irvine. Boca Raton: Universal Publishers.



4 Principles For A Neighborhood Watch Patrol (A Complete Guide)

There has been a great deal written about what a neighborhood watch is. There is much written on how to create one. But now for the first time, let’s look in detail at how to do the patrol safely.

An incident or a string of incidents has created a call to action in your neighborhood.  Before you know it, Whats App groups are being formed and you are scheduled to do your first patrol. Put on your cape and don’t forget your mask; your super sleuthing days have begun.

Preparation is Key

“Spectacular achievement is always preceded by unspectacular preparation.” ― Robert Schuller.

Preparation for the patrol is as important as the patrol itself. This is especially important in neighborhoods where there is a high crime risk.

Consider the following scenario:

It’s a quiet and warm evening and you are coming to the end of an uneventful drive through the suburb. Turning a corner, you start heading for home, suddenly a movement catches your eye.

You turn towards the house on your right. You know; the one with the annoying couple that’s always trying to get you to join a new multi-level marketing scheme promising a superior lifestyle for more points. You turn your spotlight in the direction of the movement, just in time to see a tall thin male dressed in dark clothing leaping out of a window.

Your Heart Skips a Beat

It looks as if he has a laptop bag over his shoulder and he immediately starts to run in the direction of the suburb’s park area. Naturally your heart skips a beat and your body kicks in the ancient fight-flight-freeze process that has kept your family alive since your ancestors foraged in grasslands and “ook” was an entire sentence.

Your hands start to shake and fine motor skills, like finding a number on a cell phone, are discarded in favor of gross motor skills, like running or saying “uhgg” (caveman for “oh goodness, there’s a guy running over there with something on his back”). For a second your mind goes blank before you engage the gear and start to call for help.

Let’s check a few items:

  • Do you know where your flashlight is, or is it at the back of the glove compartment after you used it to change a flat tire one evening.
  • Will your flashlight work, or has the battery run down during the patrol?
  • Do you need to dig your phone out of your pocket, or scramble in the dark for your two-way radio?

It’s at this moment that preparation will determine your success and your safety.

Principle No. 1 For Safe Patrolling: Prepare For Success Under Duress.

Prepare Your Equipment

The answers to these questions are all answered during the preparation phase of the patrol. The goal is to set your gear up so that when the adrenaline is pumping and your inner caveman is running the show, you are functional and effective. Start by checking any equipment that is battery operated. This includes your flashlight, cell phone and two-way radio (if you have such a network).

If you live in a part of the world where it is necessary to be armed, then give your firearm a check. Give the magazine a tap and check that the firearm is in the appropriate carry condition. Secure it to your body. You can’t have your weapon sliding around the vehicle because you suddenly slammed on brakes.

It should be noted that some schemes insist that patrollers are unarmed. After all, you are supposed to be on “eyes, ears and call for help” duty and not “chase, apprehend and interrogate” duty.  

Next, test any other additional equipment. Some neighborhood schemes use a flashing amber light mounted to the roof of the car to maximize visibility. If this is the case, your cars’ auxiliary charger needs to be working.

There are times when patrollers need to assist with non-security related emergencies such as vehicle accidents or helping old Mr. Jones jump-start his Delta 88 Oldsmobile. A reflector vest and headlamp are indispensable tools for these occasions.

First Aid Kit

Your car should also contain a first aid kit. You may not be able to do much medically, but silicone gloves will allow you to assist medical personnel without facing the danger of blood borne diseases.

Ensure that you have some form of legal identification on your person. If you are rendered unconscious in some form of emergency, it’s essential that first responders can identify who you are.

Last of all; if you are not armed, some form of self-defense tool is necessary so secure a pepper spray to your waste or vehicle compartment (click here to learn about using pepper spray). Mightier than the pepper spray, a pen and notepad will assist you in note taking. Yes, you are a busy person and fine details may well slip your mind.

Where Is Everything Located?

Now decide where the kit is going in the car. The rule is to securely place the gear in the same place every time. That way when the brain clicks into crisis mode, it’s easy to find what you need. If are going to panic, be a well prepared “panicker”.

Don’t leave your paraphernalia on the passenger seat. Each piece of equipment needs to be in a secure location rather than somewhere in the dark on the floor of the car. If your cell phone is your primary method of communication, then pre-program critical numbers in a speed dial or favorites list. If you are going to use a push to talk App, then have the App open and the appropriate group on. Once you are ready, it’s time to turn on the ignition key and leave the Batcave.

Planning Your Route; Patrolling With Purpose

As opposed to the drive around aimlessly without any plan method; route planning is an integral part of the success of the patrol. Your route should fit into the security plan of your scheme. Perhaps it’s going to cover a crime hotspot, or a group of vulnerable houses.

The route needs to have a purpose. A route means that everyone knows more or less where you are during the patrol. This adds an additional layer of safety to your patrol. In some instances, you may want to follow an exact route, but it’s good to have some flexibility. Predictable routes create windows of opportunity for bad guys and boredom for patrollers.

Plan Using A Map

The plan starts with a map of the suburb which should be constructed by the coordinators of the scheme. The map should be overlaid with crime locations, incident times, common criminal entry points and vulnerable points of interest.

This can be done on computer by a process called GIS (Geographic Information Systems). Now don’t go all caveman and be scared off by this term. A GIS map can easily be constructed on free applications like Google Maps or Google Earth.

Once the map is created, it’s easy to see where your problem areas are and conduct some proper planning. At the end of the process, a patrol roster should be issued. For example, Jimmy is patrolling from 18h00 to 19h00 on sector 1 of the map, Dave from 19h00 to 20h00 on sector 2 and so on.

Think Your Route Through

Think your route through. If you want to learn the details of an area, tear yourself away from the shiny Netflix box for an hour, and take a walk on a Saturday afternoon. This will give you intimate knowledge of the suburb. In many cases it’s the same process that a house breaker uses to find his target. Alternatively, internet tools like Google Maps and street view can also be used. Start to activate your security brain by using a questioning process:

  • Where are the vulnerable homes on the route? Jenny the underpaid IT teacher who knows lots about GIS, has no burglar bars on her windows!
  • Where are potential points of danger? Maybe it’s a bottle store that gets busy in the evening; or an intersection where you are going to be forced to stop and wait for traffic.

These spots will need additional vigilance before you arrive at the location. Where are the darkest areas on the route; or the narrow streets that don’t offer you a left or right turn if you feel you are in danger?

Now with your security gear engaged, lets get on with the patrol.

Patrolling techniques

Situational Awareness

You cannot react to danger if you cannot perceive danger. Situational Awareness will be covered in detail in another article, however for purposes of your patrol,

Principle No. 2: Use Your Five Senses to Identify Features That Are Out of Place in the Environment.

You scan the environment by looking, listening, feeling and smelling for something that is out of place (apart from a good cup of coffee, give the sense of taste a break for now). Your situational awareness may detect a vehicle that is driving unnaturally slowly or too fast.

Perhaps it’s parked in a strange place. It could be the way someone walks through a neighborhood, or perhaps there’s two people who don’t seem to be walking with any purpose. Maybe it’s an object like a dustbin that has been propped against a wall so it could be used as a step ladder. Whatever it is, let your senses draw you to anomalies on the route.

Observe and Report

Once you spot something that stands out, your job is to observe and report what you have detected from a safe distance.

Your vehicle lights, mirrors and flashlight will assist to enhance your sense of sight. In the instance of a two-person patrol, the driver can take care of the driving space, while the crew in the passenger seat can give extra attention to the patrol area on the passenger side of the car.  

Weather permitting, it’s good to keep a window open or partially open. This allows sounds from the environment to filter into the vehicle. Sounds of shouting, alarms ringing, or rapid footsteps should draw your attention. The open window also gives you access to the smell of smoke; a valuable warning sign in the case of house fire.

Driving Style

Principle No. 3 For Safe Patrolling: Movement Creates Safety.

It’s far more difficult to attack a moving target than a stationary target. There are places during the patrol where you are going to have to come to a stop.  These are the times of highest risk.

Plan for these places by making a conscious effort to increase your situational awareness. Scan the area before you arrive at a stop street or traffic light. Make sure you have checked the areas to your left and right. Dark zones need extra care. A cul de sac or a place where you are forced to execute a 3-point turn can be especially tricky. A complicated driving manoeuvre is going to take your attention away from scanning the area. These risky places should form part of your route planning.

Driving speed can vary. Generally slower speeds allow you to scan the environment in greater detail, however there might be times when you want to quickly double back and loop a block to check that someone wasn’t waiting for you to drive past so that they can start tampering with the door of a vehicle parked on the street.

Calling for help

Principle No. 4 for Safe Patrolling: When You Call For Help, Location, Location, Location.

The primary tasks of a neighborhood watch are to create a presence in the suburb and to provide eyes and ears support for policing and security services. The idea is to stay away from danger and to call in suspicious and criminal activity. However, since you are on the street, it’s possible that something can happen. Be it on the cell phone or 2-way radio; when people are facing danger or are in shock, it is common for them to report what is happening, forgetting to say where they are.

This happens to security personnel and civilians alike. A typical example is, “I need help. I just saw a head on collision. Lots of people hurt”.  With this message first responders know what the emergency is, but don’t know where to find you. An alternative would be “Corner 6th and 14th, serious vehicle accident, I need assistance”. Even if communications are cut at this point; people know your location and can send help. You can always add details or new locations at a later point.

Scenario Planning

One way to resolve this situation is through a process of scenario planning. Make a list of possible emergency scenarios that can take place and develop a response to those situations. Specialist military and police units do this all the time. When the moment of crisis develops, they have already developed a trained response, this is what gives them the upper hand against the bad guys. What would you do if:

  • You come across a serious motor vehicle accident at a busy intersection?
  • You turn the corner and see an armed robbery in progress and one of the assailants looks directly at you?
  • Your car breaks down during the patrol in the darkest part of the suburb?

The scenarios are endless. Don’t be afraid to confront the questions. It’s worth developing a network of experts that can help you answer these questions. Here are two framework statements that can help you solve the scenarios:

  1. Position yourself in the place that will facilitate the highest degree of safety for that scenario.
  2. Call for help providing your location and the nature of the emergency.

Arrive alive

Lastly, the patrol is not over until your vehicle is locked away and you are safely indoors. It’s possible that while you were being the suburb’s caped crusader; your house became the target. Military units that return to their base after a long foot patrol will often use specific techniques to ensure that they don’t walk into an ambush just as they are ready to drop their kit and brew up a cup of something warm.

Approach your home as if it is the first time you are seeing the property. It’s predictable for you to drive directly home, park your car, drag your kit out as you berate the dog for leaping in the car. Even if he uses his tongue to communicate his undying affection for you!

Instead break the routine by creating variations of arriving home.

  • Use Principle 2 and pass by the house, do a turn around the block and listen for suspicious sounds.
  • Remember Principle 3; once you have parked your car, you are vulnerable. You need to get out as quickly possible.

Because you used Principle 1; your kit and house keys are quick to access, and you are on the move to the appropriate door. Not much you can do about the dog though! You can hang up the super hero kit for the night or day only once you have established the house is safe and you are locked indoors.