In the 2013 thriller movie “The Call”, teenager Casey Welson (Abigail Breslin) is abducted and forced into the trunk of a car by a serial killer. She calls the 911 emergency centre from an untraceable cell phone and must provide clues to 911 operator Jordan Turner (Halle Berry).

If we divorce ourselves from the horror of the story, the scenario offers an interesting opportunity to explore and apply our situational awareness skills.  

Situational awareness is the use of the sensory system to scan the environment. The purpose of this is to identify threats in the present or to project those threats into the near future.  

Check out my detailed situational awareness guide.

Serial killer aside, lets step into the trunk of that car. You are going to discover that situational awareness is what changed Casey Welson from a victim into a survivor.  Now close the trunk lid and switch on your situational awareness. We are going to make a list of what we can perceive.

Let’s start with your sense of sight:

situational awareness exercises
  • You can’t see much, but there is a line of light around the edge of the trunk lid.
  • The quality of light will change as the vehicle moves from parking garage, into direct sunlight.
  • Variations in light tell you about the speed of the vehicle, and whether it has moved or has stopped beneath a bridge or some trees.

Casey is able to give a brief description of the car and her attacker. But there is so much more to describe.

The lack of light forces you to change from your usual visually-dominated mode. Now you must rely on your other senses.

Your hearing provides information about the environment and distance:

  • You can hear the car’s engine revving. This informs you about acceleration and speed.
  • The sound of the vehicle as it is driving and shifting gears tells you whether the car is in good working order or has an occasional knock and grind that suggest mechanical issues and a possible breakdown.
  • The sounds of car horns, other engines and screeching wheels will provide information about the type of traffic that surrounds you. Your awareness of time can be added to confirm this data. Is it the midday rush or the 4pm commute home?
  • There may be other peripheral sounds that add to the soundscape. Dogs barking, helicopters, sirens or car doors opening and closing are all auditory clues to what type of place you are in.

The senses of proprioception, balance and kinaesthesia tell you about movement and space:

  • Dark or light, you will be able to gage the dimensions of the trunk and how much space is available for the movement of your body. Could you reposition your body so your feet will be able to kick when the trunk opens? This may be important for if you choose to set up a counterattack against the driver of the vehicle.
  • You will be able to sense the movement of the vehicle, this will include acceleration, breaking, turns and stops. Take the time you have travelled from your watch or cell phone and start to get an idea of how far you have travelled from your starting point.
  • As the car travels forward, you will be able to sense the quality of the road. On a dirt road, the car will slow and bump and vibrate. Freeways will be confirmed by the combined smoothness of the ride, winds and the sound that tyres make at high speeds.
  • Your balance helps to interpret the mindset of the driver. Are you being thrown from side to side in the trunk as he panics; or in Casey’s case is the ride smooth and deliberate? This driver does not want to attract attention.

The sense of smell or olfaction provides unseen information:

  • By smelling the floor of the car, you can tell if the carpet is old or in the case of a new or rental car it may have that fresh “new car” smell.
  • It’s possible that there is a specific organic or chemical odour that helps you to build an information profile about the vehicle and its driver. It could be the sharp smell of a solvent or the sweet rotting smell of a long-forgotten item of fruit.
  • Smells from the environment will also filter into the car’s truck; industrial smoke, fresh tar from the road or the concentrated animal odour of a farm (Casey’s final destination).

Your skin’s sense of touch tells you about your direct environment:

  • Your hands can explore the mechanism of the hood, pushing and probing for weaknesses and moving parts.
  • The skin on your face, especially your cheeks, will help to detect air flow and temperature change. This could help to find mechanisms and compartments that you could open.
  • The skin senses the texture of the trunk’s floor. Perhaps the carpet moves, or there’s a source of grease that can be used as a lubricant to escape bonds or to be smeared in the eyes of an attacker.
  • In “The Call”, Casey finds a can of paint that she uses to draw attention to herself. There may however be other objects that could be used as striking or stabbing weapons. If you decide that fighting is the right tactic, you are going to need all the help you can get.

Deep analysis of the environment can only come through conscious investigation of the senses. But sensory information doesn’t come to you one sense at a time. It arrives as a combined multisensorial package.

Combining the senses

We’ve all had this experience. You are sitting in a restaurant and a person across the room says something that piques your interest. You look up and by looking at the person you can better eavesdrop on the conversation.

In an article called Combining Senses, Malte Bieler and Ileana Hanganu-Opatz explain that although our brains have separate areas for each sensory system, we are born with the ability to combine our senses. This process, called multisensory integration, helps to create a complete picture of your current reality.

Scientists still don’t yet understand how this happens, but for the situational awareness practitioner, it’s clear that the more sensory data we can expose ourselves to, the better our situational awareness is going to be. Now it’s time to get practical with some exercises to sharpen situational awareness skills.

Exercise 1: Areas of influence

When you enter an environment, use your sense of sight to divide the area into three areas: Foreground, midground and background. You can do this process in any environment: a crowded public space like a concert hall, your garden, a city street or even a dinner party. Actual distances will differ depending on the environment you have entered.

Foreground:

This is the immediate space around you. It’s the area you will assess first because the things closest to you are usually the most threatening to you. Foreground introduces a vital tactical principle that involves time and distance.

ACTION IS FASTER THAN REACTION

Be it a self-defense, policing or even a neighbourhood watch scenario, the bad guy is usually going to act first.

The less distance you have, the less time you have to react. When assessing the foreground, don’t just look at what is directly in front of you. First responders the world over have a saying, “Watch your six”. This refers to the 6 o’clock position on a clock. In other words, the space directly behind you. You are going to do a quick 360° observation.

Casey makes the mistake of turning her back on the kidnapper while he is in her direct space.

Midground:

This is roughly the area halfway between your background and foreground. Depending on the overall space of the environment, people in the midground are only slightly less threatening than those in the foreground.

To understand this, take a friend to a flat surface and try the 10 meter sprint test. The average man should be clearing 10 meters in about two seconds or less. That’s not a lot of time to cognitively process what is happening and initiate a response whilst under pressure.

Using fine motor skill actions such as pulling your shirt aside to access your firearm, then drawing, cocking and accurately firing it, is going to be very difficult.

Background:

This is the farthest area in the environment where someone can still have an influence over you. Threats in the environment can be dynamic. For instance, moving cars or someone using a firearm causes a threat to move very quickly from the background to the foreground.

The background also becomes important when assessing your emergency escape route. When entering a shopping complex, try to get into the habit of identifying at least one escape route in the background. This could apply to a shopping mall, parking area or even a small grocery store.

Take note of fire escapes and the doors to the storage area of the store.  Alternatively, there’s always the butchery counter where the big knives are kept.

Now let’s go back to the abduction scene in “The Call”. Casey enters a parking garage. In the background are the sounds and movement of cars. As she is walking, the suspect car enters her midground. It’s possible that she could have heard that the engine was running, but she was distracted by her phone. She is almost knocked by the kidnapper’s car which enters her foreground. After a brief verbal interaction, she turns her back on him to pick up her phone. She wouldn’t have done this had she received a signal from one of the most important aspects of situational awareness – intuition.


Exercise 2: Observe internal changes from green to red

Situational awareness is not only about what is happening around you, it is also about what is happening inside you. Self-awareness is the tool for monitoring your internal environment, which includes warnings of danger. The model in which you Imagine your intuition is like a traffic light offers you three possible states. Let us consider you are a single woman out for your morning jog:

  • Green: This is your neutral baseline emotional state. It’s important to know what this feels like so that you can compare changes in your internal condition.
  • Orange: It is now the second time you have seen a red sedan with two men drive past you. As they pass, the driver looks at you. Your internal state changes from neutral to uncomfortable. This intuitive feeling may manifest as a sensation in the body. This is often referred to as “gut feel”; but for some people it is a little voice in the back of your head that says, “watch out”. It’s your spidey sense talking.
  • Red: The car passes and stops 200 meters down the road. The driver gets out of the car and starts to look at his phone. Your skin “crawls” and your heart beats faster. You have felt this before. Fear! Your most primitive warning system has hit condition RED. Time to change direction and get out of there.

Intuition is like an FM radio, the more you turn the dial, the sharper the reception is. As you go through your day to daily life, notice how different people and situations evoke different emotions inside of you. These emotions are messengers. I will cover intuition in detail in a later post.  


Exercise 3: Deny your senses

One of the most effective sense enhancement exercises is to cut out one of your senses.  The blind comic character Daredevil is a prime example of someone who, through the loss of his sight, was able to develop sensory superpowers.

The idea that blind people improved hearing over sighted people has been validated by scientists. In fact it has been established that there are blind people who actually have Daredevil-like echolocation abilities. While this may not be possible for most of us, it is clear that with stimulation and training, our neuroplastic brain will develop new connections that give us enhanced sensory abilities. Try the following exercises:

  • Regularly move through your house and garden in the dark. Use your entire body’s’ sense of touch to understand spaces around the house. This may involve the occasional collision between a coffee table and a sensitive shin bone.
  • Try a blindfold exercise to develop your sound localisation ability. Cup your hands behind your ears when you do this, and notice that is possible to accurately locate the source of various sounds.
  • Watch a movie scene that you have never seen before with the sound turned off. Notice how the actor’s body language, expressions and actions fill in pieces of the story. Try to interpret the story, then watch the scene again with the sound on and compare your results.
  • Develop your proprioception and sense of touch by doing blindfold wrestling and clinch exercises. This is a valuable exercise for first responders who may need to arrest and control violent people. Your enhanced sense of touch will notify you of muscle shifts that will telegraph your opponent’s intentions.

Exercise 4: Measure your flight distance through proxemics

Ecologists define flight distance as the risk and distance that an animal will allow a predator before the animal initiates escape behaviour.

In terms of situational awareness, how close can you let a potential human predator into your proximity before you need to initiate flight or fight behavior? This is an especially important concept for police and security personnel. Maintaining the correct “interview distance” may save you from a bad encounter with an unseen blade.

Casey let the predator into her flight distance and turned her back on him. Once this happened the principle of time and distance was against her and she had very few options.

Proxemics is the study of the amount of spatial separation required for humans to interact comfortably. Use your proxemic sense to create your flight distance. As you move through the public environment, consciously create distances between yourself and various people. Ask yourself the question: “How much distance would I need to take action?”. The more uncomfortable you feel, the more distance you need.

Exercise 5: Decide to fight every day of your life

In the end, 911 operator Jordan Turner convinces Casey that she needs to help herself and fight. This is not a situational awareness strategy. This exercise is the daily decision that you are not a victim. Casey transforms from panicked kidnapped victim into empowered survivor. She starts to give Jordan descriptive clues derived from her senses. The final clue that leads to her rescue, is a distinctive background sound that Jordan was able to hear through Casey’s phone.  

As a standalone tool, situational awareness helps you to navigate a world. When combined with the daily survivor decision it becomes a powerful means to change your life.

References & Further Reading

Anderson, B. (Director). (2013). The Call [Motion Picture].

Bieler, M., & Hanganu-Opatz., I. (2016, June 14). Combining Senses. Retrieved from Ask a biologist: https://askabiologist.asu.edu/How-the-Brain-Combines-Senses

King , P. (2017, August 29). How Does The Brain Combine All Five Senses Into One Reality? Retrieved from Forbes: https://www.forbes.com/sites/quora/2017/08/29/how-does-the-brain-combine-all-five-senses-into-one-reality/#160ab43642d5

Montreal Neurological Institute / McGill University. (2004, June 23). The Blind Really Do Hear Better. Retrieved from ScienceDaily: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2004/07/040723093712.htm

Pape Møller, A. (2008). Flight distance and population trends in European breeding birds. Behavioral Ecology, 1095–1102.

Sinicki , A. (2015, May 8). How to Train Your Senses Like Daredevil – Echolocation Training, Neuroplasticity and More. Retrieved from The Bioneer: http://www.thebioneer.com/how-to-train-your-senses-like-daredevil-echolocation-training-neuroplasticity-and-more/

Stryker , G. (2008, November 12). How our Senses Combine to Give us a Better View of the World. Retrieved from Association For Psychologial Science : https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/releases/how-our-senses-combine-to-give-us-a-better-view-of-the-world.html

Universitaet Bielefeld. (2016, June 6). How the brain merges the senses. Retrieved from ScienceDaily: https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2016/06/160606082337.htm

van Dam, L. (2018, September 7). Do blind people have better hearing? Retrieved from The Conversation: http://theconversation.com/do-blind-people-have-better-hearing-102282

Walker , O. (2016, January 27). 10m Sprint Test. Retrieved from Science for Sport: https://www.scienceforsport.com/10m-sprint-test/

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Getting Practical With Self Awareness
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Getting Practical With Self Awareness
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Situational awareness is one of the most important skills in self defense. Learn how to heighten your awareness with this Security Adviser post - Today.
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