Three Levels of Situational Awareness

The Three Levels of Situational Awareness

“I just knew it”,

“You knew what”?

“I was almost in a car accident today, luckily I had a sixth sense it coming at me, and I got out of the way in time”,

“What are you talking about, you think you’re some kind of a clairvoyant”?

“No, listen. As usual I was late for work and I trying to get my makeup on, and I was about to pass through that intersection, you know the one next to the diner with the creepy clown”?

“You mean the one that looks like Pennywise the Clown”?

“Yep, that one. They make great fries. Anyway, I’m getting my eyeliner on and through the corner of my eye, I see this little white car coming towards the intersection. And I’m thinking, the traffic light is red, and I don’t think that guys even noticed it. So, I slowed right down, and next minute BOOM! He jumps the light and hits this delivery van and it ends up on its side just sliding down the road”.

“Oh, that’s no big deal, that place is famous for car crashes. I think everyone gets distracted by the clown; that thing gives me the creeps”. 

I explain the situational awareness definition.

The Three Levels of Awareness

Casting Stephen King’s murderous clown aside for a moment, let’s press rewind and review our young protagonist’s story. First, let’s consider her general perceptions. The trickle of traffic and the morning radio sounds, the punctuated sensation of stop-start movement combined with flurried attempts to put makeup on. The cones in her central vision provide detailed imagery; the colour of the traffic lights, quick snatches of her eyeliner and what is behind her in the rear-view mirror, brake lights just ahead, and the rhythm of pedestrians in the foreground.

I created a guide to situational awareness.

three levels of situational awareness

And then something at the outer edge of her vision catches her attention. The light-sensitive rods in her peripheral vision catch a movement. As the movement travels from the outer edge to the central point of her vision, she identifies a white car coming at speed towards the intersection. In a split second, the other experiences around her are filtered out, and her attention is directed to the moving car.

Hasty mental calculations are made. Our driver’s understanding of the world of moving objects has been richly informed by childhood experiences. Time spent playing ball games, watching fruit falling from trees, and learning to cross the road, have all combined to create a mental map of how objects behave in motion.

In an instant, she is able to comprehend that at its current speed, it is not possible for the car to come to a stop at the intersection. With a few years of driving experience under her belt, she has learned to comprehend the nuances and “body language” of traffic.

For the driver to stop in time he should have started to slow down in X meters before the intersection. The silhouette of his head would help to inform the observer that his binocular vision is fixed on the intersection. The tilt and turn of his head might indicate that he is looking at his cell phone, or his attention is on the person sitting next to him.

We are not able to see the focus of his eyes. Perhaps his thoughts are far from the experience of driving, desperately trying to unravel an engrossing complexity that dominates his life. 

Our young commuter combines this knowledge and comprehends that the white car will not stop. The status of the traffic light and the oncoming traffic enables her to foresee the evolution of events and make a rapid prediction.

“That car’s gonna jump the light and crash!”

She makes a decision and reflexively her foot moves to the brake pedal. The vehicle slows down while she is unaware that in milliseconds, her brain’s neural networks were able to draw from her life experience and successfully predict the outcome of the event. No, she’s not psychic, she just used the three levels of situational awareness. 

The story of the Three Levels of Situational Awareness

In 1995, engineer and US Air force Chief Scientist Dr. Mica Endsley penned the paper “Toward a theory of situation awareness in dynamic systems”. In the paper, Dr. Endsleys’ model illustrates three levels of situational awareness. This model serves as a functional map, illustrating her definition of Situational Awareness:

“The perception of the elements in the environment within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning and the projection of their status in the near future”. These three levels are explained as follows: 

  1. Level 1: Perception of elements in the current situation
  2. Level 2: Comprehension of the current situation
  3. Level 3: Projection of future status

The three stages culminate in making a decision and from that decision, the performance of an action is taken. The model also acknowledges that both the external environment and individual factors play an influence in the situation. It explains the role of goals in directing our attention and the flow of data through an event. 

It is natural to assume that this is a progressive or linear process. One level takes place after the next level. However, Ensley points out that it’s a much more integrative process for those that are proficient in Situational Awareness. In some instances, Level 2 and 3 may take place before level 1. There may be times when we comprehend and forecast first, and then adapt our decisions as new perceptions come to light. 

For example, our knowledge of the rules of the road and lifelong experience of being a passenger, pedestrian and driver, allows us to make certain assumptions and predications about how drivers will behave at an intersection.

Most of the time we can make a fairly accurate forecast that the oncoming cars will stop at the red traffic light as we pass through. As we approach the intersection and see movement and hear traffic, our newly updated level 1 perception helps to feed and amend this dynamic process. The result is that we may change our decision to drive through. 

Because situational awareness is key for fighter pilots (and she was from the US Air Force), Dr. Ensley relates her model to these elite warriors. But we are not in the business of flying multimillion-dollar fighter aircraft in hi-tech battles.

We are in the business of building a safer life amidst a swirl of traffic, changing crime rates, high pressure jobs and pandemics. Ensley’s 3-level model functions as an excellent building-block for those who want to build situational awareness and make effective decisions in potentially dangerous situations.   

Level 1: Building Perception Skills to Make You Safer

The three-level model is data-driven. We receive data through our senses, comprehend what we sensed, make predictions and decisions. As the situation develops, the cycle repeats. Everyone can be good at level 1 because it is all about perception of the current situation. The better your perception, the better the quality of data that flows through the cycle. Developing your Level 1 situational awareness should include the following:

  • Develop your sensory system. I’ve written a few articles about developing your senses for better situational awareness.
  • Consciously remove distractions and items that limit your perception. Your treasured cell phone and earphones are probably the biggest culprits here. 
  • Use technology and aids that will augment your perception. At home, this would include measures such as installing external lighting, using a home alarm system and if you have the heart for it, a four-legged friend that comes with a set of super senses and a waggly tail (but please remember dogs are long-term commitments and not just a part of your home protection system). CCTV can be used to proactively verify what you have perceived. 
  • Learn to identify patterns of danger. Criminals often default to tried and trusted “templates”. They use distinctive dress patterns, drive at the wrong speed or park in irregular places to ensure a getaway. 
  • Learn to detach in high-stress situations. It’s a question of perceiving what is happening in the actual situation and also keeping some wide-ranging awareness of what’s happening around you. Ensley refers to examples of pilots fixating on their enemy, only to crash into the ground.  I have witnessed young security and police officers focus on searching and interviewing an arrest suspect only to lose control of an enraged crowd who want to dish out a little “community justice”. Ask yourself, on a scale of 1 to 10, how much attention do you need to dedicate to the situation at hand. Low scores may result in a loss of vital information, very high scores may mean that you lose awareness of the larger situation. 

Level 2: Building Comprehension for Self Defense 

Level 2 is the diagnostic process of comprehending and making sense of our perceptions. We integrate the data, sort out what is relevant and assign meaning to things. This is not a naturally acquired process, and people with experience do better at this level. The only problem with experience is that you need to have experiences to get experienced! If you don’t have the benefit of experience like a hardened police officer does, then consider developing your comprehension skills in the following ways:

  • Find a good instructor or enrol in a course. Many fictional heroes have a mentor who helped them make sense of the world. Electra had Stick, Luke Skywalker had Yoda and the X-men had Professor Xavier. You want to find a teacher who has actually done it in the real world, rather than a YouTube professor. 
  • Experience is also a good teacher, so get out there and try new things. Becoming conscious of your experiences also helps to make them more real so take some time to examine recent experiences and extract some lessons learned. 
  • Beware of developing your model of the world from the commercial or social media. Poor sources of data will corrupt your comprehension of the world. A classic example is the hoax diagram that has frequented South African social media channels for years. The diagram shows alleged signs that criminals put on the walls of homes. If you want to inform your understanding of the world, then find some good sources of data to learn from. This may include well-researched books and expert forums (or the articles on this blog). 
Criminals mark houses |Rekord Moot

Level 3: Making Predictions About Danger

The forecasting or anticipating of a future event is the highest level of situational awareness. Learning to predict what is going to happen in the near future is a skill that is acquired over time. These projections are made from our experience and knowledge of the world. However, that doesn’t mean that level 3 is like the sacred martial arts black belt that can only be attained after years of dragging porcelain pots of water up a flight of stairs to a remote, mountainous monastery.

We make predictions all the time. We look at the stream of traffic and judge how long it will take to get home. We look at the quality of a coach and the wins and losses of a team to predict whether our favourite sports team will win against their strongest competitor. Sometimes, we make the wrong call and other times we get it right. The question is what you did to make the right call? This is especially important in the context of self-preservation. Consider these questions and see what you discover about yourself. 

Can you remember a time when you could see a dangerous situation evolving? Perhaps it was a potential car accident, or a bar fight or a bad feeling about a dodgy guy in an elevator. 

  • How did you know what was going to happen?
  • Where did the thoughts come from, or was it more of a feeling than a thought?
  • What knowledge did you use to reach the conclusion that you were in danger?

Take note of the times when you made accurate predictions. The most important question is, can you replicate this? Once you make a good prediction, you need to make a decision and act.  

Making a Decision & Repeating the Cycle

Just because your situational awareness was good, doesn’t mean you will make the right decision. There are thousands of examples of crime victims that sensed their attackers and accurately anticipated that an attack was about to take place and then did nothing. This happens due to lack of experience, indecisiveness and even due to poor self-esteem. We don’t believe in ourselves or trust in our feelings.  Enhance your decision making by implementing the following processes:

  • Beware of rationalizing away intuitive predictions. Feelings are messengers that are there because they have a distinct function.
  • It’s better to pre-live than to relive. Create a set of standard procedures for times when you detect and anticipate danger. Consider some possible scenarios that could take place in your life. For example, what would you do if:
  1. You were being followed by a strange man.
  2. You wake up and someone is in your house.
  3. You are in a shopping centre with your kids and you hear gunfire.
  4. Two men approach your car at a traffic light. 

These conversations lead to decisions that you have created before the time of crisis. 

In the end, there is no end. The cycle of situational awareness is a continuous one, moving from perceptions to decisions and back to more perceptions. To goal is to refine each stage so that we our decisions and actions become more effective. 

Click here to watch a video where I discuss the 3 levels of situational awareness in the context of actual crime footage. 

References & further reading

Dismukes, R. K. (2017). Human Factors . In R. K. Dismukes, Human Error in Aviation (pp. 221-238). New York : Routledge.

Endsley, M. (2000). Theoretical underpinnings of situation awareness. A Critical Review. In Situation awareness analysis and measurement (pp. 3-33). https://www.researchgate.net/publication/292771806_Situation_awareness_analysis_and_measurement_chapter_theoretical_underpinnings_of_situation_awareness.

Endsley, M. R. (2015). Situation Awareness Misconceptions and Misunderstandings. Journal of Conitive Engineering and Decision Making , https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/1555343415572631.

Goldstein, W. (2016, February ). A Guide to Understanding Your Peripheral Vision. Retrieved from EyehealthWeb: https://www.eyehealthweb.com/peripheral-vision/

National Research Council. (1998). Situation Awareness. In Modeling Human and Organizational Behavior: Application to Military Simulations (pp. 173 – 202 ). Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Science Buddies . (2016, March 31). Put Your Peripheral Vision to the Test. Retrieved from Scientific American: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/put-your-peripheral-vision-to-the-test/

Wikipedia. (2020, June 10). Mica Endsley. Retrieved from Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mica_Endsley

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