Practicing Awareness – Part III

How do you do ‘situational awareness?’ You can’t ‘do’ a noun.

Craig Douglas

First of all, let’s distinguish between training and practice. My definition of training is something you do under the guidance and supervision of someone else. Practice is something you do on your own to maintain or hone skills you have or are developing.

Although Jeff Cooper’s Color Codes (White, Yellow, Orange, and Red) are the most popular way to describe states of awareness, I prefer to use the NRA format. As a sidenote, Cooper did not include Black as part of his system and actually objected to its inclusion.

The NRA format is described in the Personal Protection In The Home course and book.  Military and police personnel tend to use insider jargon to describe things. Jargon is both a shorthand and, linguistically, also a way of excluding outsiders from the group. Shorthand can be useful in some circumstances but to a trainer exclusion is not, so I prefer the NRA terms.

  • Unaware             (Doi, doi, doi, doi, doi, doi, doi; as we used to say in Chicago)
  • Aware                   (I know who and what is around me and what is going on)
  • Alert                      (Something has caught my attention and makes me uneasy)
  • Alarm                    (Something is definitely wrong in my right world)

Wearing earphones and listening to music automatically put us into the Unaware state. Constant talking on the phone does the same thing, as does concentrating on watching your dog take a dump. If you want to be Aware, you have to be mentally present where you are, not in a musical venue or someone else’s location. Sorry, there’s no way around that.

Tom Givens of Rangemaster mentions two things he thinks are relevant to situational awareness.

1. Who is around me?

2. What are they doing?

To those, I would add three more:

3. Where am I?

4. What is going on? (Not necessarily at this moment)

5. Points Of Likely Concealment (a component of Positioning to be discussed later)

When walking or running, we have an excellent opportunity to practice our situational awareness and positioning. It’s also a good habit for your safety.

You know how they say running is good for your health? In my neighborhood, it can save your life.

–old Chicago joke

To start the practice regimen, the default position for your eyes is on the horizon. It’s true that when walking or running we have to look down periodically to watch out for dog turds and other hazards on the ground. However, most people walk around like they’re continually playing the game “Step on a crack, break your mother’s back.” Having the eyes down makes it very difficult to see anything outside of the Near Phase of Social Space, in terms of proxemics. The boundary between the Near and Far phases (~7 feet) of Social Space is where untrained people will tend to make their final Force decision (Critical Distance). Being fixed on that point makes it impossible to do any information gathering prior to having to react. It’s a failure to follow Items 1 and 2 and a self setup for disaster. There is a discussion of proxemics and its implications in an earlier blog post Situational Awareness and Positioning (part III).

To get into the information gathering mode, something I do when out is to read every sign or anything that has words on it. I do this whether I’m walking or driving because it keeps my head up. As Tom says, most drivers stopped at a traffic signal tend to watch the signal with rapt fascination as if they expected it to start to sing and dance. Reading everything around you keeps your head moving and your mental focus outward.

There are many apartment complexes and residential subdivisions along my walk route. There are also numerous small cross streets with street signs. I make it a habit to read each of these signs every time I pass them, even though I’ve read them hundreds of times before. This accomplishes two things. First, it puts me in an outwardly directed mental state. Second, it makes sure I know exactly where I am at all times; Item 3 on the list. If I had to call 911, being able to say “I’m at the entrance to the Wyndham Hills apartment complex on Nesbitt Ferry Road” or “I’m at the intersection of Peachtree Road and Sequoia Trace” gives any responders a good idea of where I’m at. I also read the address number of every mailbox I pass. This gives a precise location if I’m not near a complex, cross street, or subdivision. Don’t depend on the GPS locator of your phone to give your exact location; it may not.

As I approach and pass the complexes and subdivisions, I look as far as I can past the entrance. What I’m looking for is outgoing traffic and any changes or construction. This is mostly just mental exercise for Item 4 but has helped me avoid being run over by distracted soccer mom drivers on several occasions. Heavy construction equipment near the entrance can also be a Point Of Likely Concealment, Item 5, for criminals, especially at night.

Graffiti is another thing to look for. The appearance of graffiti where it didn’t exist before can be an indicator of a new gang presence. The presence of beer cans is another detail worthy of note. The detritus of cans tossed out the windows of drunken drivers’ cars is not that much of a concern, unless you’re in their path. However, a quantity of cans noticed in a single location over a period of time is. That could be an indicator of nighttime party spot that is best avoided.

Another thing I look for is Small Dead Animals (SDAs) and Large Dead Animals (LDAs), as we called them when I was in the City Planning program at Georgia Tech. Once again, this is mostly mental exercise. However, as the deer presence in my area has increased, I’ve had occasion to call Public Works several times to report dead deer that were hit by cars.

Checking out the drivers in cars waiting to turn when you approach an intersection is mandatory. Any doofus who has their turn signal on and is talking on the phone or texting is a potential assassin. I never make the assumption they’re going to see me and not run me down when I get in the crosswalk. That’s not to say the ones who don’t have their turn signal on won’t try to kill you, either.

Of course, we want to scrupulously follow Item 1 and be aware of other persons around us.

  • Walkers and joggers
  • People in their yards
  • Workers
  • Low-lifes

Engaging the normal people is something I always try to do. Just saying ‘Good Morning’ helps engender a small sense of community. Be aware that it’s also a good way to seem like you’re part of the neighborhood, even if you’re not. This technique is used extensively in surveillance work and criminals use it too. It’s also fun to wave at people you don’t know and have them wave back. They go home thinking “Maybe that person knows me but I can’t remember who he is.” This is also another technique for establishing a false neighborhood identity. Workers can be fun because they’re often working in obscure locations and require active work on my part to locate and identify them.

I don’t mind walking past low-lifes but it’s important to be mentally prepared to deal with them and fail the interview. Someone once said that I give my students permission to be rude; that’s totally true. There’s a difference between rude and mean, though. In my vernacular, being rude relates to enforcing my boundaries. Being mean is encroaching on someone else’s boundaries. That can set you up for trouble. If you don’t like the look of them, though, there’s nothing wrong with crossing the street or changing direction to avoid them. Don’t hesitate to turn on your heel and go back the way you came if that seems appropriate.

Earlier posts about Situational Awareness

As the real Dr. House mentioned at the Hebrew Hogger last weekend, it’s better to have an option to avoid a situation than to have a tool to get out of a situation.

13 responses

  1. Reblogged this on Women and Guns and commented:
    This is a great explanation of using situational awareness, often talked about, very seldom explained. Claude does an excellent job of explaining.

  2. Nice work…Linked to this, and following your site.
    Our humble site:

  3. Excellent advice

  4. to be able to see cars approaching i walk toward traffic not the same way. that way you can see cars approaching and not have a car pull up behind you and have people get out for a mugging. just a thought.

  5. I would add the key concepts taught me by Dr. Jim Samuels: POWER–Positioning, Owning, Waiting, Extending, Reading. These are as useful in everyday life as in the Martial Arts (he taught both).
    Positioning: think of the Horse Stance in Kung fu. It is the platform from which you both extend your own Power, and deal with extensions of Power (be they words, caresses or blows) from others. The BEST Positions are like those of a fighter–constantly fluid, yet stable as a rock. (Think judo and aikido.)
    Owning: “What you own, you have the right to control. What you do NOT own you do NOT have the right to control.” Try this: when subjected to a barrage of communication you do not want to hear, don’t respond to the tirade as the speaker expects. Instead, hold your Position, and keep holding it–even after they’re done. Hold it until they feel uncomfortable; then tell them, “Thank you”–and mean it. It totally messes with their sense of timing. Alternatively, interrupt their flow by saying, “Thank you. Yes. I understand. You’re right. Absolutely. Well said.” Even if it’s the worst, most arrant drivel you ever heard. Every time they speak, by Owning their communication, you take THEIR energy and make it YOURS. Eventually, they’ll realize that they can’t touch you–and they’ll quit. (Again, think “soft-style” MA’s like Aikido, Judo and Kung Fu.)
    Waiting: “The ability to hold position in Time and Space, in expectation of an outcome.” Think of waiting for a bus or taxi: you’ve been told they’ll be there in 15 minutes, so you Wait. You picture an appropriate amount of Time to spend Waiting. If they show up ten minutes late, you’re annoyed; your sense of appropriateness has been violated. If they show up ten minutes early, you’re surprised–like you received an unexpected gift. I’ve used this several times, as a deliberate skill. During my first extractions for a partial plate, for example, I woke up from the general anaesthetic, halfway through the extractions; they had me numbed up enough that I felt no pain, but I still had the experience of a barbecue-grill-sized frame holding my mouth open as they did unpleasant things to my mouth. So, I Waited. I practiced letting the events flow past me, like water; focusing on each moment of Time as it slipped by, ready for the next, and the next, and the next. As a result, I did not become stuck in a bad moment as it slid from the Present to the Past; whenever I found myself getting impatient, I acknowledged it, then went back to Waiting. Another hour and a half, and it was over; after they removed the barbecue grill from my mouth, I had some sharply pointed remarks for the oral surgeon and his staff about being asleep for the whole procedure, but that was it.
    Extending. Whether you extend your Power in a blow or a word, Extending means directing energy to a target. This in turn means you must be aware of two locations: Here and There. Here means where you are, I.e., your Position in Time and Space. If you’re distracted, or you’re off-balance for any reason, then your Extending will be weakened. There means where your target actually is, in Time and Space. A boxer who successfully delivers a blow, scores a hit; a bad comedian whose audience doesn’t laugh at his jokes, misses.
    Reading. This is perhaps the subtlest of the five facets of Power, for it has to do with two dynamics: Reaches, and Retreats. Think of cold water, and being thirsty on a hot summer day; that’s a Reach. Now, think of cold water, and being caught in a freezing rain, soaking wet and chilled to the bone; that’s a Retreat. By Reading those around you, you can practice–and improve–your skill at noticing which people are Retreating, or neutral (thus not now a threat), and which are Reaching (thus a possible, actual or critical threat, depending on things like size, numbers, speed, direction, force(s) displayed, etc.). You can also learn to extend the distance to which you’re Reading, thus extending your Critical Distance Line and ability to respond.
    The thing is, any good Martial Art will teach you these things, albeit phrased a bit differently. The very best MA systems will teach you not only the physical moves, the punches and kicks and blocks and counters, but how to apply them in every aspect of Life.

  6. […] critical aspect of personal protection is situational awareness. An important facet of situational awareness is the ability to know if we’re being watched or […]

  7. There are Bandits: known bad guys. and Bogeys: Unknowns. And, if you have ever been divorced, you know that is the only two categories.

  8. […] let’s say you encountered something that caused your to Alert and then realized it wasn’t a problem. You could mentally wargame what you thought the original […]

%d bloggers like this: