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Everyday Situational Awareness

As we go about our day-to-day lives, from the moment we step out of the controlled environment we call home, each and every one of us is immersed in an omnipresent, distractive and disruptive environment. On any given day our minds are constantly tugged between devoting attention to financial decisions to be made, stresses and demands of work, the daily commute, home/family life, and our social and professional interactions with others. In addition to this, so much of our current lives are tied up in technology; our calendars, personal/business contacts, banking/investments, social media, etc. Prior to the emergence of smart phones, you would have to sit down at your PC/laptop to access all this data, now it is all there on a little screen at your fingertips, pure information overload. With all of this noise going on in our lives it’s easy to see how one can become numb to living in the present moment and otherwise become situationally oblivious.

Situational awareness refers to the process of being cognizant of the environment/events occurring around you to include your location, immediate task at hand, and people/ things within your proximity. In my opinion as a firearm instructor, situational awareness is the most important skill one can possess that is paramount to personal safety. It is a skill so valuable that it supersedes any weapon skill I could possibly teach a student. In order to appropriately respond to any situation in life and make a logical and appropriate decision/action you must first be aware of the environment, events, and people immediately around you. As an individual focused on personal safety, perceiving threats or potentially threating situations before they are face to face with you buys you time, and that added time buys you options on how you can respond to or evade the situation. Can you think of a time when a friend or family member caught you in a moment when you were oblivious to their presence? Recount the initial shock of being surprised, the sympathetic nervous system fight or flight response being activated as your heart pounds harder and breathing quickens. Now also recount the temporary pause or period of inaction, due to the moment of fear that overtakes the logical thought centers of the frontal cortex. Now can you imagine the terror involved, if the person who caught you off guard was a dangerous unknown person with harmful intent, instead of a familiar friendly face? Can begin to see the dangers of inaction that are brought on by being surprised from a situational oblivious mental state?

Being situationally aware is a balancing act, with the ideal state being the middle point of being at high alert and being totally oblivious. One can’t live and function in a state of high alert for very long as it is physically and emotionally taxing and being oblivious is not ideal at all for reasons previously discussed. It is easy to conceptualize levels of mental awareness by use of what is known as “Cooper’s Color Code of Awareness”.

In many of the concealed weapon permit classes that I instruct I give students the scenario of walking out of Walmart into the parking lot and encountering an uncomfortable feeling that someone is encroaching upon them. In this scenario they have to go through a process of discerning if this person is a threat or non-threat and how to respond. According to the Cooper’s level of awareness, in the context of this scenario, condition white is definitely not the mental state you want to find yourself in. The biggest reasons of why people get caught in condition white is having attention focused on distracting devices like cell phones, being overly engaged in conversations, and use of ear buds that drown out ambient sounds in environments that are public or otherwise unfamiliar. There is really only one place in which condition white mental state is appropriate, and that is in the safety and familiarity of your own home. Being caught by a dedicated threat in condition white is dangerous if not deadly because it can quickly degrade to condition black, where fear renders you paralyzed.

The healthy level of mental awareness for day-to-day life in environments outside of our home is condition yellow. In the context of the scenario, a person with condition yellow mental state, has distracting devices such as cell phones and ear buds out of reach, they are present in the moment with head and eyes up, hearing unincumbered, ready to accept data from their multiple senses about their environment. A person in this state is less likely to be caught off guard or surprised by a possible threat because they have available mental bandwidth to perceive data being fed to them by their senses. I’m an avid motorcyclist, who has been riding now for more than 6 years. I attribute a lot of my personal safety and avoidance of collisions while riding to the words burned into my memory by my Harley Davidson rider safety coach. His mantra was “keep your eyes up and focused ahead, life happens in front of you and not on your instrument panel”. If your eyes are focused on the instrument panel and not the road, it is easy to become oblivious to the car pulling out in your path from a side street. You have little if any time then to perceive the car, process what is about to occur, and take evasive action. Likewise, in the setting of self-defense, if your eyes are distracted by non-essential stimuli, you become oblivious to hazards lurking around the corner.

Condition orange would represent the transition of being generally alert of surroundings, to the recognition of a specific situation or person/s that has the strong potential of being threatening. An example of a shift in level of awareness from condition yellow to orange in the given scenario would be, exiting Walmart into the parking lot and perceiving an individual heading your direction with face obscured by a hoodie and hands out of view in pockets. Having this early level of perception, you have time to begin plotting a course of action to take should this person make further action that declares them a dedicated threat to you.

Finally in condition red, you are faced with a dedicated threat of the same individual in the hoodie who has now pulled out a weapon from concealment. In this phase you are actively executing your course of action which you devised during the condition orange phase.

For some people maintaining situational awareness comes naturally, and for others it is more of a struggle to tune out non-critical distracting inputs in the course of everyday life. I would say a good starting point in becoming more situationally aware is over the course of a week while in public, keep a log or mental tally of the number of times you are caught off guard by others or find yourself daydreaming or drifting into that condition white stage. For each occurrence then identify the distracting factor and take note of means by which you can minimize or eliminate the distracting factor while in public or unfamiliar environments. With use of this exercise, you will see gradual improvements the more you practice and would have taken meaningful steps at improving your day-to-day personal safety.

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