Further Thoughts on "Situational Awareness" and Self-Defense

Situational awareness was the topic of discussion on my recent trip to Denver, where I did some video work in the new PDN video studio. We recorded a new DVD about the bullpup rifle as a defensive tool and some new instructor development videos on teaching the bullpup rifle, as well as some videos to help instructors teach proper revolver techniques to their students. Look for these to be released in the next few months!

It was on the second day of taping that we received the horrible news about the murders of the television reporter and cameraman in Virginia. Details are still emerging, including facts about the extensive planning of the deranged killer. What we do know tells us that this was the nightmare scenario, the event we hope will never happen to us.

The problem is that it can, especially when your attacker is experienced enough to know exactly when he can strike. As I’ve said more than a few times: if your attacker really, truly wants you dead he’s going to be very difficult to defend against. If he has inside information, even more so.

As Rob Pincus and I were sitting with the video team — the producer and two cameramen — we discussed what had happened that morning. All three of the crew had experience in news reporting, either in front of or behind the camera, and understood implicitly what that job entailed. None of them, however, were “gun guys” and wondered what Rob and I meant by the term “situational awareness” — and why we didn’t seem to think much of it.

It was a great conversation, being punctuated by our setting: the food court of a busy shopping mall. It was a wonderful chance to help them, with immediate examples, understand what we were talking about. Two people from the defensive training business, sitting across the table from three people who were anxious to know what they could do to avoid this kind of incident in their own lives and hoping that this “situational awareness” could help them. What a great opportunity for a teacher!

I must say that it was something of a downer for them to learn that situational awareness wasn’t a magic cloak of invincibility, but they wanted to know what it really was and how it could help them. This precipitated quite a little talk between the five of us. It’s not the first such conversation I’ve had, but it is one of the few where the participants didn’t have their minds already made up!

A few years back I wrote an article for PDN titled “The Myth Of Situational Awareness”, and in that article — which snatched a security blanket away from a lot of people — I point out that situational awareness isn’t what most people believe it to be, doesn’t work as most people assume, and isn’t the magic talisman it’s often presented as. The problem is that situational awareness is a great thing, and an important part of staying safe, and yet very few people seem to understand it and fewer still actually teach it.

Situational awareness is really about four interlocking ideas: first, the management of distraction; second, the allocation of conscious attention; third, the integration of subliminal (below the threshold of conscious perception) and explicit environmental information; and finally, the admission that all of it may not keep you out of trouble and the necessity of being prepared for that reality. Without any one of those, the value of situational awareness drops precipitously.

The important thing to remember is that you can’t magically expand your awareness, you can only intelligently administer that which you have. You also have to understand that even the most switched-on person can still be ambushed, and that there are many hundreds (perhaps thousands) of moments during the day when each of us is completely vulnerable to that kind of attack — and that the savvy criminal, the street-smart thug, will use those to his advantage. Many of those moments are surprisingly predictable.

What does this mean to you? Ultimately, there is no magic potion that will keep you completely and totally safe from attack. There are no simplistic checklists for staying safe. You need to think about what you’re doing relative to your environment — and be prepared for those times when something in that environment blindsides you. Sounds simple, but it’s not.

To our three video guys these ideas made complete sense and were verified by both their own experiences and what was happening around us in that food court. Why, then, do people in the defensive training business react so negatively to them? I have no idea, but I think it’s high time we start educating everyone (whether or not they carry a gun) about the realities of situational awareness.

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One Response to “Further Thoughts on "Situational Awareness" and Self-Defense”

  1. Sierra_Mike

    Great article. Simply by being aware of our surroundings and by paying a little more attention to what's happening around us is vital. Unfortunately most people are too focused on their cellphones nowadays sending texts or socializing through facebook and twitter, which makes them completely ''hypnotized''. The majority of people also have that ''it won't happen to me'' mindset which makes them even more vulnerable to unexpected threats.