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Situational Awareness

“You weren’t paying attention.” “YOU NEED BETTER S-A!” Many trainers (including me) have said something like this to a rookie after a situation where details went unnoticed or unheeded, but it does little to foster the lesson we want them to learn. So how do we develop situational awareness? A lot of so-called experts fundamentally “get it,” but they don’t always explain or teach it well. They say experience is the best teacher—well, sorta—but experience doesn’t do you much good if you don’t survive your next encounter. Experience is unforgiving. The unicorn we’re looking for is some state of our attention and senses that we see, interpret, and respond to every bit of stimulus available in our environment. Neat, but not likely. Our goal is to find a way to pay enough attention to the right things at the right time. Hard to teach.

Some people have taken the color-code model, developed by a guy named Jeff Cooper, and misinterpreted it to have something to do with situational awareness. (Jeff Cooper’s color codes were actually intended to help people prepare for and commit to the need to use violence to solve a problem. If you want a good overview on the color codes, check out this excellent article by Aaron Haskins.) They’ll say things like, “I’m in Condition White when I’m sitting at home in my underwear,” and describe the colors as a sort of cognitive throttling mechanism; If something or someone has my attention, I bump it up to orange or magenta or whatever. Some might find that to be a useful way of explaining it—but the problem with that adaptation is it relies on context, and does little to teach someone how to apply it universally to their surroundings when they aren’t otherwise “paying attention.” If you told me the room I was about to walk into had battle monkeys rappelling from the ceilings—sure, I’d look up. What we’re looking for is the cognitive ability to consider looking up without any hints.

A starting point for situational awareness is to develop an internal dialogue. Talk yourself through what-ifs. Make a habit of asking questions throughout your day. What was that sound? Don’t be dismissive—check it out. Be curious. Challenge assumptions. Take a visual lap around the parking lot before you get to your car. What’s in that guy’s hand? Where could someone be hiding? Look up from your phone. Take an occasional glance over your shoulder. Ask yourself how you would plan an attack. I used to ask rookies to point out pieces of cover on calls. It put them in the state of mind to problem solve. It gave them options. It got them looking around. And it would help them spot that guy hiding in the dark.

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