How to Improve Situational Awareness

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Situational awareness is an important skill for security operators, Police and military personnel. It is also invaluable for anyone who wants to make sure they are one step ahead of a potentially dangerous situation. Let me share some tips about how to improve situational awareness.

What is Situational Awareness?

In the many years I have worked in the security industry the development of this skill has also helped me in my day to day life. Situations can vary from internal or external threats to environmental issues within the company. If I was to define situational awareness simply, it is this. Knowing what is going on around you.

Situational awareness is an ability to process and comprehend elements of information gathered from a situation or your environment and then acting according to the needs and safety of your client, the public and the requirements of your own company. They are decisions that usually have to be made in high pressure situations.

Let me give you a real example, Lets say an officer is working in a tool producing warehouse, they need to be aware of forklifts, multi-ton presses, hot liquids metal, hazardous chemicals, and other dangerous items. The security guard has to be careful and mindful around this equipment, or they could put themselves or someone else into a dangerous situation.

In an emergency situation, guards have to be able to quickly evaluate situation and make split-second decisions. When there is an emergency in their post, he has to know when to take action and what exact action to take. He will also experience the fight or flight response, where his adrenaline is coursing through his body, which can also delay a reaction. That extra second delay if they were not being vigilant and aware to his surroundings could cost the company to lose his warehouse or worse, someones life.

Teaching Situational Awareness 

I believe we are all innately born with instincts and awareness and so situational awareness can also be taught. In most cases it is a matter of “labelling” what an officer already knows and then show them how to use it. This is not an easy skill to learn, but it could save lives.

After showing officers what they should be looking for, it is natural for them to develop a sense of paranoia. This paranoia however will help them collate the most minute details including specific sounds, smells, tastes, behavior or items and people out of place.

The people who are expecting the worst and paying close attention to their surroundings are the ones who better react to an emergency or critical situation. You want them to develop a baseline awareness of their surroundings and question everything that’s out of place.

Situational awareness also improves reporting because you start to see emergency hazards or building maintenance issues. Essentially you’re offering a service outside the norms of your job description. This can only be good for you and your company when it comes time to renewing your contract.

Once you have them understanding how to collate these elements of information, show them how to process the information. Talk about the most appropriate action to take based on that information

Obviously, you don’t want security officers calling the Police at the slightest sound so initially it may be that the supervisor is contacted. In the beginning it may seem insignificant or annoying but you should be rewarding officers for this vigilance rather than getting mocked for it. In addition to being vigilant I have always mentally prepared myself for the worst case scenario, running various scenarios through mind. This helped keep me on my toes and be prepared for any kind of event.

Improving Situational Awareness

Acquiring and developing the skill of situational awareness is hard but to lose it is easy. Especially when you are not using it. Here are a few ways I maintain and improve situational awareness before I need it in threatening situation:

Think Ahead

The most effective aspect of Situational Awareness involves the ability to project the future actions of elements around you. I often use day to day scenarios to identify elements in environment and comprehend situations. I then use this information to determine how it will affect future actions and events in the environment.

Simple example. Out front of a busy concert entrance a glass bottle has been left on the ground on the pavement. People walk past it or around it and do not think to pick it up. In my mind here are the scenarios that I have alluded to after comprehending all the elements of information around me.

  • In a busy venue frontage there are many intoxicated and drug induced patrons around who might kick the bottle smashing it and causing injury to people wearing sandals and open toe shoes
  • There disgruntled patrons who may pick up the bottle and used as a weapon against security staff
  • Drunken patrons or angry patrons picking up the bottle to use as a weapon on another patron
  • Bottle rolls and smashes onto the road causing a flat tyre to oncoming vehicles

I think the obvious action to take would be to pick up the bottle and safely dispose it.

Identify Elements Around You

To achieve Situational Awareness is to be aware of the elements in your environment.

This is the basis of Situational Awareness where you begin to monitor, detect, and recognize multiple situational elements. These include objects, events, people and environmental factors locations conditions. These are skills you already use on a daily basis. This will help enhance your perception of what is happening around you.

Trust Your Feelings

Do you often experience times when things just do not seem right? I trust my instincts because it means that my body and brain has detected stimulus long before we have consciously comprehended it. It gives you an opportunity to open your senses and really investigate what happening around you.

Limit Situational Overload

Overload causes distraction, increased errors, and high stress. Prioritizing and delegating tasks and minimizing surrounding distractions can improve survival during times of overload.

Do not be Complacent

When things are routine and repetitive it becomes easy to be complacent. Assuming everything is okay will affect your vigilance. And affect your attitude.

Let me share a story that will illustrate this. A situation occurred one night where a colleague almost lost his life. It was a Sunday night and reasonably quiet so all the bouncers on the street had settled into the night and anxious to finish a long hard week.

There was such a camaraderie up there that if and when there was the slightest sense of an incident, bouncers from other clubs and venues were quick to respond in numbers. On this night my colleague had strolled off to the shop to get his usual midnight snack. Five minutes later there was a melee outside the Dairy involving my bouncer and what seemed to only be two skateboarders. No one thought to go to his aid because everybody thought he could handle the situation (he was a renowned enforcer).

Boy did we get that wrong. As my bouncer had one skater on the ground under his knee and one by the scruff of the neck, a third skater appeared from no where. He was in full flight with skateboard in hand above his head. He swung that skateboard at my bouncers head with bad intention. “Steve” (not his real name) collapsed and the skaters fled.

Steve was admitted to hospital with a shattered skull and eye socket. I cannot begin to describe the guilt we felt for not being there for him. We almost lost him that night and it was touch and go for the next few days but Steve is back doing what he knows. Security. I have never ever underestimated another situation again.

Continue to challenge yourself and those around you to be prepared. Always do a mental check now and then.

Evaluate and Understand Situations

If you do and see something long enough, the easier it is to recognize a pattern of behavior or methodology in someones behavior. It becomes easier to mitigate and manage a critical situation efficiently. It is important to understand these elements through these processes of pattern recognition, interpretation, and evaluation.

It has become second nature for me to continually scope out my surroundings and almost subconsciously register any anomalies. If there is something you will never know everything about it is that no two combinations of variances and situations are the same and human behavior can be unpredictable. What you can control is your reaction and response to that situation. The more you do this the less time it will take for you to make good decisions when the time is critical.

Stay Alert

Fatigue affects your ability to watch for possible danger or difficulties. It is important to schedule breaks and mindful of how you roster shifts. It is also important to maintain adequate sleep, good eating habits and a regular fitness regime to counter these bouts of fatigue.

We work in an industry where working 12 to 16 hour days, 2 to 3 days on end is not uncommon. Depending on the type of security you are providing it becomes important to understand the limitations of your abilities and adopt measures to get the right food or get 10 minute power naps where possible. This however should not be at the compromise of the security of your client.

Continually Assess the Situation

When you are in a critical situation always be prepared for changes around you. Continue to assess and reassess a situation to determine your best exit route, and an action plan for the best chance of your survival and that of those around you. Always process what the elements of information are telling you, so you are never caught off guard in a difficult situation.

You have to remember there are people out there who may be scoping your operation bringing new variables to your situation or they will try to divert your attention to effect a sinister plan.

Monitor Performance of Others

A weak link within the team could be detrimental to your survival. If there are weaknesses or incompetencies you need to voice them. It may be that you will need a replacement, an amended operational plan or simply increased breaks.

What Do We Know Now

Well, we understand that situational awareness is an important tool for Security, Police and Military. We also know anyone can learn it. However, it is hard to learn and can easily be lost if not used. It takes alot of practice and a conscious deliberate effort.

There are things we can do in our jobs and in our everyday lives that could improve and maintain situational awareness. These things include but are not limited to;

  • Paying attention to events that are out of the ordinary
  • Looking for unusual behavior of everyone around you including your own staff/colleagues
  • Maintaining and constantly gathering information.
  • Being quick to act in a compromising situation and communicating effectively.
  • Understanding your environment and the potential risks that could occur within it
  • Constantly assessing the situation.

Situational awareness can be carried across all aspects of the industry. It can also open up a new perspective of the world. For me it has really opened up my eyes to situations and opportunities I would not usually see without understanding situational awareness. I have to say, it is a skill I continually develop and a skill that I have applied to my own life to enhance an awareness of myself.

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