Years ago while living in East Africa, I learned an important lesson about the art of observation from an old African game scout. We were hunting big game – Cape Buffalo – in the legendary plains of southern Tanzania called the Selous. As my old land rover lurched through mile after mile of dense savannah grass and thorn trees, it all took on a boring “sameness.” I strained my eyes, looking out across the sea of grass into the occasional thicket of trees. Nothing. The Selous is vast, and unlike game parks visited by tourists in other parts of Africa, the animals make themselves scarce.
Suddenly, the game scout barked out “buffalo!” I looked…but saw nothing. After letting me flounder for a minute or so, he pointed to a small stand of trees, and suddenly I saw what he’d seen much sooner. There were indeed two buffalo, about 300 meters distant. I would never have seen them, without his assistance because they were shaded and blended in with the landscape. Only his experienced, trained eye could pick them out at such a distance. The scout had a baseline of knowledge, familiarity and experience in the African bush that I lacked. He was observing, not just seeing. He pointed out to me the subtle signs that I had missed: the fresh tracks of the Buffalo across the path we were on; the broken Savannah grass through which they had plodded, foraging along the way, to the tree stand; the fact that the trees shaded a wet, muddy area where the buffalo could wallow and rid themselves of the ever-present Tsetse flies biting them. All subtle clues that were right there in front of me.
It was an excellent lesson in situational awareness.
Recent tragic events serve to highlight the crucial importance of this skill. Situational awareness is something that must be learned and ought to be the critical first element of one’s personal security program. This applies to the business traveler as well as the law enforcement officer on the street.
The fundamental principles that apply to a physical security program, also have relevance to personal security.
For example, in the world of physical security detection is that layer of physical protection that determines an unauthorized action has occurred or is occurring. Detection includes sensing the action, communicating an alarm to a control center, and subsequent assessment of the alarm. Detection is not successful without assessment of the potential threat.
In the world of personal security, while the general idea of “anomaly detection” and assessment remain the same, the crucial difference is that you must be the sensor that detects potential threats. What this requires, is the development of observational skills. Observation of one’s environment is not just seeing, but sensing and knowing. Most humans conduct their daily lives simply “seeing” the environment around them. In fact, their internal dialogue about their own personal lives, external distractions such as music on their car radio or their iPhone, holds their attention hostage and virtually blinds them to what is actually happening around them. In any environment this ultimately will make you a victim. How many times have we heard the refrain “…’they’ seemed to come out of nowhere!” from the hapless tourist whose bag was snatched in a crowd to the corporate executive on the way to the office whose car is suddenly blocked front and back and explosively overwhelmed by hooded men intent on executing a kidnap operation. People seeing, not observing.
Observation is a skill that requires focused effort at looking at the world around you and assessing constantly as you move through it.
The first step is doing your homework. For familiar environments this means studying what the look, feel, smell and sounds of “normal” consist of. If you are traveling to unfamiliar places, research in advance the layout of the city, the political and security situation, transportation resources and communications. Advance knowledge about what is considered normal around you provides a foundation of mental and sensory familiarity. You get a sharper edge on your observation skills when you have a baseline understanding of your environment from which to work.
How does this work? On the street, there are three things that keep you mentally alert and engaged:
First is Focus. Change your internal dialogue to one focused on your external surrounds. Mentally say to yourself what you see as you move through it. Mailbox on the corner. Alleyway on the opposite side of the street. Bus stop at the corner. This technique draws your attention to the here and now.
Second, Assessment. Refine your dialogue to note those things that are relevant to your movement, safety and security. Pavement narrows ahead because of a sidewalk vendor. Young male walking parallel to you at the same pace and speed on the opposite side of the street. Alleyway ahead, with no overhead light.
Third, Analysis. When you see these things, ask yourself “so what?” This forces your mind to draw a conclusion – a spot assessment – of the potential threat. Chokepoint. Hostile surveillance. Ambush site. Registering each potential threat makes you aware.
A second step of good situational awareness is developing triggers for what is wrong. This is done by looking for the absence of normal, and the presence of abnormal. A part of this technique that is particularly relevant to security is the “déjà vu” effect. This technique is useful whether you are on the street or in a vehicle, either as a passenger or driver. This skill is not hard to develop. It requires practice, until the technique and what you see and conclude become muscle memory. Having a spatial sense of where you are and where you are going in space, time and direction is crucial. The temptation to rely on a GPS to find your way through unfamiliar terrain should be resisted. The GPS is a crutch that will give you the excuse not to do your homework in advance. Second, reliance on the GPS means you will not learn your environment once you are immersed in it. Being “told” where to go means you will never know where you are or where you are going. As an alternative, study a street map [if it is in a third-world environment] or memorize the routes and alternative routes that are provided on a smart phone “maps” application. Disconnecting from the GPS means you personally connect with your route and ability to rapidly, and flexibly make route change decisions.
Choosing to be situationally aware can save your life. It is a choice. If integrated into your daily life, it unlocks the potential to implement additional key principles of security.
Deterrence – measures to signal to a potential threat that you are not going to be a victim.
Delay – having the foresight to put space and distance between you and the attacker.
Defense – being prepared to apply sufficient force to repel your attacker; not getting caught by surprise.
These are all crucial elements of an integrated personal safety and security program. However, none of them are of any use at all if you are not situationally aware and detect the subtle clues right in front of you.