Tactical Wisdom: Know Your Surroundings

In Know Your Surroundings, Joe Dolio of Tactical Wisdom talks about awareness, assessment and map studies.

An important part of personal safety and tactical awareness is understanding your surroundings and how to find help or refuge in an emergency. That’s our topic today.

What does the Ultimate Tactical Manual (The Bible) say about it? Before Joshua led his people over the River Jordan, he sent out a recon team, telling them:

…Go, look over the land…

…especially Jericho”

Joshua 1:1

Joshua knew that he shouldn’t just blindly rush into a location with no idea of what was already there, and neither should you. He wanted to know the general area, as well as his specific goal.

Think of the places where you normally go and ask yourself if you can honestly answer these basic questions:

1. How many emergency exits are there?

2. Where is the nearest hospital?

3. What police agency covers the location and where is the nearest station?

4. How do I get out of the parking lot if the main entrance is blocked and what road does that put me out on?

5. In the event of an active shooter, where is there a strong point with only one entrance that I could possibly defend myself and others from?

Knowing the answers to these questions doesn’t make you paranoid, it makes you SAFE. It really doesn’t take long to gather this information and it could easily save your life. In our age of handheld electronic devices, you can literally develop this information in seconds, even on the fly.

Start small; begin with your home, then move on to work and other places you frequent. As you develop the skills, it becomes a fun habit and you get faster at doing it.

Lets talk about how we do it.

MAP STUDY

The first step is called a Map Study. While it can be done on a cell phone, cell service may not be available in an emergency. I’m also not a fan of letting Google know where I am at all times, nor where I plan on going.

I’m a huge proponent of having paper maps. I keep a binder at home filled with paper maps, each opened and folded to an 8 ½ by 11 area of somewhere I frequent. I keep these in sheet protectors, so that they can be written on. This makes it easy for me to grab the applicable map and throw it into my Battle Board (and excellent product that lets you write on maps with dry erase markers – www.battleboard.us) or my clip board with a clear dry-erase cover.

I also recommend buying large-format “gazette” type map books, which are combined outdoor and street maps generally covering an entire state.

Another good source for maps is your local township or county clerk. They generally give free maps to residents of the township or county. I’m not advocating lying to a city official, but I’ve never been asked to produce identification proving that I live or work in a city when getting a free city paper map.

Using the map, learn at least 3 and preferably 4 routes into and out of every area that you frequent, or where you are going. At least one of these routes should avoid major roads and intersections, which will be clogged in an emergency.

While looking at the routes, note any hospitals, fire stations, and police stations along that route. In everyday travels, these are “safe havens” you can use to seek help. In an emergency, they are places where people will congregate and should be avoided.

Maps, especially paper maps, will tell you which police and fire departments respond to the area and where their stations are.

As far as hospitals, note their location and at least 2 routes to the nearest hospital from anywhere you go. Most people say, “An ambulance will take me, why would would I need to know that?”. Review the news coverage from the last few mass shooting incidents; most people arrived at the hospital by private vehicle. I’m not to willing to leave my life in the hands of a government employee, so I’ll ensure that I can get there myself or take others there myself if I have to.

Also study ways you could leave the immediate area on foot; you may have no choice but to leave on foot and come back to your car later.

THE DRIVE-AROUND

When you arrive somewhere, a quick drive around of the building only takes a couple of minutes and you can develop vital information on a drive-around.

First, you can note any graffiti in the rear alley, indicating roughly the propensity for criminal activity in the area.

You can also inspect the fence that surrounds most retail shopping centers – Not because we care about the fencing, but because if you have to escape an active shooter or other threat like fire, it’s good to know that you can get through the fence and not be trapped inside.

You will also see where emergency exits will let you out of the building at. If I escape through an emergency exit, only to be trapped in a locked utility space, I haven’t done myself any good.

You’ll also be able to determine the general security posture of a business by seeing if the back doors are locked & secure, or if they are standing open. You have to decide if you’ll patronize a business that doesn’t even care about their own safety, let alone yours.

Many retail strip centers also have more secure parking for employees in the rear with a walkway out to the main area, which may provide you with a safer place to park with less foot traffic.

PARKING LOT PAUSE

Before getting out of the car to head inside a business, do two things:

1. HANG UP THE PHONE – Also, put it away completely to resist the temptation to scroll social media while you walk, distracting you.

2. Look Around – take a quick panoramic look around the lot before exiting the vehicle. Be honest – you don’t do this right now.

ON SCENE ASSESSMENT

The on-scene assessment is very brief pause you can take anytime you enter a building; it only takes a couple of seconds and could save your life.

As you enter a building, step to the side of the doorway and glance quickly around your surroundings.

1. Note first what people are doing closest to you – people have walked in on robberies.

2. Note the emergency exits (look for the red signs).

3. Note any additional data – for example, in most businesses, a large red dot on a pillar or wall indicates the location of a fire extinguisher.

4. Locate restrooms immediately – not because you need one, but because they are strong points that have a single door, and the walls are generally tile on the inside, giving better protection than drywall.

Remain aware of changes the entire time you are in the location, especially if it’s open to the public.

REMAINING ALERT ON DEPARTURE

Before leaving a building, stop just inside the door and look outside first (there’s a reason the door is made of glass), to make sure that you aren’t blindly stepping out into a bad situation.

Try to see the entire route to your car.

While walking, resist the temptation to check your phone or make phone calls.

Remain alert the entire way to your car.

Stop in the driving aisle, before stepping between your car and the one next to it. Take a look between the cars before stepping in to that enclosed space. If you don’t and someone attacks you between the cars, you can only get away in one direction. Stopping in the aisle, you have many other escape options.

Once inside the car, lock the doors before doing anything else.

A side note on the remote unlock feature on your car – set it so that one press unlocks only the driver’s side door. Many default to unlocking all doors, but that’s unsafe, especially if you’re alone.

CONCLUSION

Planning ahead is smart, only takes a few minutes, and is a good habit to get into.

Take a few minutes to plan ahead, and you may well save your life.

The Organic Prepper: Eight Ways to Practice Advanced Situational Awareness

We often talk about situational awareness being one of the most important skills to have to avoid danger. Here is Fabian Ommar at The Organic Prepper with 8 Ways to Practice ADVANCED Situational Awareness.

In one of my recently published articles, I defined situational awareness. I also presented a list of risks and threats commonly found in the urban environment and those posed by large and smaller groups of people and individuals. Selco, who survived in an urban setting, offers excellent examples of the differences between Urban Survival and Rural Survival as well as guidance for survival planning. 

Here I will go over techniques for development and practices to improve situational awareness. Before we move ahead and get practical, let’s see one more aspect of situational awareness theory and psychology. Let’s also look at how it works in our minds to apply it in the most productive manners during training and everyday situations.

The four levels of awareness

I’m talking about awareness levels, which is a “scale” of alertness according to the context in which we find ourselves. There are several versions of this scale out there, all based on Col. Jeff Cooper‘s work. Cooper originally designed it as a practical guide for police and military agents who need to move fast between levels when readying for combat or violent action.

While I personally have some reservations about the way Cooper’s Color Code was adapted (and promoted) in the “situational awareness” concept, the scale’s idea is to provide a simple yet effective reference to ordinary people, and for that, it works. Besides, the levels of awareness help educate us on self-assessment and control. 

It is essential to note the mind can’t operate in constant states of high alertness. Too much stress for too long is detrimental to our performance and even our health. Besides, it’s practically impossible to maintain a high level of awareness for long periods. We must learn to adjust, dial down or up as the context changes, and as our mind/body requires. 

  • Level 1: Relaxed – When (for instance) we’re at home watching a movie, focused on the TV, and tuned out to the rest.
  • Level 2: Relaxed Awareness – There’s no significant threat, but we are aware of the situation around us, usually because we’re performing some task that demands some attention (as when driving and paying attention to what’s going on around, other vehicles and people moving and signaling (or not) their intentions, etc.).
  • Level 3: Focused Awareness –  The situation demands a higher level of focus (for example, when driving in the snow or a heavy storm, at night or through a poorly conditioned road with hazards)
  • Level 4: High Alert – Thing’s have gotten scary. We recognize an actual or imminent threat and become ready to act. It can be fight, hide, or flight. At this level, we’re still able to function. 

Above Level 4, there’s paralysis, panic-induced freeze, and comatose. Our senses get overwhelmed, and the rush is too big to cope, so we “shut down” as an automatic defense mechanism takes over.

Here is a bit of advice for preppers on how not to let anxiety paralyze you.

Know your limits and adapt accordingly

Moving abruptly between levels or jumping stages too quickly is what can cause break-outs. We go from Level 1 to 2, or 3 to 4 without a problem. But moving from, say, Level 1 to Level 4 in a snap can cause a short-circuit. There are techniques and training to deal with quick shifts in mental state, which, as said before, is the original proposition of the Cooper Color Code.

But there are limits, and even trained professionals can become paralyzed in some situations. That’s why we must learn and practice to “enter” the level of awareness best indicated to each situation and move or “flow” between the levels. It can become more natural and automatic once we become more aware. We reduce the chances of getting caught by some unpleasant surprise. (Read more here.)

Even SHTF and other dangerous situations will allow for periods of relaxation. Maybe not “Level 1” total relaxation, but more acceptable or perhaps manageable levels that still provide the awareness required by the situation and the relaxation needed by the mind. 

Cognitive systems of the brain and how it concerns us and situational awareness

Our brain has two systems. One is the “automatic,” responsible for the majority of our daily tasks. It is intuitive, multitasking, and economic (demands less energy/time to decide). The other is the “deliberate” system, which handles analytical decision-making. It can only process one choice at a time (more focus) and is more energy/time-consuming. 

Understanding this is useful for decision-making and also developing new skills. When we start something new, our “analytical” mind gets busy analyzing every individual aspect of the task at hand. In this phase, we’re slow and clunky. Once we repeat enough, the “automatic” mind takes over, and we no longer need to focus on every detail (or any at all) to perform the task. We become fluent, fast, and smooth.

Situational awareness doesn’t mean just becoming aware. It implies running scenarios and analyzing possibilities, arriving at a conclusion, and taking action to achieve the desired outcome. There’s a decision(s) involved. For this entire process to become useful and effective, it must be done fast and efficiently by the “auto” system. To get there, we must practice and repeat the steps necessary individually. 

In short, we must practice focusing on one or two aspects at a time until it becomes internalized and natural. It will then be an acquired ability, and our brain will work automatically in a fast, comprehensive, efficient, and intuitive manner. That should be our final objective. 

Techniques for Situational Awareness Training

Practice and training don’t mean willfully chasing dangerous situations, but rather exposing ourselves to everyday situations and interactions with focus and intent, purposefully working on these aspects and skills as explained above.

Disclaimer: Please note this is from a common-man perspective. I’m not a specialist. These are the techniques I have used myself and with others I have successfully guided. Situational awareness is not rocket science. It is a vast topic, though. If you believe you need advanced or specialized training for some reason, look for professional orientation or enroll in a tactical course. 

1. Stay informed

We begin to become aware by staying connected to our world, tuned to what’s happening in all the different levels of our reality: neighborhood, city, state, country, and international. Like it or not, current events and prepping are inextricably entwined.

  • Locally, it’s best to do your own work and keep in contact with the people in your community. Be casual and generic, rather than intrusive or particular. The aim is to be on top of situations concerning infrastructure, the chain of supply, security, etc. 
  • On the macro level, stay informed about political, geopolitical, social, and economic scenes. Here the idea is to zoom out and have a general picture of developments in the world. It’s OK to focus on topics that have the potential to affect us directly. For this, choose your sources wisely and separate noise from signal (another skill).

2. Head on a swivel

Having “eyes in the back of your head” is a beneficial skill. No one has to turn into an international spy. Still, techniques for “looking around” or specifically spying on someone or somewhere (without giving the impression that we’re focused or too intent on doing so) are essential. 

  • Some people take this as a cue to look around every 10 seconds, searching for danger. Doing so draws unwanted attention and makes us look paranoid or frightened in the eyes of others. Act casual, relaxed, but attentive and decided. Avoid looking worried, scared, or anxious. 
  • Use shadows, mirrors, and glasses in buildings, storefronts, vehicles, bus stops, etc., to casually and discreetly glance around. Our peripheral vision is a powerful ally too. All the time, I pretend to look at something on a store window or whatever to spy on what I actually want with the corner of my eyes.
  • Every once in a while, take a look back and to the sides, calmly but assuredly. Being intentional indicates we are alert and attentive. 
  • A slightly more discreet tactic is to use noises such as other people or passing vehicles to turn my head and look around. This way, I can scan the surroundings or peek at something or someone without staring directly. 
  • Use your phone in a planned, deliberate way. For instance, pull it out while turning your back against a wall or store entrance (to avoid being surprised from behind) and pretend you’re talking to someone or reading, texting, etc., while you scan around or look at people or places more deserving of your attention. 
  • The power of darkness: during the daytime, I’m always wearing sunglasses, even when overcast. Mostly because I feel comfortable, but also to hide the direction of my sight. 

This is a great way to learn how to be more observant.

3. The right attitude

It’s vital to achieve a balance here: not confrontational and not appearing like a victim. Being confident is different from being cocky. Most of the time, people (especially street people) can tell between someone aware, confident, and capable of handling him/her self and someone faking toughness. Never underestimate the capacities and abilities of others, no matter what. 

  • Capable and self-reliant people don’t pick fights, don’t provoke, don’t take offense from random and impersonal provocations and attacks, don’t lock eyes in defiance (or fear), and above all, don’t have anything to prove. On the contrary: if you see a person moving away or calmly trying to avoid confrontation or de-escalate a situation, it’s probably someone with serious self-defense training. Bruce Lee famously said, “The most dangerous person is the one who listens, thinks and observes.”
  • Whatever happens and whoever is on the other side, if we want to survive, we need to avoid danger. Situational awareness is crucial for achieving that. Showing you’re aware and tuned is an excellent way to hold off potential attackers. Criminals will always favor surprise and thus prefer to prey on distracted people. For them, it’s a matter of risk/reward, and the risks are more considerable when someone can anticipate their moves.

4. Entering and exiting

These are common situations that can involve higher risk/vulnerability, depending on the settings. Entering and exiting places require Level 2 or 3 for a few moments to look at routes, hidden risks, potential threats (which can be anything like other people and moving vehicles), and even ongoing works (for instance, around or near construction sites). 

  • Whether driving or walking, we should make a habit of searching the surroundings with attention when leaving or entering garages, buildings, etc. Not only to avoid being robbed or attacked but also to prevent collisions and other accidents.
  • One common situation preferred by thugs and robbers is someone entering or leaving their vehicles. Most people do this in automatic mode, often while searching for the keys, talking on the phone, grabbing a piece of clothing or a purse, or in a hurry. Don’t be like that. Have everything at hand and ready before heading to/from the car and remain focused and aware until safety is reached. 
  • We can also be attacked while stuck in traffic or at a stoplight. Focus on driving, be ready and stay alert for suspicious people or activities at all times in these situations, particularly when going through locations that may present a risk for attacks, accidents, or are known crime/accident spots.

5. Evaluating people

We must know how to analyze strangers from what we can pick, recognize between real and fake threats and non-issues, and adjust and act accordingly. It is essential in the streets. 

  • One common mistake is judging based on looks alone. Some criminals know that people do this and use “reverse grey man tactics,” i.e., they make a deliberate effort to blend in and fool their victims and the authorities. Some are very efficient at blending in; therefore, appearance alone may not cut it.
  • Analyze demeanor, body positioning, stance, how everyone treats personal space (theirs and others), where and whom they lock their eyesight on, things like that. Pay attention to clothing details, how the person scans the surroundings, how they walk, etc. Overall, we should look for “oddities” in other people’s appearance and behavior.
  • Avoid personal judgment or emotional assessments: this should be as impersonal, objective, impartial as possible to have some use.
  • Everyone should be treated with equal respect. But in the streets, there are all kinds of people and everyone is a stranger. Each type of person and interaction demands a specific positioning on our part. I’m talking specifically in regards to reaction. For the most part, we should leave other people alone unless contact is needed for some reason.

6. Rehearse situations

Back in the early 2000s, I took part in the local community safety council. I’ve had a previous experience taking part in the neighborhood watch group while studying in Colorado a few years before and tried to introduce the concept to my local scene. It didn’t work in the end, but the research I did to make that presentation was of great personal value. 

Chuck Remsberg’s seminal The Tactical Edge – Surviving High-Risk Patrol stands today as a reference for tactical evaluation, training, and dealing with life-threatening situations. It’s complex, thorough, and extensive (as are all great works) and was written for police training. But the lessons and information provided are helpful for everyone living in a big city. It has some great insights and valuable knowledge for preppers.

Remsberg uses “mental movies” to describe what he calls “crisis rehearsal.” Business people, negotiators, and salespeople also use this technique. It is essentially conjuring up and visualizing situations, “playing” in our minds what we’d do, how we’d act, and what we’d say to come out on top and achieve the desired outcome (winning). I like to imagine and play out what this person would say or do and what I would say or do in response. Daisy recommends doing just this when watching survival-related movies.

There’s, of course, a physical side to being prepared to deal with a real-life situation, whether it’s some martial arts training or another self-defense discipline (firearms, tactical combat, etc.). One must be prepared and trained to act. But here, we’re specifically dealing with the mental aspect of this preparation, which is related to situational awareness in essence—for that, playing and rehearsing situations while in the streets can be very effective.

7. Practice

“We don’t rise to the level of our expectations. We fall to the level of our training.” This quote, attributed to the ancient Greek poet Archilochus, is one of my favorites. It reminds me of the importance of constant practice. Use it or lose it. In all these years guiding and helping others in street survival training, I’ve seen people improve significantly. Many went from totally tuned-out and oblivious to incredibly sharp and aware. 

The best and most effective way I’ve found to practice the skills listed here is to walk and spend time in the streets, often with the homeless. It may seem obvious, but it’s not something easy when we’re out there: there are too many distractions, and early on, we have difficulty staying focused on the task at hand for even fifteen or thirty minutes. 

But it’s just like working out: as time passes, we naturally become better, stronger, more fit. The same happens with our awareness if we keep at it (walking has the bonus of improving our fitness).

  • The most significant advantage of walking is the speed: it’s the slowest we can travel, which allows for greater attention to the surroundings. When we’re skating or cycling or even running, we must focus a lot on movement around us to avoid obstacles. Walking frees us from a lot of that to focus on whatever we want and practice the skills.
  • One good exercise is to pause from time to time and stay put, paying attention to what’s going on around. Sit down on a bench, bus stop, anywhere with some movement. Do that in different places and areas around town: commercial, corporative and residential regions, parks, train and metro stations, plazas, shopping centers, museums, etc.
  • Situational awareness should also be practiced in everyday situations: when leaving home, driving to places, strolling in the mall, going for lunch or dinner, everywhere. The practical, real-life application of situational awareness is the main objective. Doing so internalizes awareness and turns it into a mental state. Once it becomes natural, we’ll be more apt to move between attentiveness levels and remain in better control of our focus and emotions. 

8. Trust your instincts

Finally, no amount of skill or practice will help if we don’t trust ourselves. Follow your gut and act upon it. Don’t worry about being polite. At the core of any and every kind of training, physical or mental, in every discipline is instinct. Situational awareness is a tool: the more we sharpen it, the more reliant and confident we should be to perform when the situation presents itself. 

Yet, we’re not in this to be right but rather to be safe. For that, we must act. Don’t worry. Acting comes naturally. But stay alert and conscious of this vital aspect from now on, especially during training.

Conclusion

These are the main elements of situational awareness, according to my experience and knowledge. As always, there’s a lot more to be said about it. (I could go on and enter the specifics of urban ‘zoning’ (analyzing the heterogeneity and different aspects of the city to determine dangerous/safe areas and routes), how to develop an information network to collect “street intel”, resource mapping, the importance of educating others about awareness for collective/community safety and more.)

These and other strategies are explained in more detail in my book, but if there’s interest, drop a note in the comments below, and I’ll do another article exclusively on these topics. Perhaps even illustrating with some real stories to explain how these principles work in real-life situations. For now, stay safe and share with the community your tips and experiences on situational awareness. I’d be interested in hearing those too.

The Prepared Homestead: The Most Important Self-Defense Principle

Sean of The Prepared Homestead talks about the most important self-defense principle in this video.

This principle is foundational in the self defense world. It is more important than studying the martial arts, owning and training with a firearm etc… it is to avoid dangerous places and people. It’s so simple but will keep you clear of the vast majority of potential problems. In this video I cover a couple of key points regarding this principle like the Gift of Fear and situational awareness.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uVXoAAC4JlU