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Situational awareness is not some weird nerdy knowledge you might need onboard a spaceship. It’s a very real and essential skill set (or better yet, mindset) that every single person needs in their day to day life.

Tactical and many other professionals have to master it. But in its essence, it’s a practical skill that you should learn right away if you haven’t already. You should also teach it to your kids, and let your friends, family, coworkers and neighbors know about it too. The reason is simple: it may save your life, someone else’s life, or even lots of lives one of these days.

Admittedly, the term may sound dull or academic, or even too abstract, but it’s a basic ingredient to our existence on this earth. When we sense or perceive a danger, all of us have an inborn instinct forcing us to choose between two extremes: fight or flight. But to get to choose between the two, we need to perceive the danger first. And to make as sensible a call as possible, you need to make a cold-headed assessment of the situation. 

Let’s look at it this way. You don’t need a special agent training to be able to perceive violent demonstrations down the street. But it does take some refined and focused observation to pick up situational cues that a person standing in line next to you may be a criminal. And to either react before they strike, or minimize the damage afterwards.

These 3 Questions Might Save Your Life

Whether you decide to call it situation awareness, situational awareness, or simply SA, it boils down to three basic questions:

  1. What do you see around you?
  2. What does it mean?
  3. What is most likely to happen next?

The better your immediate answer to these questions, the more likely it is to prevent a disaster, or at least save your ass from it.

Building Blocks of Situational Awareness

To acquire situational awareness, you need a proper mindset, which is based on the following preconditions.

1. Get Rid of Your Normalcy Bias

The gist of normalcy (or normality) bias can be summarized in these two sentences: The s*it isn’t real. And even if it is, it won’t happen to me.

As it happens, most of the s*it in this world is very, very real. And it does happen to random people, some of whom may be you or me, or both.

I’ve always felt that situational awareness, much like AA meetings, has to begin with honesty, admitting an important truth: I am addicted to the false belief that everything will be alright. S*it can in fact happen to me.

Once you banish this false sense of security from your mind, you will be primed and ready to become an active participant instead of a passive viewer.

situational awareness

2. Your Safety Is Ultimately in Your Own Hands

Every society is based on a simple social contract. As an individual, I have the responsibility to pay my taxes and submit to the authority of the law. In return, the social mechanism is supposed to protect my life, property and wellbeing from anyone (or anything) that would harm me.

But even though it’s in all parties’ best interest to abide by this simple equation, things aren’t always so straightforward. Social mechanism isn’t perfect. (It is us who constitute and run it, after all.)

Yes, it does manage to prevent most malfunctions and catastrophes, but disasters will always happen. And when they do, I can either sit down and despair because there’s no one and nothing to protect me, or get up and protect myself.

3. If You Feel Something Isn’t Right, It May Be Your Situational Awareness Waking Up

People are often all too quick to dismiss their intuition or gut feeling. How many times have you heard a strange, potentially disturbing sound, and shrugged “Oh, it’s surely nothing?” If it really is nothing, good. But what if you made the wrong call and dismissed a signal of a real threat?

In real life, there are no clear-cut guidelines about what danger looks like. No textbook will teach you the warning or telltale signs of every possible accident or disaster scenario. And even if it did, you would still need to notice those signs and interpret them correctly.

Don’t leave it all to chance. Instead, trust your guts and make it a habit to double check on everything it tells you.

situation awareness

But I Suck at Situational Awareness… Can I Get Better and How?

The truth is, almost everyone sucks at situational awareness – until they don’t.

The driver of that truck that you barely managed to avoid on the road last week? He was either sleepy or bored, maybe even distracted by a phone call. His level of situation awareness was so low that he didn’t even notice the danger staring him in the face.

Examples are countless. How many times were you inattentive at work, passively drifting down the social media rabbit hole? Anything might happen, and you wouldn’t be there to react, even though you are technically in the room. What if you were a pilot or a construction worker?

Of course, we can’t be vigilant and aware of our surroundings 24 hours a day. But there are some actionable tips all of us can apply. Do you remember the STOP boy scouts mantra (Stop, Think, Observe, Plan)?

Well, there’s a compatible situational awareness technique designed to protect people in the workplace, and it’s called SLAM. Three of its four steps concern focused observation and thinking.

  • Stop the task you’re currently engaged with and think about it. Is it different than usual, do you feel comfortable at it?
  • Look around you. Is there anything unusual?
  • Assess the situation. What would be the most advisable thing to do? Do you have the means and ability to do it?
  • Manage. That is, act. You can either try to minimize the threat or run for your life if nothing else can be done. 

You can also play little mind games with your nearest and dearest. After a shopping session, make it a quiz to ask each other questions. Were there any fire extinguishers in the building, where, and how many? How many floors does the building have? What did you see behind the shopping mall? 

Wrap Up: SA Can’t Make the World a Safer Place, But It DOES Make a Difference

Survival doesn’t always depend on the level of one’s personal disaster preparedness. If it were so, this world would be a pretty manageable place. Alas, many times one can get away from trouble by mere luck. In fact, more often that most die-hard preppers are ready to admit.

But luck is this fickle little thing that you just can’t put your money on – not when your life or health are at stake.

So, what are the options to put your mind at ease if only a little bit? Emergency preparedness can definitely help sleep through the night, so that’s the first thing everyone should do.

The second thing is to practice and enhance your attentiveness and perception. The more you are able to make sense of every daily context you walk into, the safer it is for you.

And finally, the third thing is to help raise awareness of situational awareness. If more people were attentive and observant enough to be able to instantly perceive a crisis and the best course of action, there would be less road accidents, terrorist and criminal attacks, burglaries, and other hazards. And even those that can’t be prevented would be easier to survive. In other words, the world would be a safer place for all.