Training 8/10/2018

Breaking The Routine: A Look At Situational Awareness In The Modern World

by James R. Jarret NRA Carry Guard Senior Advisor

Routine: the familiar, the orderly, the common, the regular, the expected, the habitual, the predictable. We all observe routines in our daily lives. The times we eat, sleep, work, etc. all follow a pattern that brings order out of chaos and establishes a schedule that allows us to get what needs to be done accomplished. In an age where we set nigh impossible goals of task completion for ourselves, we become the slaves of time. In our quantitatively driven world, routine provides the organizational structure allowing us to be productive and efficient.

Few of us in contemporary America will argue with the premise that our world has become more uncertain and the risk of violence to or near us has increased as the multitude of the touch points of conflict and predation have insinuated themselves into our body social and politic. The necessities of routine in modern life as set forth in the preceding paragraph is but one side of a two-edged sword. The benefits of routine are at one and the same time, the window of vulnerability through which our enemies may attack us.

In short, predictability is a key piece of pre-mission intelligence necessary to plan and execute an attack against us and we, too often, unwittingly provide the necessary keys. Our own desires for stability, comfort and convenience undermine our safety and enhance our vulnerabilities. 

It is remarkable just how predictable all of us are and in ways we cannot imagine. What prompted me to rethink the issue of routines as it applies to everyday citizens was an online news article, sent to me by a good friend and work associate. This article briefly detailed the work of Danish photographer Peter Funch in his book 42nd and Vanderbilt (2012). Peter displays a longitudinal photographic study of pedestrians taken at the same time, at the same spot near New York’s Grand Central Station over a period of nine years. The project captured just how little we change our habits over time. The individuals profiled in the story took the same routes to the same places at the same times, for nearly an entire decade. If someone had wished these individuals harm, one can imagine how easy it would have been to locate and target them.

The simple, yet uncommon practices of varying one’s routine can have substantial consequences. Taking different routes to and from work or school, leaving and returning to one’s home at less-predictable intervals, and taking other steps to prevent being easily “patterned” can all serve to make for a more difficult target. We aren’t simply talking about violent crime, either; modern-day burglars are using simple but effective surveillance devices including motion-activated trail cameras used by hunters to monitor when a residence or business will be unoccupied. Be unpredictable.   

Much ink is currently spilt on situational awareness, and we will only cursorily review the basics here. If you are reading this, it is presumed you have an understanding of the basic structure and necessity of situational awareness. Everything is dependent upon individual circumstances, locations and situations. The environment we find ourselves in should dictate our level of situational awareness. 

Situational awareness and the relationship to the vulnerabilities presented by routines is hardly a sexy or heart-pounding subject. Personal security is, in fact, dull and mundane. It is precisely these unexciting features that expose our vulnerabilities because they lend themselves specifically, and the subject matter generally, to complacency and boredom. It is the equivalent of reading actuarial tables. Managing our routines requires deliberate, disciplined effort.

Successful security of any kind can seldom be measured. How do you measure a negative? One rarely, if ever, knows how many situations are avoided or thwarted through the application of alert observation, thoughtful assessment and simple, unobtrusive tactics. As the title of this paper suggests, breaking our routines regarding our PERSEC (personal security) is the deliberate and conscious focus of our attention on the world around us.

This piece will be divided into two associated themes: situational awareness as defined by observation and assessment, and the follow-up theme of the discipline and practice needed to develop and enhance our situational awareness skill set. 

In the world of military special operations, law enforcement or intelligence operations, one learns a plethora of observational and tactical tradecraft techniques that, when presented, seem commonplace. In my experience, it was the simple, everyday, DISCIPLINED application of a set of principles and techniques, especially when they were inconvenient and annoying, that kept me alive to write this article. 

Due to time constraints and consumer market forces, very few tactical courses can devote anything more than cursory mention of the abstract issues informing threat avoidance. When students attend a firearm course, they want to learn weapons handling even though in reality, the most important subjects they should know are the legal, moral and ethical aspects of use of force, and observational and behavioral threat avoidance strategies. 

If your individual life experience has not included defense training, learning to think tactically at a reflexive level is not difficult. It is neither mysterious nor is it rocket science. It requires common sense, a realistic world view and deliberate practice. 

Let’s begin with common sense. First, put your electronic leashes away, get your head up and look where you are going. Pay attention to the world around you. Act like the apex predator you are and use all of your sensory input—sight, sound, smell and trust that JDLR (Just Doesn’t Look, Sound, Smell or Feel Right) feeling you get. Stop worrying about being polite or offending someone. Trust me, they will get over it. 

A brief discussion of the sensory inputs is offered here starting with our primary environmental sensory receptor, sight. You will see what you are trained to see. It depends upon your common sense and your view of the world and human relationships.

You find yourself in a parking lot with no one else about and you observe another person or persons threading their way toward you on a path that seems deliberately calculated to intercept you. First order of awareness is a time and distance calculation. Can you reach a door or your vehicle with sufficient remaining space between you and the objects of your attention to enter and secure locks? If so, is the necessary key in your hand? If you are with a companion(s) that you are responsible for and they are unlikely to be of assistance in the event of a violent contact, do you place them on your protected side? If you are armed, are your draw path and gun hand clear? This is not paranoia but pure common sense. It amounts to clearing the decks for action. 

On the other hand, if upon your initial assessment of a possible threat, you determine that getting to your car or inside a secure location is not a safe option, verify your assessment. Change direction. Do they change direction? Are they looking around in a manner suggesting they are looking to see if there are witnesses in the area? Your next set of actions is impossible to address because they are in the realm of an infinite situational universe. There are any number of basic personal security and behavioral principles and techniques that, in the opinion of this author, should be addressed in any self-defense program. The above examples are offered as exemplars only.

Bear in mind that such assessments of human beings are rather like pornography. I may not be able to define it but I surely recognize it when I see it. A decent, traditionally raised citizen will often respond to this Hobbesian viewpoint with something along the lines of, “But what if I am mistaken?” So what? 

“I might offend them.” Yeah, so?

Hearing. Obviously screaming, aggressive or angry voices should be an auditory alert. Check it out. If it looks like trouble, get the hell away from it. 

Know the difference between gunfire and backfire. Have a basic knowledge of the difference between a pistol round and a firecracker, the distinct boom of a shotgun and the double crack-bang of a high-velocity rifle round depending on distance and angle.

To get a basic understanding of the sound of gunfire, go to a shooting range and listen to the gunfire from as many angles as is safely possible. Remember, however, that gunfire heard from behind will sound different than gunfire to the side and certainly different from gunfire pointed at you. 

Smell. Chemical odors, gasoline, diesel, the odor of almonds emanating from a package in an office or similar setting should be alerts. Identify the source if possible; move away and/or put cover between you and it. 

Feeling. JDLR is the benchmark. Pay attention to it. Women are often more sensitive to this, while simultaneously being more likely to ignore it, usually for fear of offending someone. Males will also often ignore it because of what in police officer survival training, we refer to as “Tombstone Courage.” “I ain’t scared.”

Well, maybe you should be. 

Making judgmental assessments of human beings in today’s politically correct social environment certainly presents its own problems for us. A classic example is the response of neighbors to the San Bernardino Jihadi killers. They did not say anything about the strange behavior and the materials in open view inside the garage of the killers for fear of being labeled racist or islamophobic. Human characteristics will always be part of a composite mental picture we create based upon our prior experiences, and the variables must be embedded contextually within space, time and circumstances. 

In addition to the social and politically correct minefields we now must negotiate, add in the complex legal system that will destroy innocent lives for decisions made under the most stressful of life’s circumstances. The system will look at every aspect of your actions. Before (why didn’t you just run away?). During (Why did you find it necessary to shoot the victim?). After (But you said you stepped right when you told the police you stepped left). And on and on. Not to mention how a hostile press will treat the incident and by default inform any potential jurors. Remember that the legal system and the press are looking for what you did that they consider wrong, not what you did that was right or reasonable. All of this is precisely why situational awareness is so critical. Effective situational awareness affords us the best opportunity to engage in our first order of tactical competency by giving us the possibility of avoidance. Without situational awareness, we have virtually no chance to avoid a possibly lethal incident.

The supporting theme to the development of enhanced situational awareness is the application of disciplined practice. The enemy of discipline is our universal desire for comfort and convenience. An example that happens frequently even to those that know better is the, “I am just going to the store for a minute and I do not want to take the time to bring my handgun.” Once an excuse not to go armed into the public commons is made, it becomes easier to do it again. 

Discipline is an interesting quality. Some folks have it, while many others avoid it like the plague. It can be enforced in controlled settings like the military or other highly structured environments, but the personal discipline of personal security is a self-directed endeavor. You must want to have the quality and you must actively practice it. Like character, discipline is something you do when no one is watching. 

Practice. It is a deliberate and ongoing activity. After having taught defensive and offensive weapons deployment for nearly half a century, a common maxim I preach is that if someone is not part of the solution, they are part of the problem. Think family members. I am a firm believer that security is everybody’s business and responsibility to the extent they are able. 

The American historical record, especially in the 18th and 19th centuries, has numerous accounts of mothers and youngsters effectively using firearms to defend the family and homestead from marauding predators and human enemies. No one will argue that today’s youth are raised with the same emphasis on responsibility and capability of earlier generations, but they are still just as capable if trained to be so.

Disciplined practice means deliberately devoting time and energy to personal security both at home and when in the public space. Playing “What if?” is an excellent family exercise. I recommend also adding “Why?” to the calculus. Just as in any defensive training program, the “why” develops the ability of participants to extrapolate from a base of knowledge a response pattern to whatever contingency might arise. The universe of possible scenarios is infinite. It is why, for the most part, “if-then” training is limited. Thus, the emphasis upon fundamentals and best practices principles are central to any training program. If a student understands the “why” of fundamental techniques, it provides them with the base upon which to immediately adapt to changing or unfamiliar circumstances. 

Common examples include but are certainly not limited to: choosing where to sit in a restaurant, movie theater or any public venue, even church; choosing what lane to drive in under differing circumstances; choosing what path to take in public parking areas between your vehicle and your destination. Are your kids trained to Drop, Stay, Run or Hide instantly on demand and without question? 

Does your spouse or companion know how to move to a position of advantage if things don’t look right? Do all of your family members know the difference between cover and concealment? Do you ask them to identify such places when out and about? Do you and your companions or family consciously identify exits and cover points? Do you establish rally points in the event your unit becomes separated? The list goes on.

My experience, in personal relationships and in training, has been that the universal response to such training has been positive. They do not come away in a state of paranoia, but with confidence, and they have frequently commented on how much more activity they observe once they begin to observe and assess from a purposeful perspective. It begins with teaching them to look at things, not merely see them. Just like the front sight.

Breaking our routines can be uncomfortable and inconvenient. Consider the alternatives. We want to believe that as modern humans, we should not have to be prepared to deal with predators. Our ancestors had to deal with the dangers of field and plain, as well as the terrors of the night. The indigenous people of North America built their homes on the sides of nearly inaccessible cliffs or on fortified hilltops. Our most ancient ancestors huddled in caves and built their fires at the entrance to the cave to illuminate the approach of enemies or predators. Our environment has changed, but predators still stalk us. We too, must be prepared to deal with the terrors of modernity.

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