Training your Situational Awareness or dying: which do you prefer?

Training your Situational AwarenessLife is a series of choices made by individuals with the information they have gathered while living through choices made by others around them. We can thank pilots for the term “situational awareness”. However, for the past few decades many professional crime fighters, military, and civilian individuals have used this term and trained to understand and be more aware of their situations. This is an article about a term many of us think we know well, it’s my intent to help understand it completely and maybe learn a few things as well. (I know I always learn from the comments and feedback received!)

Situational Awareness is understanding, observing and being involved in your immediate environment. The technical definition is, “the perception of the elements in the environment within a volume of time and space, comprehension of their meaning and the projection of their status in the near future.¹ As individuals who desire to be prepared for what life may throw at us, having a well tuned situational awareness is easily the most important thing we can do.

How do we train ourselves to be prepared all while maintaining a safe immediate environment?

For myself there is one approach that I learned very early in life, I call it “UN-focusing”. Using the horizon, I look out and consciously make myself see the objects on the horizon without focusing on any of them in particular. When you do this you will find that the smallest movement or change in your eye line will cause you to instantly shift and focus on it. It is this approach that has honestly done the most over the years to help me stay safe and by default my family and those around me. Situational awareness is understanding your environment and how you interact within it. The key is being aware of your surroundings!

Several years ago I learned Colonel Cooper’s color code approach to maintaining awareness. White = relaxed and unaware. Yellow = relaxed but aware of what is around you, Orange = something of interest has entered your awareness, Red = what you are aware of is a threat. After several courses and more time spent I learned Massad Ayoob’s fifth color code, Black = acting with intent to stop a threat. It only took a little while before I realized that simple is better than complicated when it comes to self-defense. This is why I came up with the abbreviated approach that has worked well for me.

Using just three colors you can navigate life and stay safe. Understanding that everything is a threat until proven otherwise; I simply tossed White and maintain a life in Yellow = relaxed but aware of what is around you including items of interest. This way I can easily move directly to Red = aware of and focusing on the threat or threats and fluidly into Black = acting with the intent to stop a threat as needed based on knowledge of human action and surroundings where I may find myself at the time. Again there are really only three colors in the life of someone who understands a threat is NOT always someone that needs to be shot, a threat can be an out of control vehicle, a falling building, rock or even an animal of any type at any time.

By utilizing additional props that are all around us in our daily life we can easily expand our 180 degrees visual awareness to take in the 270 auditory awareness and even extend it into a full 360 degree awareness bubble, NOT circle, as what is above and below us is just as potentially dangerous as what is in front, on our sides or behind us. To do this learn to use mirrors that exist in anything reflective. When I taught surveillance and counter surveillance we used buildings, other people and the age-old primate ideal, deception. When walking down a street with or around other people do you notice their expressions or shifts in concentration? Humans have barely imperceptible shifts that occur in our faces, posture and more when we become aware of anything else in our vicinity.

We often perk up, our lips may purse or our eyebrows may furrow just for a split second, these are tells that regardless how good someone is, WILL occur in many situations. Specifically when we view what is deemed to be a potential threat through social programming or simple genetic coding. These are the tells you can be aware of allowing you to easily extend your bubble past your solitary 360 bubble and into the realm of the supernatural.

Consider for a minute the various individuals who over the many years we have come to see as somehow more advanced or superhuman in their various abilities. Good, experienced marine snipers or seasoned special forces and or seasoned field agents with any number of agencies can sometimes seem to be capable of things far beyond the normal range. Let me reassure you, their capabilities may have some natural ability attached OR they are simply well trained.

Be aware of your surroundings and learn to use it to your benefit. Remember, that glass-walled building is a mirror, the concrete planter is cover and sometimes those people who will surely freeze also offer momentary cover for you to react. After all, ACTION always beats REACTION. I personally have absolutely no compunction whatsoever with placing someone I do not know in between myself/family and a potential threat.

After all, the sooner I can freely engage said threat the faster the threat is ended. This leads to the next step regarding situational awareness, understanding that everything you do is based on your internal measure of the individual value of yours and others lives. I am not asking you to physically place a value on others, rather, I need those interested in truly understanding what is necessary to resolving a threat to understand that subconsciously we ALL already do value others based on any number of reasons. This is pure human nature, nothing more, it is not a negative it simply is. Understand this and your life will become both more difficult and yet also much simpler.

Next, in the lineup of things to work on that relate directly to situational awareness from a daily living standpoint is the very simple idea that a moving target is always harder to hit. Daily you should be in Yellow = relaxed but aware of your surroundings by simply un-focusing this is possible to maintain at all times regardless external or internal factors. Next, it is a simple matter of daily repetition in movement and the utilization of scientific method to ensure further safety utilizing situational awareness.

I am talking about being able to move instantly off the X. I am talking about the X, Y, that is your 360-degree environment. What you should always be noticing are potential areas where a threat may occur. All predators enjoy a hunt, however, they enjoy an easy capture/kill far more than the hunt itself. Know where ambushes may be more likely, or where people may crowd into a single place making them easy pickings.

Recent events have shown me yet again that understanding situational awareness is necessary regardless your belief in self-determination eg., self-defense. Consider that recent school shootings have NOT been accomplished by well trained or even intelligent individuals. Rather, they have been accomplished by predators who acted on their base instincts. They pursued easy to gain prey and did so in locations where the prey could be even more easily dispatched.

When the prey no longer presented an easy target in almost all instances the predators left or terminated themselves. I am not discounting the heinous nature of the events, I am simply stating that if these children had parents that cared more about them than their careers, political goals or otherwise they may see the simple reality that is prevention by education; utilizing situational awareness.

Lastly, it is absolutely necessary to address our actions when we are tired or believe we are in a safe place and why even in our castles., eg. homes, we CANNOT live outside of Yellow. The greatest number of traffic accidents happen within 2 miles of one’s own home. Violent crime statistics show us that the vast majority occur in commercial areas (restaurants, bars etc.,) where we are relaxed from drinking or are spending time with loved ones and our attention is not on our surroundings.² There is NEVER a reason to drop our Yellow level in any circumstances.

I firmly believe in always being in Yellow and have even been able to adapt sleep habits to match, with some minor adjustments and the obvious need for sleep there are things that can be done that allow for a good life all while being safe. This is why I firmly believe in the idea that is situational awareness and the approaches I have lined out above. This is what I taught and now you know the why in most cases.

As always if you have questions or comments please let me know! I am positive I have missed some things and likely could use more refinement as time does, in fact, reveal errors quite well. So let me know and we can help each other!

Free the mind and the body will follow…


¹ ENDSLEY R Mica (1987). The application of human factors to the development of expert systems for advanced cockpits. Proceedings of the Human Factors Society 31st Annual Meeting, pp. 1388-1392. Human Factor Society (Santa Monica, CA), 1987

² National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS). (2018). Retrieved April 03, 2018, from https://www.bjs.gov/index.cfm?ty=tp&tid=44

55 Comments

  1. JM, I use a similar system, but different colors.

    Green for aware.

    Yellow for threat identified.

    Red for neutralise/run (fight or flight)

    Example someone trying to run you over with a vehicle (flight) vehicle has now become parallel open fire.(fight) Always seek an advantage/cover or exit.

    I totally agree you must always be aware…. Defcon !

    • The picture reminds me of an old friend who was a seal. When we were kids we would play BB gun wars. Put on goggles, football or motorcycle helmets, shoulder pads and a cup… LOL

      We would go into the woods and then go in different directions/ multiple players.

      Once I found good cover behind a three trunked tree. My friend decided on concealment and proceeded to bury himself in a dried creek bed with leaves. I waited til he was completely covered with leaves and then I shot him… He jumped up out of the leaves and said you S/B. I told him he was making too much noise….LOL

      • Alert……..

        Chemical plant explosion in Louisiana near I10.

        Volcanic eruption in Hawaii.

    • Jesse Mathewson

      Thor1 , bbgun wars- yes the memories, we used single pump daisy bbguns because no one ever followed the 1 pump rule with the multi pump pellet guns ! Hahah-my dad welding goggles and baseball pads and helmets omgurd hahaha

      • JM, we had a 2 pump rule or a mostly depleted co2 cartridge. LOL

        Kids now a days….. Air soft machine guns or paint ball……LOL

        PS, I have both of those, I guess I’m a kid…….

      • Jesse,

        Thor1 , bbgun wars- yes the memories, we used single pump daisy bbguns because no one ever followed the 1 pump rule with the multi pump pellet guns ! Hahah-my dad welding goggles and baseball pads and helmets omgurd hahaha

        We used our air rifles with a chunk of mud in the muzzle since even the single pump daisy like the Red Ryder or the Daisy Model 499B Champion models I still have could leave a welt, and bring the wrath of parents who were known to confiscate the rifles. One of our games was the King Arthur game, where we could construct shields using everything from garbage can lids to heavy wooden things and then would beat each other with clubs and homemade wooden swords until someone called out: “Yield”. I’m sometimes surprised that we all lived to adulthood.

        • TOP, we used garbage can lids with Roman candles in battles on the 4th of July… LOL

        • Jesse Mathewson

          TOP, haha, yes and yet…we did with seemingly far more knowledge at times comparitively *something to be said for let you learn lessons

      • As a person who was shot by a pellet gun, I do not approve of these BB gun wars. My brother shot me with a pellet gun and my sister dug it out of my leg before Mom got home to see the evidence. They said I got hit with glass fragments.

  2. Well said Jesse Mathewson. I remember my Marine Corps training more than 45 years ago stating essentially the same thing. This concept has served me well in my world travels since. Criminals want unaware victims that they can surprize. Don’t be that victim.

  3. When I was in the Army, I was support intelligence, both tactical and strategic, or I was teaching. Situational awareness was the subject who was taught obliquely. It was not taught as a main or core subject, but it was something we could learn to increase our suitability. “Seek, Known, and Never Loose the Enemy” was not just our job, but for me, a way of life. You “enemy” is anyone who would do you harm. It could be directed at you or a location you happen to be in. Inattention will still kill you. And now, with everything else, you need to add vehicles being directed at groups of people. How many of those you have been “run over” were looking at their cell phone vs. the world in general?

    • Jesse Mathewson

      JP, exactly! My children have been involved in one serious car related incident and my daughter 3 separate incidents one motorcycle and 2 car/truck – their take away is simple, ALL “accidents” can be prevented by simply being aware of your surroundings.

  4. The problem with discussing situational awareness with friends and family is that when we speak of it, many believe that you are being hysterical, while psychiatrist are inclined to label you as exhibiting schizophrenic tendencies. this is precisely why the ignorant and stupid will be the first to die as they wander through life believing they are living in Utopia.

    Situational Awareness or not, is what our animal brains use to make a decision on its flight of fight response. If you are not aware, you may not know when it is the right time to hide, fight or run, thus becoming a victim of your own ignorance. Always be aware by taking-in all your sense data and comparing it against what you know of your ability to secure your safety !!!

  5. Good article JM. I’ll save this to read again and again to glean every point I can. Maybe I’ll frame it and give it to my daughter, the one who wanders the earth in a daze.

    • Jesse Mathewson

      Oren. It happens- I’ve worked with dozens of groups and hundreds of individuals and sadly maybe 2% or so actually practice what is in my opinion simple logical life approaches !

  6. When I was in the military (Marines and Air Guard as a security policeman), situational awareness was critical when were were in the field. If patrolling, we had to be 100% on our game, particularly if we suspected, or even knew, we were going to bump into the bad guys. When in the Guard, we had some top notch bad guys to train against too, including Green Berets and once, Delta Force. The Green Berets were tough. Delta was a nightmare, though they admitted we gave them a little more of a contest than usual. High praise. Delta did think that the high percentage of civilian police officers from Detroit and nearby cities in my unit had a lot to with our level of alertness and ability to react quicker than most units.

    In the Corps, I was an MP for my last fours years. The last two or so were in the 1st Marine Division MP Company. One of our periodic training exercises in the field was patrolling and POW handling. We did that by going after illegal aliens trespassing on base land trying to skirt the San Onofre Border Patrol checkpoint on I-5. This was not playtime, we carried live ammo in our rifles and a lot of the illegals carried lettuce knives. You had to stay alert just like in a combat zone. The language difficulty also added a extra bit of realism.

    Of course, as a police officer, one had to stay alert at all times. I was generally pretty good with picking up the tells that someone was going to fight me and started the fight first. Most criminals, even the fighters, don’t expect to get pounded on first. If they didn’t have the same level of SA that I did, too bad for them. The Supreme Court said I didn’t have to wait to get smacked, so I didn’t.

    • Zulu 3-6; When did they put in a checkpoint at San Onofre?

      • Izzy,

        The first time I was at Camp Pendleton was 1971 and there was a checkpoint there then. The activity I described above took place in 1975-1977 and the checkpoint was still there. In fact, we turned all of our captures over to BP agents from there. I don’t know if they tore it down afterward.

    • Jesse Mathewson

      Zulu – you definitely understand the environment trained in than 🙂

  7. we used green, yellow, red but same basic idea. i’ve been trying to impart this on my dw for years. she swears she is paying attention and gets mad when i prove her wrong. she keeps looking at the ground instead of heads-up observation. any idea how to correct that? she thinks she’s being aware but i’ve stood in plain view waving my arms and jumping up and down and she never saw me, lol. it makes her vulnerable as hell especially coming to and from her car. i’d pick her as an easy target if i was a bad guy.

    • riverrider:

      Glad to hear from you!

      • jp, i pass thru from time to time to check on you, lol., mostly just maintaining now days. keeping a low profile. i figured no sense in telling the govt every prep i was making.

        • riverrider:

          That’s one of the reason’s I report in a more generalized form than I used to.

    • Riverrider; get her a neck brace to hold her head UP. Try that for a few weeks. She needs to retrain her body movements.

      • izzy, thanks but i think i would need the neck brace if i tried to stick one on her ,lol!

    • Appeal to her pride and tell her that walking with her head up makes her look younger – old people look down. Now don’t jump on me for saying this as I am 75 and notice alot of old people walk this way.

    • Jesse Mathewson

      Riverrider. Remind her a simple reality, predators attack from above *figuratively and realistically

      • i remind her often that victims look down, survivors look up. she knows it, she doesn’t realize she’s doing it. guess i’ll just have to be vigilant for both of us. she tends to hesitate too long when something comes up as well. we’re working a drill now when we go out where i have her point out the escape routes, cover etc. she’s slowly picking up on it without having to look around when i ask… if i say “RUN” or whatever she freezes up and says “what?” ……dead on the X , film at eleven…

        • ““RUN” or whatever she freezes up and says “what?” ……dead on the X , film at eleven…”

          ROFL! That’s hilarious.

          As to the neck braces. I’ve used them in classes I’ve taught in dancing and karate. It seems almost automatic to look at their feet/ground. They also work well to force a person to use their peripheral vision more. People have a tendency to move their head instead of just their eyes….which gives off signals to a potential attacker.

          Because I take public transportation, there are wait times. It sure gives me an opportunity to hone my observation skills. People watching can be fascinating as well as entertaining.

    • River Rider,

      This is my question too. I am like your wife. I think I am paying attention but them bam! How does a non military person get this training?

      • Bam Bam; You don’t need to have a military background or police training to learn how to focus on your environment. It takes work to train your mind to be more cognizant of one’s surroundings.

        Bio feedback is just one tool that can be used to train or retrain our brains to think safety. The key is to be judicious. You can’t just do an exercise a couple of times and expect it to stick. It takes approximately 30 days for a new idea to actually become mentally routine.

        Do something like writing…yes writing….”eyes forward” or “eyes up”. Do this at least 10 – 20 times every day. Verbalize the words as you write them. Eventually, this “eyes up” will be automatic. Learn to do a little recon before exiting a store as well. Or even in the store. Simple little things go a long way.

        • Bam Bam,
          Adding to what Izzy just said. For the next week or two, make a serious conscious effort to mentally examine all of the venues where you spend time. This is especially helpful in those venues where you are comfortable and already familiar. Your Dojo, your church, your class room, a local restaurant or even a local Wal-Mart or other large commercial venue, or even your own home and property. At various points in your travels, stop for a moment and do a mental exercise to determine what you would do if a gunman, a bomber, or even a crazy person was acting up in your vicinity. Locate in your mind, the areas of concealment and cover, keeping in mind that concealment hides you but will not stop a bullet while cover can do both. Think through where you’ve seen or used exits not counting the main entrance where everyone comes and goes. Like many habits, you have to force yourself to do things on occasion until they become imprinted as subconscious behaviors. Mine were imprinted more than 50 years ago as a combination of stalking critters in the woods near my home and techniques I learned in martial arts. To be honest, as a small frame person I suspect I was also a bit paranoid and situational awareness can keep you out of trouble before it begins. It’s always better to avoid the fight or unpleasant event when possible.

        • Izzy ,

          Verbalize the words as you write them. Eventually, this “eyes up” will be automatic. Learn to do a little recon before exiting a store as well. Or even in the store. Simple little things go a long way.

          Thank you for this offering. The DW will often catch me stopped in thought “talking to myself” and while I assure her that this is normal for me and I am not crazy, I think she sometimes has doubts, since she processes things differently. I’ll be showing your response to her.

      • Bam Bam,

        This is my question too. I am like your wife. I think I am paying attention but them bam! How does a non military person get this training?

        While there may be other ways, the ones I teach are a combination of the NRA “Basic Pistol”, “Personal Protection in the Home”, and “Personal Protection outside the Home”.
        For a syopsys and a place to look for courses, check out: https://firearmtraining.nra.org/student-courses/

  8. I teach a simple mnemonic for situational awareness in my classes with the color codes.
    Seems to be easier to process mentally than evaluating one’s own level of awareness while training.

    A-E-I-O-U

    Where A = ACCESS, E = EGRESS, I= INDIVIDUALS (around you)
    O= ODDBALLS (anything out of the ordinary), and
    U = UNACCEPTABLES (conditions that require a response from you)

    • Ed Parker,
      We teach something similar to be used in everyday life, even while resting at home, by explaining the states of mind:
      • Unaware
      • Aware
      • Alert
      • Alarm.
      And explaining how the traditional Freeze, Fight, Flight fits into the situation. My DW has gotten good at this, even for little things, like that odd noise the car is making that it didn’t make earlier. I teach the OODA loop to people whenever I can. Last week as part of my cardiac rehab, we were asked to attend a short class on stress management where the DW & I basically learned nothing. After the meeting I approached the instructor who talked about stress using the Freeze, Fight or Flight model. She had not heard of the OODA loop; but, a brief explanation of how you can use it to train yourself from being stressed out, went over well. I’ve worked with the person who it turned out manages the unit, a few more times and while I’ve seen arguments with some who don’t want to do the training, I’ve gotten a good reception every time. This is one case where working through scenarios can help your mindset; however, real practice is always still required.

    • Jesse Mathewson

      Ed, I like that! As always I learn from comments here!

  9. Color codes are good. Except a defencient in color code. Let’s take resistor. I won’t go saying it goes black blue red violet white. I have known electronic technicians who color blinds and 1980’s it was drawback. But with help from non color blinds people. I could read colors find out the percentages and test ohm analog. Now days digital ohm meter. The problem, I found that probably bankrupt Radio Shock. Most customer products are made in China, and had to replaced with another unit or use a micro controller that you had to buy from manufacturer to replace. I saw a video, of man replacing different capacitor son power supply that part of tv. He had order them manufacturer and probably would hard to find at local electronic part store. Since missiles travel in minutes off coast America enemy ships. By the time someone gives colors code it’s only time react.

    • Jesse Mathewson

      Donald, I understand and agree. As with all training it is the idea that is a base for practice and as I tell all individuals I work with, adapt adapt adapt

  10. Jesse,
    I learned situational awareness at an early age spending most summer days and even winter weekends in the wooded Appalachian hillsides that ran for miles along the west side of my home. Learning to stay quiet and move stealthily helped me to see all sorts of animals and the occasional person I might encounter. At age 14 I started studying martial arts, and by 16 was fighting multiple students at once, and while this sparring called Jiyu kumite (free style sparring) did not involve full contact kicks, punches, and blocks, it did require one to be constantly looking in a 360° area around your position.
    Later hunting small game required one to be both aware and stealthy and when I moved to Ohio for college I was living in what for me at the time was a big city and was constantly aware of my surroundings, and perhaps just a little paranoid.
    When the DW & I started dating, she thought my behavior was a bit odd, when I insisted on selecting the table at a restaurant with walls or preferably corners to our backs where I would see all of the ingress and egress so I could see potential trouble coming. I also made note of all exits including windows, just in case we might need them.
    After a while she understood and became part of the solution, and any extra pair of eyes and ears can be an asset.
    Statistically, when some problem develops in a public venue (restaurant, concert, Movie Theater, etc.) most people head for the door from which they entered and often that logjam of people can be the killer. It’s best to map alternate exits to avoid that problem. For a really good book on the subject pick up “The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science that Could Save Your Life” by Ben Sherwood

    • Jesse Mathewson

      TOP. Agreed 1000 percent, its actually nice these days when my children and wife and I battle for seats *considering the reasons why. Knowing exits and entrances, as well as having solid cover between and or behind one is essential

  11. In addition to “situational awareness”, one needs to have ‘instincts’. Without some natural instincts, all the training in the world won’t help in a normal everyday environment.

    • Izzy, Spider senses……

    • Jesse Mathewson

      Izzy, and thor1, so absolutely 100% agreed

    • Izzy,

      In addition to “situational awareness”, one needs to have ‘instincts’. Without some natural instincts, all the training in the world won’t help in a normal everyday environment.

      You are right, and I think sometimes it’s the training that’s the problem. I think most people start out with some innate sense of awareness or instinct as part of our genetic and evolutionary traits; but, when we get that odd feeling that we’re being watched, the hair stance up on our necks, or we get that queasy feeling in our stomach, we’re too often trained that it is superstition and should learn to ignore it instead of paying attention. Our ancestors have passed down hard learned genetic gifts that we all too often intellectualize into non existence.
      If we pay too much attention and are noticed, we’ll be called paranoid.

      • Personally, I don’t care if people call me paranoid. At least I have a good sense of when to duck and cover…or defend myself. Too many people have their heads in their 4th point of contact and don’t have a clue because “it won’t happen to them”.

  12. I certainly know about picking up any cues from facial expressions. Even knew for sure a CIA agent posing as an evangelist going door to door wasn’t really an evangelist.
    I am very situationally aware when driving. Saved myself and others from accidents several times this way. But my weakness is re what is behind me since I don’t have eyes in the back of my head. Today I am going to watch the Kentucky Derby at a bar (don’t have tv at home). So I will be focused ahead on the tv and many more things including the entrance door right behind me.

  13. That reminds me of a line from the movie “Justice League”, when he was called crazy he said “That doesn’t mean I’m wrong.”

    I feel the same was when someone says I’m paranoid.

  14. JM & ALL: Thanx for the info. I’ve been waiting for this one!
    The article is somewhat abstract to my mind, b/c I have no training in it. As JM says, the comments are helpful tools.
    I already have trained myself on some of the points (access/exit points; heavy construction for a hidey hole, be ready-know what to do if it’s a bomb (mouth open, cover ears, get down behind a heavy object)). This article & its comments have expanded my awareness & I am grateful!

  15. Prepared Grammy

    I have always thought I was pretty aware, but last Saturday proved I need to step up my game. I was at home and so focused on finding the staple gun that I didn’t see my husband sitting on the lawn mower. He was sitting five feet away from me! I let down my guard because I was at my rural home. Threats can be there too.