3 Effective Techniques to Train Your Situational Awareness

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3 Effective Techniques to Train Your Situational Awareness and Recognize Change

By ITS Guest Contributor

City Street

I have a friend who stepped off the curb and was killed by a vehicle running a red light. He was 40 years old and his life was over in one second. I almost made the same mistake.

While in England, I checked for traffic and confidently began to step into the intersection, when my companion yanked me back. I’d looked left instead of right, the wrong direction in a country that drives on the left-hand side of the street. It was a near miss and my companion chided me: “That’s why we call you Yanks.”

Situational Awareness

I have spent a fair amount of time over the past several years trying to define and refine my understanding of the term “Situational Awareness.”

Most of the written material deals with very technical definitions, that for me hold little real world application. As I tried to make them fit my own experience with awareness, I realized that the academic approach was impractical.

So here’s how I defined “situational awareness.” It is: “paying attention to what is going on around you.” How’s that for practical? It’s more than that, but the basic definition is the ability to scan the environment and sense danger, challenges and opportunities, while maintaining the ability to conduct normal activities. In other words, to pay attention to your surroundings while not appearing to be paying attention.

Understanding the Baseline

Awareness is a choice. One has to choose to pay attention. But once that choice is made, the part of the brain responsible for monitoring the senses, known as the Reticular Activating System (RAS) takes over. It switches filters on and off that will fulfill your subconscious desire to pay attention. By simply telling yourself to pay attention to certain things, the RAS will scan for and acknowledge those things when it encounters them.

I have found three main obstacles to developing awareness. To understand the obstacles with awareness, lets define the most basic tenant of awareness: BASELINE. The concept of baseline states that our environment has a baseline, a homeostatic state of what things look like, sound like and feel like when nothing much is going on.

In the woods, this is reflective of the noise and activity level of the area when nothing much is happening. The normal state. For example, in the late afternoon, things are normally pretty quiet. The baseline is pretty flat. As we move into evening, the baseline changes a bit. Night feeding animals are coming out, day feeders are going in.

The increase in noise and activity is still the norm. It is louder and yet still within the realm of normal. Suddenly a predator appears. All the prey animals react. Alarm calls go out and the noise level suddenly spikes. This is referred to as a concentric ring of disturbance because it radiates out from the source.

In the city, each neighborhood has its own baseline. In one area, people move at a certain pace, talk at a certain volume, stand at a certain socially acceptable distance from one another, gesture in a certain way. This combination of noise and activity constitutes that area’s baseline. Depending on cultural or ethnic norms, it will be different in various neighborhoods.

Being able to develop awareness is dependent upon first knowing the baseline for the area you are in and recognizing any variations to the baseline. These changes in baseline are learned from observation. One must know the baseline. One must recognize disturbances to the baseline and one must recognize if those disturbances represent a specific threat or opportunity.

This requires knowledge of the environment, knowledge of terrain. It requires that one recognizes predator behavior. It requires one to see well beyond normal sight. For example, an aware person will notice things others may miss: a youth in a hoodie across the street whose movements mimic yours. Or a dumpster set in such a way that requires you to pass close to it. It can be threats or potential threats. You must constantly monitor and assess. Over time, this becomes almost a background activity, requiring little conscious thought.

The key to great situational awareness is the ability to monitor the baseline and recognize changes.

Three Obstacles in Situational Awareness

1. Not Monitoring the Baseline. If you are not monitoring the baseline, you will not recognize the presence of predators that cause a disturbance. Other events can cause concentric rings as well. Any unusual occurrence from a car accident to a street fight can create a concentric ring. One of the keys to personal security is learning to look for and recognize these disturbances. Some disturbances are dangerous, some are just entertaining.

2. Normalcy Bias. Even though we may sense a concentric ring that could be alerting us of danger, many times we will ignore the alert due to the desire for it NOT to be a danger. We want things to be OK, so we don’t accept that the stimulus we’re receiving represents a threat. We have a bias towards the status quo. Nothing has ever happened when I do this, so nothing is likely to happen.

3. The third interrupter of awareness is what we define as a Focus Lock. This is some form of distraction that is so engaging, that it focuses all of our awareness on one thing and by default, blocks all the other stimulus in our environment. This is when someone is texting and walks into a fountain. The smart phone is the single most effective focus lock ever invented. It robs us of our awareness in times and places where it’s needed most.

Three Effective Techniques to Stay Aware

1. Monitor the Baseline. At first, this will require conscious effort. But after a while, I find that I can monitor the baseline subconsciously.

2. Fight Normalcy Bias. This requires you to be paranoid for a while as you develop your ability. Look at every disturbance to the baseline as a potential threat. This will allow you to stop ignoring or discounting concentric rings and begin making assessments of the actual risk. But as you learn, people will think you are jumpy or paranoid. That is OK. It’s a skill that will save your life.

3. Avoid using the obvious focus locks in transition areas. It is ok to text while you are sitting at your desk or laying in bed. But it’s NOT ok to text as you walk from your office to the parking garage.

Any time you’re drawn to a concentric ring event, do a quick assessment of that ring, then stop looking at it (the event) and scan the rest of your environment to see what you’re missing.

Developing awareness is a skill. At first it will seem very awkward and self-conscious, but with practice, it will become seamless and subconscious. You will start to pick up on more and more subtle rings of disturbance and more complex stimuli. Eventually, people may think you are psychic as they notice how you seem to sense events before they unfold.

Editor-in-Chief’s Note: Kevin Reeve is the founder of onPoint Tactical, training professionals and select civilians in urban escape & evasion, urban survival, wilderness survival, tracking and scout skills. I’ve personally taken onPoint Tactical’s Urban Escape & Evasion class and highly recommend it as a resource!

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  • redraven88

    Very good advise. My girlfriend and I have been practicing situational awareness for awhile now and have both noticed things that others haven’t and avoided some possible threats as well. This does become second nature and becomes part of your daily routine almost without you realizing it. We are smart/safe now and te many

    • redraven88 Thanks for your comments and thoughts brother, glad to know these articles are making a positive impact on you and your girlfriend. Appreciate your continued support!

  • yachtsecurity

    Thanks for the article. I have re-posted a link to it on my blog.


  • Good article but I find myself task fixated with correcting the typos. 🙂
    “He have a bias towards the status quo.” “At first it will seem very awkward and self-conscious, but with practice, it will become seamless” “the part of the brian responsible for monitoring the senses”

    • DVC Prepper Thanks for the catch, it seems no matter how many times you proof read, there’s always something that gets missed.

    • Aussiechippie

      bryanpblackDVC Prepper
      Proof reading is a great opportunity to practice at least one aspect of your Situational Awareness! It’s about reading what’s ACTUALLY on the page, rather than what you believe you wrote. How many vehicles drove past while you were proof-reading the page, etc. etc.
      Great short article, especially the point about Normalcy Bias. I have to give a talk on SA soon and I’m going to make sure that concept is part of it. It’s a good way to talk about complacency because it’s a slightly different take on the idea.

  • Great article. I would love to read an article with some scenarios and how it all plays out.  The dumpster scene, etc… is helpful in starting to form mental images.
    I’ve posted the article on PW.

    • @Prepper Website Thanks Todd, glad you enjoyed the article! I’ll definitely keep your suggestion in mind for a future article. I appreciate your support.

  • gottobtru

    About monitoring the baseline:
    Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?
    To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.
    The dog did nothing in the night-time.
    That was the curious incident.

  • RT

    Thanks for a great article.  I reblogged to myprovidentjourney.wordpress.com.  We all need to pay attention more!

  • Uncle Doug

    Great article.  We used to call it “tunnel vision”  The enemy distracts you; locks your attention.  Then gets you from the side.  I’ve been following your growth at ITS  closely, using more than several of your videos to build my buggout bag and emergency and defensive supplies and more. Your guests and members would do well to do likewise. Keep up the good work. Very proud of you both;  and remember, Master Chief is watching.  V/r
    Uncle Doug

    • Uncle Doug Thanks Master Chief, I really loved Kevin’s article too and I can’t recommend his training enough. I learned so much from an Urban Escape and Evasion course I attended a few years back. I appreciate your continued support and stay safe! ~ Bryan

  • naveedlatif23


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    I have wonderful topics in mind and some of them are mentioned below.

    Top 10 Outdoor Adventure Places in the World
    Recreational Fishing Techniques for the Beginners
    Important Tools for a good Hunter
    Hunting Tips

    Please tell me can I write a great article for your website and send you for review?

    Looking for your reply.


  • kh

    i would like to use your picture on my company’s homepage. please  inform me if this is possible. you can either leave your response on my email [email protected]  or comment below. thank you.

  • Sarita Joshi

    Hi,I loved your article as it answers my question for maintaining situational awareness.I have been struggling to find exercises which I can use in class which would benefit my class. 

    I am a Trainer working with Marine officers,I take Human involvement in error,I have been ardently advocating the use of our five senses and it’s importance in situational Awareness,also the need to avoid fixation.

    Please do let me know if there are any activities or exercises which can be used in a class room setting for Mariners.

    Sarita Joshi

  • Marc D

    Excellent article.  Situational awareness distilled to its practical essence.

  • Joe Dew

    This article works well with the book that I am reading at the moment, “the Gift of Fear” (that was recommended on this site). A lot of the same philosophies are echoed in greater detail in the book but it is nice to gain a different prospective.

  • KBN

    Great Stuff. Just to add to Joe Drew, the book “Left of Bang” has a lot of really good, in depth information about this topic. Definitely a recommended read.

    • Logic Bob

      And it just came out in audio book format!

  • Good read Kevin. I just did a post on my website about teaching kids situational awareness and made sure to mention this. If anyone is interested in helping their kids learn situational awareness in a fun way: http://dickthedad.com/wwbd

    it stands for What Would Batman Do 🙂

  • frank d

    Perhaps it would be advisable to suggest to women, men and children to limit or even stop cell phone conversations while walking on side walks, roads and any other unknown areas. Just my suggestion. BE AWARE.

  • FrancesAnnRayburnRose

    Great article, thank you!  If more people, especially young people, put down their cell phones! While people are engrossed in those things their situational awareness is off. How can the rest of us who have our heads on a swivel these days depend on others to raise the alarm?

  • DominikLapierre

    im wondering what the mean of the picture at the top.. dint feel anything from it that could be compared to the text, but still i cant stop thinking it here for a reason. anybody seen anything trough it?

    • NatashasGhost

      It’s a “seemingly” quiet street in which you could let down your guard, not monitor baseline, be overly influenced by normalcy bias and/or be focus locked.

  • Great insight into situational awareness. Every one should improve this skill set in order to make themselves act wise. Thanks for sharing this post!!
    http://www.margonline.com/ | http://www.margonline.com/

  • AkinolaOlurotimi


    Hi Bryan loved reading this article. I came across it while looking for information on situational awareness. I got so many applications in My field which is Emergency Medicine. would like to reference this article in presentations i’m making .

  • YesitisThatakenagain

    An interesting article, but most of us are not geared up about fighting, but instead want to live more in the moment. Hints like this would be more beneficial.

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