I've lost count of the amount of times I've slipped over the years. I make it a conscious effort to remain situationally aware, but it's tough. Even for me.
To anyone new to the blog, situational awareness is the ability to know what's going on around you, at all times. Being situationally aware allows you to react faster, anticipate people's actions, and perhaps even step up to diffuse a problem before things get out of hand. Almost like a superpower.
First though, I want to make this clear. I'm not paranoid.
Paranoia is not what situational awareness is about. Paranoia is a nervous energy that comes when you're afraid of everything around you. Like a frightened mouse in the corner shaking in fear. That's paranoia. Being situationally aware is the complete opposite to this. You're like the cat watching everything that's going on, and staying truly alert to your surroundings.
What follows are the exercises I conduct on a daily basis to boost my ability to stay alert.
I hope they help you too.
Scan the entire area
No matter where you are, the first step is to understand what's going on around you. Look around, and take note of the entire area. Say for example I've just parked my car and am headed to a coffee shop. Are there any people hanging about the car park? Do they look like a problem, or are they relaxed and just hanging about? Is there security guards in the booth, or are they off doing rounds? Are there any CCTV cameras? Take the time to pay attention to the things around you, but don't make it obvious. Quick scans with your eyes to take it in, don't stand there like a zombie.
Don't limit your field of vision
The next step is to ensure you've always got the best field of vision. That way you've got the best possible chances of seeing something "off" while there's still time to act. Taking my visit to the coffee shop, I've got the mirror behind the counter I can use to see behind me, so there's no problem leaving my back to the door while I'm lining up. Once I've got my drink, I'd choose a seat where I can put my back to a wall (solid brick so no one can sneak up behind you), where I've still got a good field of vision to any and all exits in the café. If I can't choose my table because the hostess has seated me, I'll choose a spot on the table where I can still see the exits.
Find the common norm in the room
Now you need to pay attention to the people. Because it's the people who will cause the vast majority of problems. Take note of those who are in close proximity, and start counting them all. I like to figure out the number of employees, the number of people in a restaurant, those kinds of things. It helps me to remember to look if I know I need to count them. After this, I try to find the common norms. In the coffeeshop there are probably a few people on their phones, maybe a girl working on her laptop, a couple on a first date. These kinds of things. Because once you know what's what, it's easier to spot the outliers.
Pay attention to the outliers
An outlier is a person acting in a way that's different to everyone else. Perhaps they're being argumentative and raising their voice over the hushed chit-chat of the coffee shop. Or in the case of the Boston Marathon bombers, the police noticed the two suspects were the only two acting calm, while everyone else were running in panic. The outliers are important. Because once you notice someone acting strange, it gives you a target to focus on. You can pay attention to this one person, and perhaps notice something far quicker. Like if they reach for a gun. You can go for yours, or your can of pepper spray. Because you were watching, and you can react faster once it happens.
Plan your response strategy
Here's where things get a little fun. Once you've settled, you need to run through a few scenarios in your head. Imagine an active shooter walks through the front door and opens fire. What would you do? Is there a booth you could dive behind and get out of site? Or is it possible to dive behind the counter and make a run for it out through the kitchen? Think about what you would do, and plan it all out. This is probably the most important step in the entire process, as it allows you to anticipate and react with lightning speed. If you know already "what to do," when something bad starts to happen your body will spring into action while everyone else is frozen in shock.
Be willing to trust your gut
Finally, I want to reinforce the importance of listening to your gut. If something simply doesn't feel right, there's probably a reason. Your subconscious can (and does) pick up on these same clues we're trying to practice, and will warn you if things aren't quite right. It's your job to listen. Of course, your gut isn't always right, but I like to give mine the benefit of the doubt. It's better to be a little cautious and avoid a somewhat dodgy situation, than to find yourself staring down the wrong end of a gun.
Staying situationally aware is a survival skill that requires a constant practice. It's not enough to know "how" to do it. You need to follow these exercises on a daily basis, whenever you're out-and-about, to ensure you're never caught off guard. That's smart survival.