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An Ounce of Prevention (Part 1 – Situational Awareness)

Updated: Mar 13, 2023

You may have heard the old saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” In other words, it’s much easier to prevent a problem than it is to resolve it after it has happened. This is especially true of our personal safety, but how do we do it?

To begin, it is critical to understand that violence does not happen at random! Many people who commit crimes are simply looking for opportunities. How do you avoid being a victim of crime? Are you an easy target? Do you know what they are looking for? Do you know how to make yourself appear less vulnerable to criminals, or others who may be trying to cause problems for you or others around you?

Whether you are working in security, retail, an office, or are out with friends, targets are chosen based on two key concepts:

  • a lack of awareness of the environment around them, and

  • a lack of confidence as they move through it.

The first important component of personal safety is having a ‘situational awareness’ of yourself and your surroundings at all times. Consistently paying attention to what is going on around you sounds easy, but actually requires constant vigilance. Here are five (5) things you can practice to be more situationally aware everywhere you go:

1. DO learn about what behaviour is normal in your environment:

Establishing a standard, or a baseline helps you to notice inconsistencies that tell you something unusual is going on. Ask yourself:

  • What type of normal activity should I expect here? and,

  • How do most people behave here most of the time?

For example, noise will be at a certain level, depending on where you are, what day it is and even what time it is. If you were walking through a food court on a Saturday afternoon, how loud would you expect your environment to be? What if you were patrolling a site after hours? If it’s too quiet, or too noisy, there may be an issue that will affect your safety.

2. DO stay focused:

Your eyes and ears are important tools for sensing danger, so take off the technology, put it away and notice your surroundings. This is not just looking, but actually seeing your environment. It’s not just hearing, but really listening to what is going on around you. Talking on a cell phone, texting, or using earbuds will:

  • distract you from being in the moment,

  • reduce your sensory awareness,

  • prevent you from hearing someone approach, and

  • put you at risk!

If you walk assertively, scan the area and are aware of your surroundings, a potential predator knows you will see them coming. Often, if they perceive you to be a ‘hard target’ they will leave you alone.

3. DO use peripheral vision to help identify risks in your environment:

Looking away from the center of your gaze – out the corner of your eyes – allows you to monitor a wider degree of space. Seeing objects and movement outside that area helps identify behaviour that doesn’t belong in the environment or is escalating.

This method won’t attract unnecessary attention, but people who are watching you will notice. If you come across as very aware of your surroundings then you are much less prone to being taken by surprise, and less vulnerable to any type of attack or threat of violence.

  • Remember, criminals choose people who are unaware of their environment!

4. DO keep a relaxed, ‘open’ focus to help proactively identify issues:

Looking for trouble can be stressful, which is the opposite of how you want to be! Staying relaxed ensures that you maintain an open focus, which allows you to take in more information about what’s going on around you. Research shows that when we get nervous or stressed, our attention narrows, causing us to concentrate on just a few things at a time… which, in turn, can cause us to miss other important details in our environment.

  • Looking for specific behaviours causes a constant state of anxiety that can prevent you from seeing real issues, or danger, until it’s too late!

5. DO be unpredictable, at work and at play!

Most people get into a routine, but when you have specific habits, you get used to seeing things in the same way. That can make you complacent, and it’s easy to ignore that ‘little voice’ and tell yourself that nothing has happened when I’ve done this before, so nothing will happen today, either!

Psychologically, we have a bias towards the way things have always been. We want there not to be an issue, so we often don’t accept, or ignore the signals we’re receiving.

Mixing up your routine keeps you on your toes and prevents people from predicting where you’ll be next!

In summary, situational awareness is about knowing your environment, staying focused, identifying risks, neutrally gathering information, and staying alert to changes! In other words, you have to pay close attention to your surroundings while appearing to not be overly concerned about paying attention. Awareness is a choice and it’s a skill that can be developed. Choose to pay attention and start practicing these tips today!

In ‘An Ounce of Prevention (part 2),’ we’ll talk about the second key component to improving our personal safety: demonstrating confidence!

For more in-depth principles on the concept of situational awareness to stay safe on the job and in life (and learn what SWAT learned on this subject), take our Situational Awareness Specialist training!

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