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I’ve written about situational awareness a few times on the site so far, from defining what both situational and tactical awareness are, to highlighting some exercises you can do to increase your situational awareness skills.
For this post, I’ve reached out to a veteran friend of mine to talk about the 3 levels of situational awareness from the perspective of someone whose life depended on it.
He will discuss:
- The ability to recognize important details in your surroundings
- The need to parse those details and instinctively know their meaning
- Using those details to make predictions
- Why this is all useful in your daily life
Here’s my buddy Dustin – hope you enjoy the post!
A few years ago, I went to dinner with an old friend of mine who had just recently come back home from a “deployment” (military words for going to Afghanistan). While sitting around joking about the “good ole days,” and taking shots of whiskey, I noticed something peculiar about him.
I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was different. He was acting normal enough, laughing at jokes, engaging in the conversation and even interjecting witty lines when appropriate. But something was definitely was amiss; his mind wasn’t all the way involved in the discussion. It seemed to be occupied with other things.
What happened next felt surreal, and almost like it was planned.
In the middle of what I was saying he interrupted me, sternly, instructing me to move to the seat to my left. I complied. Not more than a couple of seconds later, a waiter dropped the tray he was carrying (with the messiest pile of nachos you’ve ever seen) and wouldn’t you know it. The food landed where I would have been sitting.
Later I asked him how he knew what was going to happen. His answer, “I just saw it happening.”
It turns out because he had just spent 10 arduous months in a combat zone, he was still in the habit of scanning his surroundings. He called this scanning habit “situational awareness.”
What is situational awareness?
The story I shared is an example of situational awareness, but it doesn’t really define its meaning.
Situational awareness is the ability and the process of taking in your surroundings, assessing that environment, and predicting what is going to happen next.
And it is something we do on an everyday basis – albeit in very subtle ways. Think about how often you were about to cross a street [in the crosswalk] but chose not to because the driver of an oncoming vehicle wasn’t paying attention. That is situational awareness at work; just a different version than what my friend had.
This isn’t something that you are born with, either. But that’s a good thing – it means that we can all develop this literal life saving ability at some point. It just takes some practice and some knowledge about how to train these skills.
Situational awareness consists of a few different levels, from the low-level Level 1 to a highest Level 3.
Defining the 3 levels of situational awareness
Level 1: Recognize important details
This level consists of you being able to assess what is going on in your vicinity. How you assess these things varies greatly, and is mostly dependant on past experiences, this is why situational awareness is something that you have to cultivate.
Level 2: Knowing what those essential details mean
The second level of situational awareness takes it a step further. In this step, you measure your ability to understand what those assessments mean. This is particularly important because it allows you to coordinate your perceptions of what is going on around you with how you want to react to them.
The whole reason for developing situational awareness is that you can always be in control (or at least as much as possible), making this level crucial. Otherwise, you’ll end up using all of your brain power looking scanning your environment and never being able to process any of that information.
Level 3: Predicting what will happen
This is the part of situational awareness that will have you feeling like a real-life badass, and maybe even save you from getting a plate full of nachos dropped in your lap.
The third level of situational awareness combines the first two and then incorporates a little bit of foresight with it. Combining this foresight with abilities picked up in the second level (most notably knowing how to react to your environment so you can analyze how you should respond) will allow you continually put yourself, and the people you are with, in the best position possible for the best outcome possible.
This step is going to take the longest to develop, but once you do, you’ll be a SA pro.
Why is situational awareness such a vital skill?
There is an idea I have heard perpetuated once or twice before that situational awareness isn’t needed unless you are in the military, a police officer, or anyone else that has a dangerous profession. I’m here to tell you; this couldn’t be further from the truth.
Situational awareness is a skill that everybody can benefit from. In fact, I would argue that it is a skill everyone should possess. But why?
Keeps you safe on the roads
I gave an example of everyday use of situational awareness earlier, and I feel it bears repeating. Situational awareness while driving (or even as a pedestrian) is potentially life-saving.
Nearly 3,800 people die each day from car accidents. Once again, I believe that if everybody was taught situational awareness, we could drastically reduce the number of accidents.
Stay alert and aware in new situations
Whether you’re traveling to a new city or a brand new country, or even just walking your neighborhood, having a grasp on situational awareness concepts will be a tremendous help.
You’ll be able to better identify and predict threats before they become deadly, and be able to spot scammers and thieves while traveling.
Keeps you safe in your daily life
In normal everyday situations, like going out for a run, being aware of your surroundings can help you to be ready for trouble. You can change your route to steer around dangerous people or prepare your self defense weapons, if necessary. These are super valuable life skills.
This great video from Wired, featuring a former Navy SEAL, breaks down the importance of Situational Awareness in your daily life:
Wrap up – stay alert!
Spending time with my friend has taught me that you don’t have to be a Marine to enjoy the benefits of being aware of your surroundings at all times. Paying attention to everything going around you at all times is intimidating at first, and honestly, it feels like a chore in the beginning.
But just like with everything else, after you consciously pay attention to your environment for a while, it becomes second nature. You’ll find yourself being more confident, more secure, and most importantly you’ll be infinitely safer.
Here’s a great video with more info, if you’re interested:
Got any ideas about honing your situational awareness? Leave them in the comments!