K&B, LLC co-owner and instructor Don Alley is a martial arts, personal protection, and emergency preparedness writer. Many of his articles originally appeared in Examiner.com. As these articles are able to be retrieved from old web caches, they will be posted here.

Situational Awareness

originally published 14FEB2011 on Examiner.com

In the martial arts as well as in everyday life, it is important to be aware of, and correctly interpret, our surroundings. One definition of situational awareness (herein referred to as “SA”), created by M.R. Endsley, states “the perception of elements in the environment within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future.” This is a widely accepted and standardized definition for the concept.

As a first example: A driver going through a green light is broadsided by a car running a red light. There was no direction he could swerve to avoid it.

As a second example: A pedestrian looks up to notice he was being stopped by someone, and there was someone behind him too. He has nowhere to run.

Picking the SA definition apart and analyzing it, “the perception of elements in the environment within a volume of time and space” can basically be distilled down to where things are at in relation to the observer. An important thing is what the observer includes in his perception. In the driving example above, other cars, pedestrians, parked cars, etc., all need to be included because they all play a factor in the situation. In the pedestrian example, someone is following the pedestrian and has been for a block or so. Ahead, there is a guy leaning against a building smoking a cigarette and looking at the pedestrian.

“The comprehension of their meaning” portion of the SA example expands on the mere perception of the elements in the environment. In the driving example, pedestrians or parked cars have meaning as well. If the driver needs to veer to avoid another vehicle, the presence of these other elements in his area closes off escape routes. In the pedestrian example above, the meaning can become quite clear. A person ahead is reacting to the pedestrian, and the follower is reacting to the person ahead of the pedestrian by closing distance. To comprehend their meaning, the pedestrian should realize he may not be in the best of situations.

“The projection of their status in the near future” is the anticipation of what these elements will do in the immediate future. In the driving example, being aware of a car coming in the perpendicular directions, but slowing down or already stopped, can be seen as non threatening. A car that is maintaining speed, however, may be about to run a red light and may endanger people crossing the intersection. In the pedestrian example, the two people coming towards the pedestrian will be set to meet the pedestrian right where there is a parked car, and 20 feet before the alleyway, causing them to effectively surround the pedestrian.

In the initial examples above, situational awareness has been denied to the reader to make a point. As the definition was broken down and explored, new information was added. Now that the reader has been granted situational awareness, the examples read as follows:

Driving example: A driver sees he has a green light and continues through the intersection. Noting a parked car and a couple pedestrians, he slows down. Once he has a clear view of the whole intersection he notices a car coming perpendicular to him and is not slowing down. Already decelerating, the car slams on the brakes as the oncoming motorist runs a red light. He narrowly avoids a collision because there were no escape routes. His situational awareness gave him the information necessary to react to the situation and avoid being hit.

Pedestrian example: A pedestrian notices he’s being followed. He had stopped at a couple windows to look at things in storefronts, and the person behind him stopped as well. A couple glances in his direction reveal the follower is watching him. As the pedestrian continues on, he notices a guy ahead leaning against a building, and also seems to be looking his way. As he gets closer, the person throws down the cigarette and starts walking towards the pedestrian. The follower also seems to approach more closely. Sensing danger, the pedestrian bolts across the street and into a restaurant just before the two people get within 30 feet or so. Now in a public, occupied place with other people, the pedestrian is able to call the police and describe what happened.

Of course, in these completed examples, the situation is played out, and the driver and pedestrian react to the situation. Situational awareness has given them the information necessary to make a decision to preserve their safety. The reaction is not a part of SA, but a next step as a result of it. However, it was the situational awareness that allowed the reaction to take place.

Practice situational awareness in daily life. Observe, understand, and interpret your surroundings to help ensure your own safety. One such place to practice is at a martial arts school. During weapons training, or open hand sparring with multiple opponents, situational awareness is instilled and practiced.