Situational Awareness: Beyond the Cliche

Every self defense instructor, every gun course, and every firearms expert will tell you, in every class, that situational awareness is the single best thing one can do to improve their odds of protecting themselves and their circle. The Cooper Codes of awareness are in almost every CPL class, and the “scan and assess” movement is encouraged after every drill practiced. This isn’t wrong, but is it as “right” as it could be? Is “awareness” truly being practiced?

In “Toward a Theory of Situation Awareness in Dynamic Systems” by Mica R. Endsley (Chief Scientist of the United States Air Force), situational awareness was originally defined as “the perception of environmental elements and events with respect to time or space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their future status.” This is very different than the lip service of “observe your surroundings”. Let’s break down the meaning in more detail, and see how it applies to protective training.

The perception of environmental elements and events

In most training classes, this is about as far as I see instructors present the concept. And sadly, even if students have been taught otherwise, about as far as they practice. This covers the observation portion of the scan and assess movement. The optical, tactile, audible, and olfactory inputs. The trainee is, if they do this part at all, allowing the observations to take place.

Yes, there is a lot we can do to train observation. When we are confronted with a threat, our brains focus on the threat itself, and our “brain processing cycles” are more dedicated to processing the information from what is in front of us. This sometimes manifests as sensory time dilation (we see things happening in slow motion) as well as tunnel vision (our brain quits processing peripheral vision information from our eyes). In fact, scanning and assessing is a way to force our brains to start processing our peripheral vision inputs.

There is far more needed than mere observation, though, to have true awareness around a scenario and therefore what is needed to be done in that scenario.

The comprehension of their meaning

This is the part of situational awareness that most practice of scanning and assessing or mere observation fails to include. The comprehension of the meaning of what is seen is a crucial aspect of awareness, if awareness is to go beyond anything but a visual deterrent (a bad guy sees you looking around and decides to wait for another target).

Observing the guy standing at the front of the gas station is a start, but when you observe he is looking up and down the aisles at cars and pumps and focusing on others who aren’t paying attention, or looking at people going into the convenience store then at their cars, the comprehension of meaning starts to show that he is casing the place and the patrons. At the other end of the possibility spectrum, he is completely engrossed in his phone’s screen, not looking up at all, and after enough observation isn’t even glancing up occasionally. Possibly, he looks over at the same vehicle multiple times, then at the street. Possibly there’s something wrong with his car and he’s expecting someone soon that will come and help.

These are all possibilities that can be derived when the observer begins to comprehend the meaning of what they are seeing.

The comprehension of meaning must also shed normalcy bias. When we are situationally aware, we are making a plan for when bad things happen. If we are at the grocery store and observe the back room of the store with an “Employees Only” sign, we can easily conclude that we aren’t supposed to be back there. Likewise the kitchen at the back of a restaurant, for instance. When we comprehend the meaning of these observations, with a “when things go bad” lens in place, the comprehension becomes “There is a back room. I can see an emergency exit that will trip the fire alarm. I am not supposed to go back there, but if I need to escape this way, I can easily do so.”

This becomes a far more complete awareness because we’ve comprehended the meaning behind the elements of our surroundings.

The projection of their future status

The projection of future status is a probable (and improbable) likelihood of the meaning of what has been observed. In the example of the guy standing in front of the gas station convenience store, there were a couple scenarios depicted. A projected status for the guy casing the place would be that he starts going up to people pumping gas and shaking them down for money. Another possibility is that he’s watching for unattended cars to rifle through before their owner comes out. In an innocuous example of him looking at a car with concern and the road, a possible projection of the status is that he is having car trouble and waiting for a friend, but there are other possibilities in mind as well.

The projection of future status must be performed with a risk (severity and likelihood) mentality in mind. It’s not always likely bad things are afoot, but our true situational awareness projects that these likelihoods are not zero-chance.


United States Air Force Colonel John Boyd developed the OODA Loop. Observe-Orient-Decide-Act. And in reality, every stimulus we experience in life causes us to go through an OODA loop. When bad things happen, we need to get through that loop fast and act to protect ourselves and our circle.

When we are truly aware, we are “observing”, but we are going well beyond that. When we are truly aware, we are “pre-orienting” the information we have to potential bad things happening. If the bad things happen, we are well through the major portions of the OODA loop, so we can very easily decide and act. Those decisions and actions will be informed by good observation, proper and complete (no normalcy bias!) orientation, and applicable decision and action based on extrapolating the meaning of the events.

When we train, don’t just go through the scan/assess motions. When out in the world, don’t just “see”. Comprehend meanings. Really understand the aspects of the things around you. Extrapolate observations into likely and unlikely projections.

Self defense through location knowledge

Originally published 02FEB2011 on

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 As these articles are able to be retrieved from old web caches, they will be posted here.

There is an old adage in the martial arts world: Wherever there is a fight, the true martial arts master is not there. While this statement seems contradictory, a true martial arts master is utterly aware of his surroundings, sees the altercation beginning to foment, and leaves the vicinity. Others are left to get into trouble and clean up the mess. A master takes the safest route and evades. While many martial artists train to evade an attack, deliver a counterattack, and hold their own in a fight, it is worth studying about situational awareness and evading a situation altogether.

Look for warning signs (like the old Westerns when the bad guy walks in to the saloon and everything, including the piano man, stops). If a crowd all seems to focus on the same thing or same person, or certain people seem to command a wide berth from passerby’s and they don’t look too happy, there’s a chance that some type of trouble is brewing. An anxious yet hushed ambiance is a tell tale sign of impending trouble. The time to leave is now.

Unfortunately, people don’t always get to be proactive about changing their environment. Things can transform from normalcy to danger in a moment’s notice. The Virginia Tech and Columbine tragedies are stark examples of how a normal day at class can turn into a nightmare scenario instantly. In times like these, the best option can be to evade. To leave the area of danger, and put as much cover and concealment between you and the aggressor as possible in the least amount of time while doing so.

Most people spend their days in very common and known areas. Their house, dormitory, school, workplace, etc. They learn these areas and their way around. That knowledge can be a life saver if the environment turns dangerous. Having multiple escape routes out multiple exits can help to evade an attacker. Having well established barricade rooms can help a person hole up until help arrives. Knowing where things are that can be used as improvised weapons may be useful. Knowing places to hide may be a last resort.

At home, know what areas provide cover from other areas. Know which second floor windows lead to a ledge to get out of the house instead of a 15 foot drop. Know what defense items are where, and know how to get from anywhere to anywhere else while avoiding a third point.

When in locations such as the workplace, look around. Observe what hallways lead to where. Note which rooms have other exits, and what hallways they deploy into. Know the little access halls, maintenance areas, and what is in these places. If at a workplace, volunteer for the facility’s Safety Team. Get access to floor plans and become familiar with layouts. If this is possible, know which walls are flimsy drywall and which are more permanent.

Carry some Everyday Carried Items that can be useful for defense and are permissible in these environments. Lastly, know where the tornado shelters, fire alarms, and extinguishers are, as well as how to use them. Danger does not always come on two feet. Location knowledge includes emergency tools.

Evasion may occur via automobile. For routes to common destinations, know side roads, back ways, parking lots that can be cut through, and dead ends to avoid. In dangerous situations, think about dropping the “safe driving” paradigm. Can a yard be cut through to get to the next street? How fast can  an off ramp be taken at the last second to avoid a tailgater?

Successful evasion involves stealth, cover, concealment, and/or distance. Learn to use them all, and where to get to to use them, to avoid danger.

Situational Awareness

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 As these articles are able to be retrieved from old web caches, they will be posted here.

Situational Awareness

originally published 14FEB2011 on

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.