As preparedness people, you already recognize that practicing self and situational awareness is essential to survival in today’s world as well as in a post SHTF world.
Also, as ‘preppers’, we know that with proper awareness and some common sense, most potentially dangerous situations can be avoided.
As survivalists, you already know that having a basic emergency response plan with backup contingency plans is also essential to survival in today’s world as well as in a SHTF event.
Of course, the goal is to raise your level of everyday awareness to the point where you will instinctively recognize when a quickly evolving situation requires the activation of your response plan.
The purpose of this article is to review the basics of self and situational awareness and to apply the ‘O.O.D.A. Loop’ concept to enhance your ability to quickly recognize dangerous scenarios developing and make decisions on how to act or react to them.
Table of Contents
Self and Situational Awareness
The topics of self and situational awareness are subjects of much discussion and instruction throughout the preparedness community. However, for the purposes of this article, we will keep things simple.
Self-awareness is simply being cognizant of where you are and what you are doing. It is paying attention to your actions and words as you do and say them. Better yet, it is giving some thought no matter how brief, to what you will do or say before you do or say them.
Quite literally, it is thinking before you do anything. It is about ‘being in the moment’ and not daydreaming or operating on ‘autopilot’. It is about focusing on what you are doing and paying attention to the details.
Self-awareness concerns how you operate in the current environment which you are in and understanding your place and proximity to others in that environment as you proceed in your activities. Self-awareness is really about self-control.
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Situational awareness is being fully aware of whatever situation you may find yourself in regardless of whether it is potentially dangerous or not. Good situational awareness is not just about safety or reacting to danger, it is really about optimal performance in any given situation.
It is about exercising a certain level of control over your environment and those in it through alertness, observation, analysis, and good decision making.
The Value of a Plan
Of course, all the self and situational awareness in the world won’t do you a bit of good unless you already have a pre-conceived response or plan to deal with a potentially dangerous situation, and without consistently training for that response or plan, your execution of it may fail.
As ‘preppers’, we specialize in planning and preparing for a multitude of possible disasters.
While you may have your plans set for any number of potential doomsday disasters, are you prepared for the more mundane and more common, everyday dangers such as a mugging, a burglar in your home, being attacked by a vicious dog, etc.?
Your preconceived response or plan need not be elaborate or complicated to be effective.
In fact, simplicity and common sense is preferable to multi-step or faceted plans in situations where you may only have a second or two to act or react. This is where training and mental rehearsals come into play.
The Value of Training
Effective training will assist you in properly observing, analyzing, and responding to a threat. Your training must become encoded into your long-term memory and unconscious mind so that your reaction to certain stimuli or situations becomes a “learned automatic response”.
The conscious mind is slow while the subconscious mind is fast.
The objective of tactical training is to encode into your subconscious mind a set of skilled responses that will become instinctive so when you observe and recognize a threat, you will bypass the usual decision-making process by already knowing what action to take.
In times of stress, you will automatically revert to your training. If you have also been mentally rehearsing various possible scenarios you will perform better with more skill and confidence if the scenario does happen.
It can make your reaction instinctive, automatic, and therefore, faster.
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Action versus Reaction
Dedication to continuous training, mental awareness, and preparation, can make the difference between ‘acting’ versus just ‘reacting’.
It is always better to ‘act’ than ‘react’.
Although recent studies may have called into question the old adage that action is faster than reaction, I still believe that all things being considered, acting is usually a better tactical option than reacting.
By taking action, you set or ‘re-set’ the pace, direction, and character of the encounter.
By acting you take the initiative and the advantage away from your adversary. By taking action, you are acting according to your plan, not his. This does not mean that you have to always make the first aggressive move. Rather, this is about having a preplanned course of action to unleash upon your adversary should his actions require such a response.
What is the O.O.D.A. Loop?
The O.O.D.A. Loop is a mental tool or decision cycle for a fast-changing environment so you can operate at a faster tempo or rhythm than your adversaries.
The O.O.D.A. Loop was developed by a military strategist and former fighter pilot, USAF Colonel John Boyd. The acronym O.O.D.A. stands for:
It is referred to as a ‘loop’ because it is a continuous feedback loop process. There are a plethora of online articles that go into very in-depth analysis of the O.O.D.A. Loop for both military and business applications and strategies.
However, many of these articles are a bit too complicated and abstract. The breakdown in this article is primarily based upon what I was taught and have used over the past 35 years in law enforcement.
I learned about the O.O.D.A. Loop as part of my tactical training in law enforcement and consequently, I understand its application to police street survival scenarios.
If it can be successfully used by the police, it can also be successfully used by civilians in the street.
The O.O.D.A. Loop starts with keen observation skills.
To develop such skills, you must always be practicing self and situational awareness. You must always have a sense that anything can happen anywhere at any time.
Consequently, you must always be scanning your environment for potential trouble. Your vision must be at least 180 degrees and your awareness level 360 degrees in scope.
This constant scanning for trouble does not mean you have to be hyper-stressed or paranoid. Instead, operate in what is called ‘condition yellow’. Condition ‘yellow’ is a relaxed, very alert state of mind and is part of a color-coded tactical awareness continuum referred to as the Cooper Color Code.
That color-coded, tactical awareness continuum consists of condition ‘white’ which is the lowest level of awareness and indicates a state of mind oblivious to your environment, condition ‘yellow’ which is relaxed alertness, condition ‘orange’ for when you actually identify a potential danger and start considering your response options, and condition ‘red’ for when you must act to either avoid or neutralize the threat.
Some tactical courses include a condition ‘black’ which designates a condition when the person is panicked or overwhelmed and does nothing or the wrong thing.
Obviously, you never want to be in condition ‘black’ and condition ‘white’ is only acceptable when you are sleeping in your bed.
Using the O.O.D.A. Loop
The O.O.D.A. Loop is designed to facilitate a smooth, seamless, and fast transition from your observations to your analysis/orienting to your tactical decision to taking action and back again to your observations of the results of your action to start the process again, if need be, before you adversary can catch up.
As already discussed, the process begins with the proper situational awareness mindset and your observational skills. Observational skills can be greatly improved through training and most of all, practice in everyday surroundings.
However, one must know what to look for. What should we be looking for? That is part of the ‘Orient’ process and depends upon a number of variables such as the location/venue, the day of time, your reason for being, the type of crowd that frequents the location, etc.
In future discussions, we will examine what to be looking for in various venues such as stores, malls, bars, restaurants, concerts, schools, sporting events, parking lots and garages, banks, public streets, etc., but for now, we will generally categorize our objective as looking for anything out of the ordinary such as:
- People who appear agitated, angry, loud, nervous, scared, drunk or high
- People making verbal threats or gestures towards anyone
- People who are armed or are ‘patting’ a bulge in their pocket or waist area
- People obviously dressed to conceal their identities or weapons
- People who are following, stalking, or staring at you
- People who are trying divert or attract attention from or to themselves
- People acting or looking suspicious or out of place
- People who by their dress and/or demeanor appear to be part of a gang
Of course, any type of disturbance or activity that is potentially threatening or is not ‘normal’ to that venue should be a red flag.
An excellent article about the O.O.D.A. Loop and situational awareness, titled “How to Develop the Situational Awareness of Jason Bourne”, discusses the importance of establishing “baselines and anomalies” for the environment you are in.
Basically, establishing a baseline means knowing what type of activity and conduct is ‘normal’ or ‘abnormal’ for that venue. Anything considered not normal may be a red flag signaling possible trouble.
Beware of “normalcy bias” which is the tendency for most people to wrongly interpret suspicious activity or underestimate the dangerousness of people or events as either ‘normal’ or that it will be dealt with in the usual and normal way by the authorities without action by the observer.
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Orient, Decide, and Action
Once you have identified a potential threat and have gone from condition yellow to condition orange, it is time to proceed to the next phase in the loop which is the ‘orient’ or analysis process of the threat.
Many tactical authors state that Colonel Boyd considered the ‘orient’ phase to be the most important because it shapes the way we observe, the way we decide, the way we act, etc.
Many experts define our orientation in this context as “the repository of our genetic heritage, cultural traditions, and previous experiences”.
I would include training and mental rehearsals within that definition as well. I imagine Colonel Boyd chose the word ‘orient’ rather than the word ‘analysis’ to describe this phase to impress upon students that this situational evaluation was to be completed quickly within a second or less as opposed to a careful, methodical analysis of the situation.
Paralysis by over-analysis was to be avoided.
The only way such an evaluation can be completed that quickly is if the observer is already pre-disposed or ‘oriented’ towards an automatic, pre-conceived response to a specific stimulus or signal.
Only through consistent training and mental rehearsals can such automatic response be programmed into our conscious and subconscious minds.
Once the orient phase has been completed, it is time to make the decision what to do which places you in condition red. As with the orient phase, this phase is completed within a second or less. This is possible because your training has programmed you to respond by selecting from a pre-determined set of limited action options.
The fewer emergency options you have, the faster you can decide on one.
Which programmed action option is chosen depends solely upon the stimulus or signal to your brain based upon your observation/orienting of your adversary’s actions such as if he goes for his gun, you pull yours first and shoot or if an exit is nearby, you flee the location.
The action you take is instantaneous with your decision to take it.
The O.O.D.A. Loop is all about getting the jump on the ‘bad guy’ by acting first based upon your superior situational awareness.
In many ways, the O.O.D.A. Loop is a refined and controlled version of our inherent and instinctive ‘fight or flight’ survival response. The ability to harness and direct such a natural and adrenaline-fueled response and combining it with superior situational awareness makes sense and creates a powerful weapon.