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Situational Awareness | Personal Safety Advice
“Situational Awareness - just how tuned in are you to your surroundings?”
Sat Rayit, Protective Services Manager (Asia)
With carjacking, moped robberies, muggings and chemical/acid attacks on the rise, we look at personal awareness, some basic steps you can take and put in to practice to heighten your personal and situational awareness – making you less likely to become a victim of street crime.
In the UK in 2016, there were 352 chemical/acid attacks and, with a rise in gun crime, seeing of 6,375 recorded offences and 34,703 incidents of knife crime. These attacks happen as part of organised or random targeting – making it hard to know when such are going to occur.
Over the years there has been a lot of research on Victim Mentality, and like nonverbal indicators, personal traits that a lot of us display. Whether we know it or not, our actions and behaviour lend themselves to us being more likely to become a victim of crime.
The majority of the time, a criminal or group of criminals will choose this or her victim within a few seconds; looking for an easy target, someone weak, someone not switched on, someone who is not going to fight back and put up resistance.
So, how do you reduce the chance of becoming a victim?
“The perception of environmental elements and events with respect to time or space…”
There are several environmental factors to consider when exploring the subject of situational awareness that have a great impact on how we will view the threats around us and our reactions to any that present themselves.
Not all of these factors are applicable as each situation is individual and will have different contributing factors.
London Moped Gangs and how they choose victims
While we will discuss each point in more detail, the above video shows how victims are targeted, mainly because they are not switched on to their surroundings, distracted and are not situationally aware.
The most common factor in situational awareness are:
The time of day
One of the major factors in situational awareness is the time of day. Walking around, we tend to forget that at different times of day, a place will vary a great deal. A place that is safe during the day may be a very different story after dark, for example carparks; bustling hives of activity during the day, but often attracting unsavoury types during the hours of darkness.
Subconsciously ask yourself both of those questions: What time are you out? Is it early or late? One of our strongest primary senses of survival is that of sight, based on this, the majority of the population, as human nature dictates, are more fearful at night or in the dark.
The art of situational awareness is being in tune with our surroundings/environment and our senses attuned – be more aware not quite hyper-vigilant, just more aware!
In essence, even if it is in your locality – darkness is not always safe – think about the time of year. The chances of attacks increase around holiday periods, as we carry more valuables – be it shopping, cash, or presents. Keep it simple – travel in a car, get a lift, pre-order a taxi. Use public transport as a last resort, only when it is absolutely essential as a last resort, or if there is one that would immediately remove you from that situation/area.
How long are you out for? In the close protection industry, we often state that the transit times are when the potential risks are the greatest, even crossing roads, as illustrated in the video, this is due to the increase in variables that we cannot always control.
Duration is, with all the best will in the world, not always within our control and we might often find ourselves out for longer than expected. We need to be prepared to adapt dynamically and assess as duration changes. A question to ask might be: can the journey be done in another manner- perhaps with another accompanying? Longer journeys, especially in the dark, increase vulnerability. So, ask yourself - is it a necessary journey? If yes, then think about the next factor: environment.
Environment is something that can influence – if you chose to be in that location, can you be somewhere safer?
Environments are constantly changing and often where we can play the strength in numbers game “It’s dark but there are lots of people about – I’ll be ok.”. True, but that doesn’t mean much when you add mobility, speed, fear, disguise, surprise, and violence - enter the moped gangs.
Organised gangs thrive because they constantly use the changing environment of busy streets, shopping centres or areas, where they are able to capitalise on environmental and situational distractions.
When you add environment to the above factors of time and duration, we start to formulate a better situational awareness and see the bigger picture.
One of the most important elements is how we behave in relation to the above three factors.
Do the above three factors introduce stress? Yes? How do we cope with that stress and how does that affect our thinking and reactions under stress?
When we are put under stress, our nervous system tells our bodies to produce a cocktail of chemicals, releasing stress hormones including adrenaline, cortisol and noradrenaline. These chemicals produce physiological changes that assist in us coping with threatening or hazardous situations. This is called the “stress response” or the “fight-or-flight” response. A great article on the subject by James P. Henry, can be found here: Biological basis of the stress response.
We are all very different when it comes to “stress response”, there are those that are exposed to stress through training or other methods on a regular basis. This makes it easier to deal with, when in such situations. However, the majority are not exposed to this and guess what? That’s right, they freeze.
The evolution of technology has impacted on our personal behaviour in both public and private environments.
For example, will constantly looking at your telephone screen distract you? Will it draw attention to you?
Do I really need my phone out? Can you just have one ear-piece in? Your ears allow you to hear what is around you, so allow your senses to work!
Our senses are so important to situational awareness, it is important not to hinder them – the more in tune we are gives our senses a chance to react to any threats.
As can be seen in the above video, both sight and hearing are distracted due to use of a mobile device, detaching the targeted individual from their surroundings.
Taking action – personal safety
Once we are more in control of our situational awareness, we can take evasive action. If you walk down the pavement towards a lamppost, providing you are looking ahead, you can change your path with each step. If you are looking down, you have to take immediate evasive actions and in doing so, you lose some control.
Fight or flight?
Everyone talks of fight or flight, but not enough about fright. As humans, we also have reptilian aspects to our make-up, given the right stimuli, we will disperse.
Apply this to the classic film of the kung-fu student trying to catch a chicken in a coup. The chickens run randomly and sporadically because they are confused. Now apply that to us as humans faced with attack. We react the same – unless we are prepared or trained. Thus, if prepped, dare I say it? “Professional chickens” as good friend said. You may chuckle – pardon the pun, but the experienced chicken is the one who knows the evasive tactics – where to hide, duck and if robust will heckle the others to follow suit. Makes sense now, doesn’t it?
Fighting is never the best option, flight gives you more control- unless you are trained in self-defence or a martial art. Even then you need to understand your restraints and act within the law, trained security professionals including Bodyguards can even get this wrong, as discussed in one of our previous articles: Use of Force as a Bodyguard.
The problem we have as humans is that we walk around in our personal bubbles, distracted and with a narrow focus, as we are programmed for self-preservation and have an element of selfishness about us - not a bad thing but this changes dramatically when we visit the next factor, introducing a third party.
Third Parties - Friends and loved ones.
During an ‘event’, the chemical cocktail of “stress response” is still taking place, except now we have the variable factor of other people - Self-preservation is now coupled with protecting others. The reptilian brain kicks in as we have a pack to protect, where we are the dominant or deemed protector.
“The needs of the many outweighs the needs of the few” - Spock
Let them take your wallet, gifts, etc; better to lose the battle and not the war!
In this pack situation often, the urge to fight or desist attackers outweighs the need to remove yourself from the situation – this is of course a false sense security.
Whatever your action/reaction, your priority should be preservation of life; to remove yourself and others from the threat.
What we are doing wrong?
The aggressor(s) may be organised or conduct random attacks, but we also have an element to play in this. We need to prepare and realise that this will happen to us if we remain unprepared and not situationally aware.
Personal safety advice
Of course, while this list is not exhaustive, it does cover many key areas.
Always try to be aware of your surroundings.
If your hands are in your pockets, you cannot react quickly.
Stop carrying items in back pockets or outside jacket pockets, if they are expensive items or wallets. Stop giving them opportunities!
Be more aware of how you might use your telephone in the street. Wear one ear piece or none. Do not get on to your phone as soon as you get off the bus, train, tube, or taxi.
If you answer or use your phone in the street or pavement, try to do it in a safe area such as a shop, restaurant or well-lit doorway.
If you feel unsafe or think you are being followed, again, pop into the nearest shop or restaurant for a break or shelter, enabling you to reassess the situation.
Get the other people in your group to also be aware. Keep children and the vulnerable on the inside of the pavement; it shields from road side attacks.
Carry a bottle of water for safety, medical and defensive uses.
Sometimes it’s better to get a taxi rather than to put yourself at risk for the sake of a taxi fare.
Make use of your air conditioning, you do not always need the windows open.
If your windows are open, just be aware that you should use your mirrors to see any oncoming traffic that may be a risk to passing you. If this is the case, keep your windows closed or if you must keep them open, employ hostile tactics by only keeping them open a maximum of 2 inches. This makes it harder for someone to get their hand in or to do the fine motor skill of sticking something through the window.
If slowing down or stationery in traffic keep your distance from the vehicle in front. Make sure you can see the brake lights and the tyres. Also keep your tyres turned to a direction where you are able to manoeuvre the vehicle should the need arise. Hence stay in gear with the engine running. This is something to consider with all the stop-start engines that are in circulation at the moment.
When in a vehicle, think about putting your handbags or valuable items not in the backseat but rather in the boot. In terms of mobile phones chargers and wallets, keep them off your passenger seat, put them into the glove compartment or under the car seat.
During the holiday Seasons or late at night, it is also advisable not to have your jewellery on show where possible, such as the Rolex watch, the expensive diamond ring/bracelet. More and more people are being followed, especially if they are seen as potentially being high-net-worth or having valuable goods on their person.
If you are carrying large amounts of cash, do not have them in the same pocket. Be aware of the places you are putting them in, especially if in a vehicle for safety purposes.
I would also advocate the use of the widely available secure RFID wallets. They are available in a variety of designs, which are both practical and pleasing to the eye - even for the fashion divas amongst us!
Make sure you have enough fuel in your car, if not, always make sure you have at least a can in the rear boot.
Another tip is to always carry a spare phone on your person or if able, in your car, which has a list of essential numbers in case your phone is broken, lost, stolen, or the battery has died.
Admittedly, this is something that is not second nature to a lot of people, even though they think it is. Hence why at Intelligent Protection International Limited, we provide services such as concierge, personal and close protection.
I can successfully say I have run out of fingers of the amount of times that by employing the above as a personal protection officer, has resulted in the safety of individuals. From reading back through the advice, this is just a summary, but we take this and a lot more in terms of safety on behalf of the client, which puts them at ease and allows them to carry on with their busy, yet productive lives. In conclusion the key is preparation, caution and staying safe having personal awareness.