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Situational Awareness – A Foundational Element in Protective Operations and other Security Related Fields

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While the term Situational Awareness has been bantered around for decades, there appears to be more focus on this topic lately and for good reason. Everyone needs to start with situational awareness (SA) as a foundational aspect of personal safety. SA concepts and application are the important elements to be mastered before a person can move on to more specific personal safety elements such as de-escalation, conflict management, physical self-defense, and of course, security services and protective operations. Without a thorough understanding of the foundational aspects of situational awareness, our more advanced security efforts will be negatively affected.

With that in mind, let’s do an overview of some of the key areas that make situational awareness a foundational element. This is not a deep dive into each of the concepts – that is something that needs to be done in a class and then applied in the real world. Like driving, no one becomes good at situational awareness by reading about it – you must “do it” and experience it in the actual environment.

Situational Awareness

We begin with an understanding of the main concepts of situational awareness. The sociological definition of situational awareness is “the perception of environmental elements with respect to time and/or space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status after some variable has changed.”

A more relatable definition is it is “being mindful” of your environment.

This is more than just being aware of what is in your environment and what is happening around you. It is taking in environmental information (both people and objects), comparing it to what you already know and then using it to understand what is happeningputting it into context.  We then use that context during any decision-making processes.

To realistically deal with danger we need to adjust our thought processes. Specifically, we need to create a survival mindset. This is a mental frame of reference that recognizes that there are threats in the world and allows us to deliberately adjust and commit to doing anything necessary to survive.

Finally, we need to plan and prepare for any actions that are required to ensure our survival. This is done by first examining our conscious and unconscious beliefs and adjusting them so that they will help us survive instead of distracting us when we are under threat. One of these beliefs relates to our tendency to deny the fact that bad things can happen. We change this belief to a more realistic view that bad things can and do happen to people.  This change in belief will manifest in our attitude – we will become more capable rather than sinking into vulnerability.

We also need to understand “what is awareness”. This is the actual mental state where we are using all our senses to examine, analyze, and understand our environment and the things and people in it. There are some technical features and characteristics of being “in the moment”.  Therefore, we feel awareness is the primary tool that we have at our disposal to become situationally aware and to recognize danger.

Awareness is not a static state – it changes. We need to understand that we will move thru different awareness levels depending upon the environment and the circumstances. These are often referred to as the “Color Codes” as described by Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper.  Lastly, we need to understand how we process information and make decisions as described by Colonel John Boyd in his four-point decision – the OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act).  This model, also known as the decision cycle, supports quick, effective, and proactive decision-making. All of which are necessary components when dealing with a threat.


Every environment varies when it comes to threats, and we need to do the research and keep current on all possible and probable threats in our environment (to include natural disasters as well as human threats). If we do not learn about the threats in our environment and the possible threats in places we may travel to, it is almost impossible to recognize the threat early enough to effectively avoid it or mitigate it.

With the internet at our fingertips and government and private industry threat reporting entities available, it takes little time to create an accurate threat analysis – and only by learning the threat environment can we have any chance of creating adequate plans to deal with potential danger in our lives.

Threat Behaviors

Learning what the threats are in our environment is only useful intellectually. We need to know and understand the actual behavioral characteristics of the most common threats so we will be able to recognize the early warning signs/associated behaviors before the threat can manifest (close with and engage us).

Since humans are one of the main threats to our safety and they are so complicated, we need to use all our communication and behavioral knowledge to focus on and recognize suspect behaviors.

Personal Capabilities

Another aspect we cannot ignore is our own personal capability. We need to learn and understand our own personal strengths and weaknesses and then continuously strive to add capabilities thru training and experience such as taking classes in situational awareness, de-escalation, physical self-defense, etc.

Security Related Fields

Any personnel who provide security and safety services exist to address any possible/potential threats as a part of their duties. This includes people working in security guard services, law enforcement, the military, and in protective operations.


Protective Operations

Focusing on the protective operations world, the field of executive protection is defined as a set of measures and tactics used to protect individuals, assets, and information from potential harm or threat. And protective operations involve the execution of planning and activities with the goal being to provide the highest level of protection as possible for our clients.  Some of the key foundational concepts of protective operations include threat assessments, risk management, intelligence gathering, contingency planning, communications, and training and preparedness.

In every one of these areas, situational awareness is a required component, and the success of these protective efforts is directly related to a practitioner’s ability to apply situational core competencies in the accomplishment of these tasks.

For example, to conduct an accurate threat assessment, a protective operations agent must be able to examine the environment for significant threats and document the specific behaviors and characteristics associated with these threats. The most basic skill in this area can be described as the ability to know and recognize baselines and anomalies.

When it comes to risk management, once the threats have been assessed, protective agents must develop a risk management plan that outlines strategies for mitigating or reducing the identified risks. This may involve implementing physical security measures, such as access controls or surveillance systems or adopting cybersecurity measures like firewalls and data encryption.

One could easily define situational awareness as the continuous process of intelligence gathering, analysis and action.  In protective operations, agents are required to engage in intelligence gathering to stay informed about potential threats and identify emerging risks. This includes monitoring social media and other online platforms, analyzing news reports, and developing human intelligence sources.

Another necessary component of protective operations is the communication of important information to other members of the team, to management, and to the organization. To be able to effectively apply situational awareness skills in circumstances or situations that involve more than an individual’s personal safety, protective operations team members must be able to communicate effectively.  Effective communication is a critical aspect, both within the protective team and with external stakeholders. This includes clear and concise communication of threats, risks, and contingency plans, as well as coordination with law enforcement and other first responders.


The successful “operational” application of situational awareness is only possible if an individual receives continuous training (skills and knowledge) as well as engaging in planning and preparedness activities.  This is an absolutely priority in protective operations as agents must be able to avoid, mitigate or stop threats.

Besides our core protective operations curriculum, we should be taking additional classes in de-escalation and conflict management, as well as first aid courses such as Stop the Bleed and Tactical Combat Casualty Care (TCCC). We can then factor all these capabilities into our reaction strategies. For example, we can train to incorporate these abilities into our “Attack On Principal” (AOP) emergency plans.

Ideally, we will incorporate these skills into scenario-based training. For example, training could begin with a reaction to a verbal altercation, where we attempt to de-escalate the situation, but the encounter evolves into a physical altercation or firearms response followed by the application of advanced first aid.

This has been a quick review of some key aspects of situational awareness that directly relate to protective operations. It is by no means a comprehensive list of the aspects and attributes needed to maximize our ability to deal with potential threats, but it does remind us how critically important situational awareness is as a starting point and how it should be incorporated into protective operations curriculum.

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