Situational Awareness: Without This Skill You May Not Survive

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From the extensive list of skills necessary to survive (and not only in SHTF), situational awareness is perhaps the one needed the most to stay alive in the first place. Even with the 7 Pillars of Urban Preparedness in place, no amount of food, ammo, or other ability will matter much to someone caught with their head in the clouds in a disaster or attack.

And that holds true not only in SHTF. Even when things are normal, there are dangers of all kinds lurking. Here I’m talking about the urban environment in particular. As Selco and I both say: The majority of us actually live in urban settings, so there is a reason why we need to pay more attention to preparing for urban survival. Cities are heterogeneous places. The sheer density and variety of people, vehicles, buildings, and structures, the multitude of systems and activities simultaneously taking place day and night – all that (and more) poses its own set of threats to our physical, financial and psychological integrity.

What is situational awareness?

In simple terms, it’s the ability to be aware of everything that’s happening around us. More specifically, it’s the perception of the environment and its elements, the understanding of its components, and the projection of possible scenarios. Everything considered I’d say situational awareness is more a mindset than a skill. 

Unlike animals in the wilderness, we don’t need awareness to find food or water in the city (maybe not yet, perhaps when the SHTF). But it’s extremely useful to navigate the various threats of the urban context. Being aware is the best way to avoid dangerous situations.

As Toby points out in the 7th Pillar-Personal Safety:

If you know there is a bad situation going down, don’t be there. That is as safe as you can be. For whatever reason, many people struggle with the “curiosity killed the cat: type thing. They just can’t help but head towards trouble just to see what’s going on. Don’t do it. The goal here is to stay alive and uninjured and as functional as possible. Avoiding trouble is a massive leap in the right direction toward that goal. 

The easy times are over: a fast-changing world demands higher levels of awareness

Those with a keen sense of reality know for a fact that in reality, it’s never been “easy” or completely safe anywhere. Even the most civilized cities located in the most advanced countries have hot spots, areas where it’s more dangerous than the average surroundings. Poverty, drug consumption, and trafficking – crime in general – may be more or less prevalent depending on the place, but they exist everywhere. The world is inherently dangerous. 

The level and depth of the changes society is currently undergoing always bring uncertainty and turbulence. Besides the shifts in the economy and the pandemic, there are many geopolitical, migrational, and demographic transformations taking place simultaneously. These changes affect distinct parts of society in different degrees and manners and contribute to aggravating the problem. 

Inequality is dry powder. These larger issues seep through and end up directly impacting our everyday life. Thinking “this won’t happen where I live” is the wrong mentality, especially for a prepper. It’ll happen everywhere, more in some places than others, but everything is connected today, and the current crisis is global. 

With the situation deteriorating, it’s expected that life in cities will turn more dangerous as time passes. Joblessness and homelessness on the rise will bring a spike in drug use and traffic, criminality, and social unrest. Other factors such as inflation, shortages, and disruptions may compound.

Those with their head in the clouds are easy prey

Lady Gaga recently had her dogs snatched from the walker at gunpoint. A reporter crew investigating a series of car break-ins in San Francisco had their camera robbed at gunpoint too. Think of that for a moment. These and other kinds of exploits were almost unheard-of in the U.S. for decades. But they are prevalent in 3rd world/developing countries: that and a lot more. 

Situations like these are what preppers like Jose and I have been warning about for years. Scams, swindles, and frauds will become more frequent, creative, and varied. The worse it gets, the more people get desperate. Consequently, there are more and more people resorting to criminal activities, both physical and digital. By the way, this is a bit off-topic but something to be aware of, too: cyberspace is ripe for all kinds of crimes. Why does it matter? Because it’s not enough to be situationally aware in the “real world” anymore. It’s equally important to be vigilant about our “digital life” as well. 

The “don’t be a victim” mentality. It’s a fact of life: predators of all kinds exist everywhere. There’s always someone around looking for opportunities to take advantage of. Even as a prepper, I don’t think this is a reason to live in an eternal state of paranoia or fear. As I’ll explain in the next chapter, we should apply the various levels of attentiveness according to the situation we find ourselves in. 

The surprise element is a significant advantage for criminals, even violent or armed ones: if they can catch someone unaware, their odds of a dangerous confrontation or some response from the victim, other people, or the authorities are significantly reduced.

Distracted people are also more prone to accidents of all kinds. I’m not even talking about full-SHTF here: with the situation getting crazier and changes coming fast our way all from all sides, I can assure you the threat-o-meter is about to go up a few notches, and quickly. When the money dries out, maintenance and personal safety cease being priorities. That leads to an increase in accidents and disasters.

Understanding the extent and connectedness of things is vital

I’m no expert, just a regular person who’s been into preparedness and survival for some time. By that, I mean achieving a higher level of situational awareness is within everyone’s reach. No one has to be a Jason Bourne: ordinary people anywhere can benefit from an increased sense of perception and judgment of the surroundings. (OP’s own 1st Marine Jarhead shared his experience and observations with OPSEC and Situational Awareness here.) 

I decided to focus on the urban environment for this article because it’s also my “training ground,” where I do my street survival routine. Which, to be honest, has development and practice of situational awareness as one of the main objectives. Walking and spending time in the streets and public spaces is one of the best and most efficient ways to develop and practice situational awareness. Many of the principles of situational awareness can be applied anywhere, with some adaptation.

I’ll start by listing the many dangers present in the urban environment, split into ‘categories’ according to my own viewing and understanding. In the next part, I’ll talk about how we can develop and practice this all too important survival skill, which has worked for me and others to whom I give prepping and survival guidance.

Physical Threats

We, as humans, are our own biggest threat.

If you think zombies don’t exist (yet), look around. They are the ones with eyes glued to a smartphone and can-type headphones over their heads all the time. They won’t attack or try to eat us (though they may stumble upon us inadvertently). Either way, this means there are many people out there with their two primary senses impaired and willfully tuned out. Even when crossing streets, driving, riding trains, cycling, or circulating in dangerous places. They represent a risk to themselves and others.

It’s a modern disease and a receipt for disaster. A 2018 research by Motus found that “…as smartphone ownership skyrocketed from 55 percent in 2013 to 77 percent in 2017, the number of accidents escalated from 5.7 million to 6.4 million, an increase of 12.3 percent”. That’s talking about car accidents only.

Smartphones and selfies kill almost five times more people than sharks.

Other research in Korea in 2017 also found interesting results in everyday situations: “Compared with normal users, participants who were addicted to smartphones were more likely to have experienced any accidents, falling from height/slipping, and bumps/collisions… This finding highlighted the need for increased awareness of the risk of accidents with smartphone addiction.”

The “deadly selfie” is a recent phenomenon, and it’s grown exponentially in recent years. Between 2011 and 2017, it killed, on average, 37 per year, according to a global study published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine in 2018. For comparison, the average number of fatal shark attacks between 2011‒2015 was 8.

Impaired ability to pay attention to surroundings can result in injury

No one needs scientists and researchers to tell that attention to surroundings gets impaired when using smartphones. But those are extreme examples. There are other risks in living and circulating unaware around town.

We can be hit by a car or another vehicle (or hit one), stumble into an obstacle or fall on a gap or pothole, get slammed by an opening door, or step on dog (or someone else’s) poop. I haven’t even started with all the other risks present on train and metro stations, staircases, public sporting courts, and even buildings and places considered relatively safe. The list of potential hazards is long. 

The result of those accidents can vary too, from just a scare to an injury or even death. No one wants to get injured, of course. But while in normal times it can be just a nuisance (even though there’s always the risk of a permanent or disabling injury), during SHTF, when help and support are usually impaired, an injury (even minor) can mean game over. 

Situational Threats

Think life in the city is predictable? Think again!

Most people believe that life in the city is stable and predictable. It may be to some extent, depending on where in the world you live. But upon closer inspection, we realize that situations are very fluid and unstable in every urban environment. The number of people, vehicles, places, multiple systems, and simultaneous activities and interactions taking place all the time implies a large number of risks.

Medium and large cities are a lot more diverse than smaller or rural towns. The variety and complexity of national, political, racial, religious, sexual, cultural, economic, and social representations co-existing in the same space is a big bonus during normal times. But it can turn into attrition and potential conflict if a disaster or some other undesired situation happens.

SHTF doesn’t have to be a “prepper’s wet dream” big-scale disaster. I’ve been through some near-SHTFs here, as told in other posts and my books. It can be a simple overhaul in the water supply system, as described in my book’s closing chapter, to highlight the importance of situational awareness. Frequently, it’s the sum of two causes: one natural and one grid-related, as we saw happen in Texas. A grid-down can happen suddenly and without warning, and it can be severe and even deadly. 

Other People

Most threats and risks that are found in the urban environment are in one way or another linked to people. Everything in the city is “constructed.” But this is specifically about the actual threats posed directly by the actions of other people. There are people everywhere, and lot’s of them. I’ll split the ones posed by masses or large groups of people and smaller ones (groups) and individuals.

People in great numbers always represent a risk.

Large concentrations of people are incredibly dangerous. There are many ways to get seriously injured or even killed when in the middle of a big group. Even events that can be considered “peaceful,” such as concerts, sports, parties, religious gatherings, and so on, represent a threat. 

Most times, everything goes fine for the most part. But the danger is in the count of people, not the nature of the event. The larger the crowd, the bigger the risks. Crowd mentality and behavior are an issue in itself. Herd behavior is unpredictable and powerful, hard to manage. Once it explodes, it’s very hard or even impossible to control.

There’s also the risk of large groups becoming targets to mass shooters, police raids, gang attacks, sweep-robberies. We call the later “arrastões” here in Brazil when a group of thugs (usually kids and teens) raid a concentration of people stuck in traffic or a place or event. Any of those can spark panic and turn into a stampede.

Varying risks in smaller groups can happen anywhere at anytime.

Smaller groups and individual threats include gangs and gang members, drug dealers and users, robbers, sporting event-goers, and team fans. Agitators in general, solicitors and panhandlers, beggars, violent immigrants, sexual predators, pedophiles, extremists, and radicals are included in this category. The risks are various too. This category is a bit more random and unpredictable because of the smaller numbers and variety of threats: they can happen anywhere and anytime, and anyone can be a target.

At this point, I’ll quote Daisy and highly recommend the reading of Rory Miller and Lawrence A. Kane’s excellent Scaling Force for invaluable knowledge on the topic. They have other books on urban violence, too, great for normal to slow-burning SHTF times. Another source of real-life-based expertise on the subject is Fernando “Ferfal” Aguirre in his street survival skills books based on his experience during the collapse of Argentina in 2001. There are videos on the internet with highly experienced experts dissecting the issue and situations (just beware of the B.S. money grabbing crap). Selco also has a lot published about violence in the context of SHTF too. 

The two things all these works have in common are the importance of situational awareness and escalation avoidance. Both are much better alternatives to dealing directly with problems.

Infrastructure

Many risks are posed by poor or decaying infrastructure (public and private).

Infrastructure is a huge factor in the city. Along with the dense population, it’s the most significant difference between the wilderness and the urban environment. By infrastructure I mean the entirety of buildings, streets, sidewalks; also overpasses, bridges, tunnels, lamp posts, metro and train stations and lines, elevators, and stairs. 

Underground infrastructure is a factor too, hidden from view but functioning nonstop to keep the Grid working: water and sewage pipes, drainage systems, heating and cooling, electricity and telecommunications galleries, and so on. The internet is rife with footage of sidewalks exploding, tubes and parts of buildings falling, bridges collapsing, water pipes bursting, construction accidents. There is a lot more that can happen in the context of a big city.

I live in a developing country with a high disregard for personal safety and infrastructure that leaves a lot to be desired. About sixty thousand people die every year in car accidents alone. It doesn’t matter much if most of those deaths result from reckless driving or impaired signaling and road conditions. It just proves that life can have low value and importance in certain contexts.

Infrastructure needs constant maintenance and even occasional rebuilding.

Since 2019, 12 bridges collapsed in 9 countries, including U.S. and Canada, China, and Italy. Engineering isn’t fail-proof and certainly not impervious to abuse or lack of maintenance. That works the same for buildings and any other structure built by people. Even if the supporting systems such as signaling or electricity fail, it can lead to accidents. Much of what is built in developed countries are at least 50 years old, and in many places, it lacks maintenance and care. 

Other things to keep in mind: with growth slowing and the economy falling, tax revenue will crash too. Keep an eye open for the effects on the infrastructure, both public and private. Maintenance and conservation will suffer. The fleet of vehicles used by people, professionals, and companies may also age/decay. Authorities’ oversight can become less efficient (and more corrupt), and all that combined can lead to more failures and, consequently, more accidents and tragedies. 

Natural Disasters

Never underestimate the power of Mother Nature.

The list of natural threats is quite extensive and varied. Depending on where in the world you live, you can be subject to rain, snow, lightning, hurricanes, and tornadoes, heat waves, volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis, floods, landslides, fires, and erosions. That’s a lot, and I’m sure I left a lot out of this list. 

I am not trying to be gloomy. I love nature and see the world as a beautiful place. But the power of natural elements and events do pose risks and can easily and quickly become overwhelming. Water is impossible to contain, and it can cause small damage (destroy furniture, appliances, food, or contamination, for instance) or large (floods and landslides). Ditto for most other forces – fire, wind, cold – once they surge. 

Understanding how those forces act and flow, how these systems work, and their effects are crucial if we want to avoid being hit directly by disasters or escape them with success. Forecasting may be possible, though many times, these come without warning and with fury and speed. Escaping, maneuvering, going with the flow, or diverging are common tactics to deal with nature’s powerful forces. (Daisy offers excellent information for what to do before, during and after a hurricane and also what to do during a blackout in these excellent digital books.)

Stay tuned for Part 2

In the next part, I’ll talk about the levels of attentiveness, the situations, and how to develop and practice to improve situational awareness.

Let me know in the comments if there’s interest, and I’ll write more with tips on wilderness, camping, bush crafting, and rural awareness.

Have you noticed a decrease in situational awareness?

Have you noticed that people, in general, are far less aware of their surroundings than before? What are your tips for staying alert and aware? Have you ever had an issue because you weren’t paying attention? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

About Fabian

Fabian Ommar is a 50-year-old middle-class worker living in São Paulo, Brazil. Far from being the super-tactical or highly trained military survivor type, he is the average joe who since his youth has been involved with self-reliance and outdoor activities and the practical side of balancing life between a big city and rural/wilderness settings. Since the 2008 world economic crisis, he has been training and helping others in his area to become better prepared for the “constant, slow-burning SHTF” of living in a 3rd world country.

Fabian’s ebook, Street Survivalism: A Practical Training Guide To Life In The City, is a practical training method for common city dwellers based on the lifestyle of the homeless (real-life survivors) to be more psychologically, mentally, and physically prepared to deal with the harsh reality of the streets during normal or difficult times. 

You can follow Fabian on Instagram @stoicsurvivor

Situational Awareness: Without This Skill You May Not Survive
Fabian Ommar

Fabian Ommar

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  • Years ago living in L.A.,I was walking along with my Walkman plugged in my ears, singing along with the music,oblivious to everything around me. Suddenly in front of me blocking my way. Long story short, by the grace of God I lost only my Walkman and a few dollars. Please,people,pay attention to where you are,going,and who is around you. I see people today,walking around texting whoever,and nearly getting hit by a car,bumping into things,etc.

  • I am rural and go into town(2000 pop) during this COVID THING every 3-5 days. I tend to think I am alert, but probably not, I feel safe, whether I am or not I DO NOT KNOW. I go into a town of 35,000 every 7-10 days during COVID. Oh I am 76 yrs old too. I again tend to feel I am alert to things, but probably not as much as I need to be in the times we are facing. Is there a video or book that would help me to be more focused on being alert to those and what is happening around me? I think I am okay but want to do better.

    • Hi @Splish_Splash.

      From the books I’ve read on the topic of situational awareness and self-defense in urban environment, besides the ones tipped in the article (Scaling Force and Fernando Aguirre’s Street Survival books), I’d recommend “Spotting Danger Before It Spots You” by Garry Queensberry. He’s a U.S. army vet and instructor and his book is very well written and full of insights and (most important) practical “tools” to build awareness and increase

      In the second part of this article (to be published soon I believe) I give some tips and ideas on how to do that. I talk a lot about it in my book too, my entire training concept is based on situational awareness. I keep saying it’s not rocket science, a lot of situational awareness is in fact common sense and observation and anyone can do it by themselves. But these books are real-life based, time proven sources of wisdom if you’re looking for guidance.

      The ultimate way IMO would be to enlist in a specialized training course from some expert. It’s a different experience because you have the personal supervision of a specialist or team to guide you so it not only makes the whole thing safer it also speeds up the learning curve. But again IMO that would be better fitted for professionals, we’re common people trying to be a step ahead and improve our personal safety and that can be achieved by anyone with some guidance and self-training.

      Stay safe

  • Did you see the video of the woman in a City? Posted a few days ago.

    She was walking, head down, looking at her phone. She walked into the bucket of a large roadworks machine, and laid herself out flat.

    The driver was unaware of her, and subsequently reversed over her prostrate form, finishing the job.

  • During the start of covid people had an acute awareness but it has since gone away as it does with comfort.
    Now it’s back to normal where there are only two types watching. Predators and counter predators. Everyone else is oblivious.

    • @Matt in OK.

      People get complacent quickly and easily. It’s OK to get accustomed to the situation, but that implies a change in habits to live accordingly. This demands hard work, discipline, perseverance and focus. Unfortunately most long a return to the old, normal times (i.e. pre-COV19). It’s not going to happen.

  • Our family currently lives in a suburb outside of a large California city that I grew up in which has changed drastically over the years. We avoid going into the city unless we absolutely have to because it is no longer safe for Caucasian families like us. Gang members, thieves, BLM/Antifa thugs, and others with criminal intent know that they have free reign of the city knowing that they will often not be apprehended or prosecuted for any crimes they commit.

  • Great article and great advice. Amerika is turning into a third world country – face it! And act like it! Nobody is going to do you any favors on the streets anymore. Europe is learning their lesson the hard way. Stockholm, Sweden is the rape capital of the world. Why? It’s turning into a third-world country. Those nice migrants…

    • Six years as a chemical plant supervisor and fifty years in the woods hunting trained me to be fully aware of my surroundings at all times . It saved be from being robbed twice in Bogota, Colombia. It kept me from being injured by a broken hot acid line. I always use my peripheral vision to scan my surroundings. You would be amazed how quickly someone can pick up this skill.

    • @Jeff Martin while I disagree about the immigrant/migrant issue and see this movement more as a consequence of the whole situation than a cause (IMO the cause of the “thirdworldization” of the 1st world is the economic collapse), this idea is at the core of my work.

      Because I’ve been to U.S. and Europe and other places, and I live in a “developing country” (it’s been “developing” for 5 centuries but whatever…). I know how accustomed to a strong, civilized social contract more advanced societies are, and the value they give to it.

      But this is result of decades of economic strength and national growth and above all a rather small inequality. Once this disappears and the social gap widens, everything else starts to go down the drain. We’re seeing just that.

      I’ve also lived in the 70’s and 80’s (I’m 50) which means I remember how hard things were back then with stagflation and all the crap that came with it. We better prepare for at least a decade of that, because we’re going back to those difficult times I’m sure. It’s already happening.

  • My take away was not to live in a city…Not practical for most. Best advice is to, “keep your head on a swivel.” Know your environment…its free based on simple observation skills. You can pick up a lot of information if you will just look around; if it doesn’t look right it probably isn’t.

    Learn what is going around you day and night; nothing good happens after midnight. Know your neighbors which means you have to invest time to learn what they are about. Strangers in your AO; a lack of “normal people” or “normal foot traffic.”

    Ingress and egress routes; primary, secondary and tertiary movement through the places you normally go. People patterns for foot traffic, vehicle traffic, lighting conditions. Urban and Commercial! How long does it take you to travel. Having an actual watch vice a cell phone. No your cardinal directions. Navigate via well defined stars or some other landmark that can be seen day or night. Travel at night try to keep your night vision when you transition from light to dark.

    There is a lot more…first step is always always always develop the intel on where you live; know what normal is supposed to look like. That way your radar will perk up when things don’t look or feel right.

    • “nothing good happens after midnight” Agreed! I am in my 70s and that has been my strict rule for myself and my kids my whole life.

  • I’ve noticed that people don’t even look both ways before stepping off the sidewalk into a parking lot. They just walk straight out into traffic, looking straight ahead or at their phone. Yes, we have stop signs in front of stores, but after we stop we start going again and have to slam on our brakes for people. What ever happened to waiting for cars to pass before stepping out? One guy suddenly walked in front of me carrying a baby, and he wasn’t even supporting the baby’s head properly. One woman suddenly walked out in front of me from behind a large vehicle, and then stood there yelling at me, presumably for not stopping fast enough. I think if people want to step in front of traffic, that’s their prerogative, but don’t blame it on the driver.

  • I personally find watching people to be fascinating and educational! My dad used to do it when I was a small child and I hated it then! Apple didn’t fall far from the tree in any case 🙂
    We live very rural and only venture into a big city occasionally. Our closer small towns are much easier but things still happen there. If anything I have gotten much more observant over time of things going on around me and what folks are doing. Started making sure I sit in restaurants where I can see the entry and look around for other exits. Am always listening to other folks conversations, amazing what you can hear when you actively listen!
    Some very good advice in this article. One simply has to be able to think on your feet and be able to adapt to the situation at hand. Never underestimate the potential of cruelness of human nature. Cor
    Plan ahead but isn’t that the whole idea of prepping?!

  • Keeping in mind, I look like riffraff when I’m out shopping. I go all out decorating for Halloween, and since Sars2 hit, I’ve been wearing my cloth skull mask when I’m in public. If I’m going to be forced to wear a mask, I’m going to have fun with it.
    Occasionally I’ll go to a “lower end” grocery store in my area because they sell a few things I like, like inexpensive peanut butter and whole milk that I think is a better quality than any of the other half dozen stores I shop in. I’ve had two instances where employees have walked up to me, staying in my blind spot, and start talking to me, speaking in very low, almost a whisper, tones. First time, I was in the store, and the employee started warning me not to steal anything because of their really tight security, and they had just caught someone the other day. Second time, I was putting my groceries in the trunk of my car, and an employee came over and, again in a low tone, said they’ll take my shopping cart. Sometimes I return them to the front of the store, other times I just leave them at the handicap sign, since that’s where I park, and I’ll always grab one from there that has been sitting in the disinfecting sunlight. These may seem like completely innocuous occurrences, to me though, I’m considering them to be shark bumps. In my self analysis, I’ve had to make modifications to how I wear my mask, since it’s a large, give or take sixteen inches, tube of cloth, and when I was wearing it, it would drape down past my shoulders, and restrict my head movement. Especially if I put on a jacket after putting the mask on. I have since started bunching the cloth up around my neck so it sits closer to my neck, and not along my shoulders. This has allowed me to easily move my head from side to side, without risking the mask slipping down my face. Now when I’m out, I’m back to pretending I’m looking at something, while watching what’s going on in my peripheral vision.

  • If you are white and live in a “diversity and inclusion” area, you better be aware of your surroundings. You have a big target on your back. You’re going to be who they go after to payback whitey.

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