Ask Our Experts: What Is Situational Awareness and Why Is It Important to Practice? - NYCM Insurance Blog

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Sep 26, 2023

Ask Our Experts: What Is Situational Awareness and Why Is It Important to Practice?

Being in tune with our environment during everyday life can help us navigate and avoid dangerous situations. Our corporate Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery experts, Jim Vrooman and Laura Beard, sat down with us to discuss situational awareness and how we can apply it to our everyday lives.

What Is Situational Awareness?

When asked to define situational awareness, Jim says, “It can be defined simply as being aware of one's surroundings and identifying potential threats as well as dangerous situations. It is often referred to as a skill but it's really more of a mindset.” Training yourself to have this type mindset can not only protect you from potential safety hazards, but it can also stop you from making mistakes--like backing up into someone else’s car in the parking lot. Jim goes on to explain that situational awareness is not something that can only be practiced by highly trained government agents or specialized corporate security teams, but that it can be exercised by anyone with the will and the discipline to do so.


What Are the Levels of Awareness?

You might be surprised to learn that there are five distinct levels of awareness on which people normally operate. One of the insights that Jim and Laura share as an effective way of explaining the differences between those levels is to compare each to the different degrees of attention we practice while driving.


Jim explains the five levels of awareness below:

  1. Tuned Out

“The first level is where you are “tuned out”. For example, if you’ve ever been driving on a route that you’ve driven multiple times, and you know it like the back of your hand, and suddenly you're at your destination with no memory of how you actually got there, you were operating on level one.”


  1. Relaxed Awareness

Level two is more like defensive driving. You are aware and watching other cars on the road while looking ahead for potential hazards. “For example, if you are approaching an intersection and another driver looks like he may not stop, you tap your brakes to slow your car in case he does not. In level two,  you are relaxed and enjoying your drive, but you are still watching for road hazards, maintaining a safe following distance and keeping an eye on the behavior of the drivers around you,” Jim explained.


  1. Focused Awareness

“Focused awareness” can be compared to the mindset that you are in when driving in hazardous road conditions, such as heavy rain, snow or icy roads. “The level of concentration required for this type of driving makes it extremely tiring and stressful. There is no time for cell phones or distractions of any kind. A drive that you normally would not think twice about will totally exhaust you under these conditions because it demands prolonged and total concentration,” Jim explained.


  1. High Alert

Level four, otherwise known as “high alert,” is one that typically induces an adrenaline rush. “This is what happens when that car you are watching at the intersection ahead doesn't stop at the stop sign and pulls out right in front of you. Although this level of awareness can be scary, when you are on high alert you are still able to function.”


  1. Comatose

The last level of awareness is known as comatose. Jim explains that this is the level at which you are not able to respond to the circumstances around you. “It is this panic-induced paralysis that concerns us most in relation to situational awareness. The comatose level is where you go into shock, your brain ceases to process information and you simply cannot react to the reality of the situation.” Jim also shares that victims of crime frequently report experiencing this sensation and being unable to act during an unfolding crime.


When asked what level of awareness is best suited for everyday situations, Jim says,

“The basic level of situational awareness that should be practiced in general spaces is relaxed awareness. This state of mind can often be maintained indefinitely without all the stress and fatigue associated with focused awareness or high alert. Relaxed awareness is not typically tiring and allows you to enjoy life while rewarding you with an effective level of personal security.”  However, Jim also points out that once you start to dial in on a potential hazard, you will want to level up your awareness. For example, if you are walking down the street and notice others who appear to be lurking, you would want to change your course while also staying somewhat inconspicuous.


How Do I Practice Situational Awareness?


Honing in on the ability to become fully aware of your surroundings can allow you to react effectively in potentially dangerous situations.


Laura and Jim use a trip to the grocery store as an example to show you how you can begin to develop this mindset in any setting.


1.    Identify Your Surroundings


When you enter a new environment, take a few moments to identify every object, person, and sensory element in your immediate vicinity. Examining your surroundings is a crucial step in developing a mindful attitude. When you enter the grocery store, make a mental note of the exits and even the amount of people shopping. “One trick that many law enforcement officers are taught is to take a look at the people around them and attempt to figure out their stories, in other words, what they do for a living, their mood, what they are focused on and what it appears they are preparing to do that day, based merely on observation,” Jim shares.


2.   Practice Prediction


Practicing outcome prediction is a skill that can be developed over time. While you may not be able to tell exactly what another person is going to do in any given situation, you may be able to make educated guesses as you observe other people and mentally prepare for potential scenarios. “In the produce aisle or at the deli counter, you might observe regular shopper behavior: comparing prices between items, placing preferred items in their carts, and so on. However, imagine you observe a shopper exhibiting behaviors that are out of the ordinary for the setting – they are speaking aggressively to another person, pacing nervously around, or seem under the influence. Should you find yourself in any of these situations, predict one or two outcomes that might put you in danger, and then think about how you might handle them,” Laura suggests.


3.   Avoid Focus Locks in Periods of Transition

You will want to avoid things that lock your focus during times of transition. “It is important to stay vigilant even as you move from one task to another,” Laura shares. “For example, texting or reviewing emails on your mobile phone while waiting in line at the register to check out is something you should avoid at all costs. Remain aware of what others are doing and what is going on in your surroundings.”


4.   Pay Attention to Time

Understanding and tracking the passage of time is another important component of situational awareness. Keeping track of the time can help you recognize behaviors that may have otherwise seemed normal to you. If your child leaves the checkout line to grab a bag of chips last minute, keep track of how long they are gone. Pay attention to how much time has passed if you are shopping with a friend and they take a trip to another part of the store or restroom. If you recognize the normal amount of time these situations might last, you might prevent scenarios that are out of the ordinary.


5.   Trust Your Intuition

Trusting your intuition is an important aspect of situational awareness. If you find yourself feeling anxious or worried in any setting, it’s best to trust that feeling and change your course.  Studies have shown that your brain filters out a large percentage of the information that it takes to keep you from becoming overwhelmed. This means that even though your brain is processing the entirety of the situation, you might not be consciously aware of the signs that are making you anxious. It’s best to trust your gut.


We know that the safety of you and your family is of the utmost importance. To be aware in the most complex of environments, apply this awareness mindset to any situation you may find yourself in. For more information on how to keep you and your family safe, check out the link below!