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

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Sep 26, 2022

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

Being in tune with our environment in everyday life can help us navigate, and even avoid some dangerous situations. Our corporate Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery experts, Jim Vrooman and Christopher Belden 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 us 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 Benefits of Practicing Situational Awareness?

One of the major benefits of incorporating situational awareness is the ability to  prevent yourself from making major
safety errors--no matter where you are. We can often find ourselves in overwhelming environments, or so stuck in our own thoughts that we fail to notice things that can pose a threat to our health and safety. Practicing situational awareness can help us avoid all of that. The level of awareness that you are operating on will determine the things you notice and the things you don’t.

What Are the Levels of Awareness?

You might be surprised to learn that there are five distinct levels of awareness that we as humans typically operate on. One of the insights that Jim and Chris share as an effective way of explaining the differences between those levels is to compare each level to the different degrees of attention we practice while
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.”
2. 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.” Chris explained.
3. 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.
4. 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”
5. 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.
How Do I Find the Right Level of Awareness?
It is critical for our minds and body to have periods of rest. It’s perfectly okay to settle into a “tuned-out” state of awareness when resting, reading a book, or watching a movie. However, it is important that we don’t allow ourselves to become stuck in the mode of “tuned-out” awareness, especially when we are in potentially dangerous environments. You wouldn’t want to be tuned-out while walking home at night or while driving. “We’ve found that it can be difficult to jump from one level of awareness to another very quickly, this can cause you to freeze up. Just like shifting your car directly from first gear into fifth, where it will then shudder and stall.  Many times, when people are forced to make this mental jump and they panic, they go into shock, and will freeze--unable to take action at all,” Jim shares.
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. Here are a few ways in which you can start to develop this mindset:
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. Looking at your surroundings critically and acknowledging them is a crucial step in developing a mindful attitude. For example, when you enter a building, make a mental note of the exits, or the number of people in the room. “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
“Outcome prediction is something that takes practice at first” says Chris, “Mainly because it often can involve predicting the actions of others.” 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 take educated guesses at a few likely scenarios and mentally prepare for those. For example, if you are driving in a heavily wooded area or in the countryside, it’s safe to say that there’s a good chance that deer and other wildlife may run out into the road in front of you, so you will want to be on the lookout.
3. Avoid Focus Locks in Periods of Transition
You will want to avoid things that lock your focus during times of transition. For example, texting or reviewing email on your devices while doing things like walking or driving is something you should avoid at all costs.
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. For example, keeping track of how long it has been since you last saw the friends or family you were with when out and about or how long it’s been since your child left for a public restroom are situations in which you may want to keep track of how much time has passed.
5. Trust Your Intuition
Trusting your intuition is an important aspect of situational awareness. If you find yourself feeling anxious or worried, 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 intuition.
We know that the safety of yourself 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 this summer, check out the link below!