November 06, 2019

Instilling the proper mindsets and cognitive tools through training is essential to ensuring the safety of your people. However, training within a risk management program tends to be overlooked. Teaching situational awareness is a basic, yet extremely useful, exercise that organizations can use to improve the safety of their personnel. It is important to provide ongoing coaching as situational awareness is a skill that needs to develop over time.

Situational awareness is the concept and practice of being cognizant of specific factors about one’s surroundings and how they relate to the individual’s safety. In its most basic form, situational awareness is knowing what is going on around the individual: people, time of day, vehicles, and the potential threat that those elements pose. More advanced training of situational awareness is designed to enable people to anticipate threats and act accordingly. 

People cannot mentally “flip a switch” to become hyperaware and predictive. Like running a marathon without the proper training or taking a test without studying; successful situational awareness is impossible without first achieving a baseline level of knowledge and physical skill.

Active situational awareness requires more mental energy than is used when complacent. Processing sights, sounds, smells, and feelings that would normally be disregarded increases the rate at which the mind fatigues. Much like raising the altitude of a marathon’s course, traveling to new locations further increases the overall strain on a person’s mind.


3 Stages of Situational Awareness

The practice of situational awareness is typically broken down into three general stages, including identification, reflection, and forecasting.


Stage 1: Identification

The identification stage is situational awareness in its most basic form. During the identification stage, a person continuously gathers information about exits and entrances, nearby people, environmental concerns, and the passage of time.

In this step, a situationally aware person makes a cognitive switch from being a reactive observer of their environment to someone who habitually seeks new information about their environment. This shift is not to be confused with a sense of paranoia or stress that often comes with venturing into a new environment.





 Exercise 1

Take a few moments a day to close your eyes and mentally describe your surroundings using all your senses. Then, survey the environment around you. Did you miss anything?

TIP: Use this reference checklist to reiterate things like intimate space, personal space, social space, and public space as a part of this exercise.  



Stage 2: Reflection

The reflection stage requires a person to assess their physical and mental capabilities and consider them in the context of their environment. Physical hindrances such as hunger, thirst, fatigue, and inebriation could affect one’s ability to defend against a potential attacker or respond to a crisis. Furthermore, stress and cognitive overload can limit one’s ability to effectively gather information about one’s environment, process it, and act on it. Knowing one’s stress thresholds and coping techniques are also crucial in maintaining situational awareness and personal safety. 

Accurate and objective knowledge of one’s capabilities in the event of something happening is just as important. When considering those who are new to the idea of situational awareness and personal safety, there are generally a few considerations: being either overconfident or ignorant is extremely risky. There is an inherent concern for people that are generally ignorant or oblivious to their surroundings. An oblivious attitude heightens the likelihood of exposure to harm, and people may have the mindset that I didn’t know this could happen. Overconfidence can be just as problematic. For example, frequent travelers can become complacent from experience and deprioritize paying attention, thus falling into a state of unawareness, or it wouldn’t or couldn’t happen to me. Those practicing situational awareness should often step back and ask if they could defend themselves in an attack or if they would know how and where to seek help while traveling abroad.

The reflection stage also reflects the understanding of how one actively interacts with his or her environment. For example, security professionals typically tell travelers to make themselves a “hard target,” meaning to make themselves appear less vulnerable to a potential attacker. A simple way of making oneself a hard target is to walk confidently: keep your head up with upright posture. Attentive body language is generally more intimidating to potential attackers than someone who may look lost or inattentive by looking down at a phone or rummaging through a bag. 





 Exercise 2

Once you have become competent at continuously taking in your surroundings, take a few moments a day to check in on your cognitive and physical capabilities. Ask yourself, “if something were to happen right at this moment, how would I be able to respond?”




Stage 3: Forecasting

Forecasting is the ability to take into account one’s surrounding environment, pair it with one’s ability to respond to the situation, and accurately determine threats and rationalize plausible outcomes. Situationally aware travelers do not simply identify people in their personal space or notice the setting of the sun; they assess what these things mean and anticipate related threats automatically.

Using the mindset and information gathered in the first two stages, forecasting makes a person aware of possible outcomes and prepares them to act on the most probable.


Someone is driving a rental car in a new area after a long day of travel or work when suddenly it begins to sleet. An experienced, situationally aware person will constantly assess the other drivers on the road, road conditions, the time of day, and any other potential hazards, all while comparing it to their own cognitive abilities. The driver realizes that she does not remember the way back to the hotel by heart from the convention center and must rely on her GPS. However, she planned accordingly before entering the car ensuring her GPS was functional and carrying a list of important addresses, including her hotel. Later, as the driver approaches a busy, icy intersection, she uses her awareness of the street and its surrounds to determine that cars coming down the hill from the west side of the light are more likely to slide into the intersection because they are coming down a hill. The driver is able to prepare herself for these challenges and potential threats through sequential decision making. 

Providingactionable, timely intelligencefor people is only afractionof a security plan. Best-in-class securitypractices also includeproviding noveland engagingtraining regimens to equip employees with the abilitytoputknowledgeto practice.





 Exercise 3

Ask yourself, while in both familiar and new situations, “what is the most likely threat to my safety? If X were to happen, what would the result likely be?”



A creative approach to attaining situational awareness is to combine coaching with the principle of mindfulness. Learn how mindfulness can help your people’s situational awareness.  


About WorldAware

WorldAware provides intelligence-driven, integrated risk management solutions that enable multinational organizations to operate globally with confidence. WorldAware's end-to-end tailored solutions integrated world-class threat intelligence, innovative technology, and response services to help organizations mitigate risk and protect their employees, assets, and reputation.