Developing Situational Awareness

Becoming Hard to Kill: Developing Your Situational Awareness

No one wakes up in the morning thinking today will be the day they are attacked. Let alone that it could be their last day on earth.

A young man in Miami never thought he would be wrestling a gunman over $260 and have his mother see him take a bullet to the chest.

A Houston woman walking in a dark parking lot didn’t think the guy who changed directions to intercept her would end in an assault.

And, two Austin women never dreamed that being so task-focused at the ATM (also known as the Accessory To Mugging) would allow the bad guy to get the drop on them and steal their money.

“You have to develop a relaxed awareness about your environment and be able to identify what doesn’t fit,” said Dennis Jones, director of training at Sheepdog Response. Situational awareness is the foundation of being a Sheepdog. It is the first block of instruction taught at every course and is reinforced throughout the curriculum.

Sheepdog Response teaches the four A’s: Awareness, Assessment, Action, and Analysis.


Jones asks students to describe their neighborhoods. What are the demographics? Are you paying attention to atmospherics and biometrics? What kinds of cars do people drive? What do you see in their yards? Who is usually walking their dog in the morning or at night? “Most students are already aware of what they see in the environments where they live and work,” Jones said. “They are just too distracted to pay attention. Whether that distraction is the radio, the to-do list cycling through their head, or the jerk that just cut them off in traffic.” This inattentional blindness — like operating the buttons at the ATM — allows us not to see something that is in plain sight.


Instructors teach students how to pick up cues from their environment and how to assemble that information to predict what may happen next. “You establish a norm for your environment. If something doesn’t fit that profile, it is an anomaly,” Jones said. “As a Sheepdog, anomalies should draw your attention. Most of the time, they are harmless. Sometimes, they’re not.” Jones tells of a time when he was patrolling in an Afghan village, and the streets that were usually bustling with activity were now empty. “Because we had used our situational awareness from previous patrols to establish a norm for that environment, the lack of people was a red flag,” Jones said. “The villagers cleared out because they knew the Taliban were going to attack us that day. And they did.”


Once you spot the anomaly and make your assessment, what do you do? “The goal is to be aware, not paranoid,” Jones said. “You almost need to think like the Terminator with his red on-screen checklist he would run through to determine if someone was a threat or not.” You want to avoid having someone trigger your startle response. The cognitive dissonance that can, at a minimum, slow your reaction time. At worst, it can make you freeze up, unable to respond.


Was the action you took effective? Were you able to evade and de-escalate? Or if you had to use force, did it stop the attack? This analysis immediately loops back to Awareness and starts the progression again.

The Big Box Field Exercise

After the lecture and scenarios, instructors take students to a local shopping center with a large retail outlet that is open around the clock.  The students are given instructions on how to use Awareness when parking. “As soon as you park, check your fives and 25s,” Jones said. “Look in a five-meter perimeter around your car using your left side mirror, rearview mirror, and right side mirror. Then repeat that check out to 25 meters. Chances are you will see somebody looking back at you. It’s most likely nothing sinister. But now you know what your immediate environment is like.”  After all, bad guys profile too.

Students are also taught how to use a car’s appearance, location, and visible contents to build a demographic picture of their owners. At that point, students are directed to go into the store and observe the customers and employees. They are to watch and not intervene. Who is shoplifting? Who is in an abusive relationship? Who is under the influence of drugs or alcohol? “Once the curtain is lifted, you’ll be shocked at how much is going on around you that you’ve been oblivious too,” Jones said. “I also give the students the task of blending in,” he added. “Most students show up to the first class looking tactical. They’re easily profiled because they’re wearing boots, cargo pants, big watches, and firearms or 2nd Amendment shirts. It’s a valuable lesson that awareness and assessment are a two-way street.” Developing situational awareness and implementing the Four A’s takes practice.

Starting today, make a habit of observing people and your environment. Start building a picture of what is the norm in your world. Spot the anomalies and run “what if” scenarios in your head. As Jones tells his students at the end of the exercise, “There’s an old saying: ‘When you are hungry, it is foolish to hunt a tiger when there is plenty of sheep to be had.’ Don’t be paranoid. Be mindful. Be a Sheepdog.”

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November 11, 2020

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