Paul Blart probably has better Situational Awareness than you.
Paul Blart, Mall Cop. Dir. Steve Carr. Sony, 2009. Film.
Maybe not, but his mantra is one that is being more widely embraced in the firearm community. When he made that statement, Officer Blart was referring to Situational Awareness. Properly taught and applied, it is a process that becomes so instinctual that it’s almost like muscle memory. If you’re familiar with building muscle memory, then you also are familiar with the value of dedicated repetition. Unfortunately, the repetition that alot of us have been taught is simply focused on execution. By the end of this, you will have the tools and a better context in which to pursue the development of your own Situational Awareness from the ground up instead of simply trying to memorize license plate numbers like Jason Bourne.
First, let’s explore what problem Situational Awareness is trying to solve. Primarily, applied Situational Awareness aims to both decrease distractions while opening up your flow of information. All too often, that flow of information is coming from a little 3×6” screen in your hand. In a 2015 survey, three quarters of drivers reported seeing others text in the car, amongst a litany of other self-inflicted distractions. While that study focused on driving safety, those numbers are quite revealing of what we do when we think no one’s watching. Great, so we already know that we’re terrible drivers and addicted to our phones. What next?
At Game 5 of the World Series, how many distractions do you see?
Photo by Atlas Defense
The OODA Loop
There are numerous approaches to implementing Situational Awareness, and they all revolve around learning and applying a new mental model. The mental model taught by Atlas Defense and many other personal protection coaches is that of the Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA) loop developed by military strategist John Boyd. Let’s delve into the OODA loop and some ways you can begin to use this even as you read.
The first step in the OODA loop is the observation phase. This is where you are opening up your flow of information. Right now, look up and find 3 new things about your surroundings that you didn’t notice before. Whether you’re in your home, office, or anywhere in between, chances are you just noticed something new about your surroundings. The challenge here is to sort through that information available to you and focus on the details that are most relevant to your personal protection and daily life.
Orientation is the most crucial step in the process. Orientation is using your judgement to decide what knowledge you have that you can apply to this situation. This is where you are looking into your mental toolbox to see if you have previous knowledge or experience related to the current situation. This is where the 20% rule comes into play as well. The 20% rule states that the way we see the world matches up with reality only 80% of the time. That other 20% consists of the situations and interactions we find that we are not prepared for. Sometimes we can try to force our perception on that new reality we are unprepared for. Unfortunately, doing so lands you on the short end of a deal or worse, in a violent threat encounter. By studying the paradigms and subjects you know the least about, you are training your brain to better account for that 20%. One of the best ways to describe this process in action is overseas travel. If an American businessperson or tourist travels to a region of the world like Thailand, they are likely to study that country beforehand. That is the forethought that contributes to building a new paradigm, or tool to add to your mental toolbox.
The decision phase is similar to formulating a hypothesis in the scientific method. This is when you create a hypothesis of how a situation will unfold after orienting yourself. Using the travel example again, the hypothesis would be that avoiding the violent southern provinces will keep the traveller relatively safe. In the Marines, there is a saying that goes “hesitation kills”. As Boyd mentioned in his piloting days, his ability to outmaneuver his opponents was entirely dependent on being able to go through the OODA loop faster and more frequently than his opponent. That is why with a well developed mental toolbox, you can make these decisions faster and with more confidence in your ability to make adjustments.
Finally, the action phase is when you carry out your hypothesis, and are already looping back to observation. Once you’ve decided on a course of action and take that action, the OODA loop is designed to take you right back to that orientation phase. This affords you the ability to make adjustments to your orientation based on the outcomes of your actions.
Use the OODA loop today
With all of these descriptions and stories, the OODA loop may sound daunting to study and undertake. With more repetitions, applying the OODA loop can become just as instinctual as driving a car. When you are on the road, you have been executing thousands of OODA loops as you travel down the road and are constantly exposed to new variables. You’ve been subconsciously using the same mental model as fighter pilots while driving down the road at 60 mph without even knowing it!
With this basic understanding of the OODA loop, there are a few other components of applied Situational Awareness that are worth knowing. That includes understanding your baseline environments and detecting patterns, all to the ends of applying this in a more versatile context.
Your baseline environment is a geospatial area where you are most comfortable. This is usually your place of work, home, and any other areas you frequent. It is possible that you are reading this article in one of those areas right now. The dangerous thing about our baseline environments is that our familiarity with such areas can lead to complacency. This is likely why over half of reported vehicle accidents occur less than 5 miles from home. The same is true for muggings and robberies near homes and offices. Recognizing your baseline environments and then challenging yourself to find anomalies is just one way to break out of that complacency.
The more you execute OODA loops in throughout your day, the more likely you are to notice patterns. Noting these patterns is another way to detect details that are out of the ordinary. Noticing patterns in a conversation, body language, or even a document can help you discover someone’s needs, motives, or priorities. Using that information responsibly can help build stronger trust and understanding in your personal and professional life.
In conclusion, the OODA loop is something that nearly everyone does on some level of consciousness. What you are challenged to do is to bring that decision making process to the forefront of your consciousness. With some self reflection and self honesty, this is something that can help you get the most out of your circumstances.
Never stop Orienting.
Executive Instructor, Atlas Defense