Situational Awareness: A tool to help you navigate challenging places.

Since the conception of my career in the military, situational awareness (SA) has been this nebulous concept thrown around as the pariah to any security situation.

As a young soldier, operating within challenging and complex situations, I found it difficult to grasp what would later become an effective tool in my arsenal.  I remember even after my early military training lessons coming away with a feeling that it was in part, like Spiderman’s spider-sense ability with a touch of clairvoyance thrown in for good measure.


Within my current role, as a media and humanitarian security advisor, I travel to a lot of the same places as the British and American militaries (and in some cases like Iraq during the Mosul offensive – ahead of them) – it’s one of the sharpest tools in my possession I have to keep my team and myself safe. 

Mosul, 2017 - approximately 1km behind the frontline: As the team is able to understand the needs of the beneficiary, it is also an opportunity to better understand the security landscape as well. In many challenging places, local knowledge is often the best aid to good SA.

Mosul, 2017 - approximately 1km behind the frontline: As the team is able to understand the needs of the beneficiary, it is also an opportunity to better understand the security landscape as well. In many challenging places, local knowledge is often the best aid to good SA.


Why is this important?


We’re a vulnerable target. Modern day security consultants that operate outside of embassy contracts aren’t usually armed (this would undermine our journalistic or humanitarian principles), we don’t always travel with the most protected vehicles, we don’t either have time, funds, access or a combination of all three. Whilst this may sound cavalier or mad to some, it’s the reality of the sectors.


In late 2000, the British Medical Journal conducted research into aid worker deaths over the previous two decades and found that nearly one third of deaths occurred within the first 3 months of operating within a new environment. Furthermore, 17% of these incidents occurred in the first month in theatre. This, during a time, when hostile environment or security training for staff wasn’t compulsory, or even advised. However, I assert that a number of these deaths would’ve been attributable to not understanding the dynamics of the operating environment sufficiently, to take early action. And this is why.


What is situational awareness?


Dr Mica Endsley, a former Chief Scientist in the United States Air Force, and well-written scholar on the subject defines Situation Awareness as:


‘Situation awareness is the perception of the elements in the environment within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future.’


To make it easer to understand, we can isolate the constituent components: 


Perception; Comprehension and projection.


This definition also works well when compared to Boyd’s OODA loop (observe, orientate, decide, act) model. This is a simple way to understand the cognitive process when it comes to our decision-making. The speed at which the OODA loop turns is affected by many factors over the course of our lives, such as our experiences. When someone has a fast-moving OODA loop, we’d call them ‘decisive’.


It is my own interpretation on the definition of  SA to mean ‘actively paying attention to your surroundings and being alert and responsive to changes’. I believe this to be particularly important when you arrive in a new environment, where the traveller may miss subtle but critical and important cues.

By noticing subtle changes, it allows action to be taken early, therefore reducing the risks.  

Having to make a location change as the locality gets a little more ‘kinetic’ than we’re geared to operate in.

Having to make a location change as the locality gets a little more ‘kinetic’ than we’re geared to operate in.


How to improve our situational awareness


Using the components of Endsley’s definition, ‘perception, comprehension and projection’, ) we can consider the following action to increase our ability to take the correct action at a critical time.


1. Increase the effectiveness of our perception


In the early 1970’s, a former US Marine Corps Colonel and WW2 veteran - John ‘Jeff’ Cooper – pioneered a model describing states of alertness: 


Cooper’s level of awareness model categorises our awareness into 4 colour stages. After sharing this concept, he asserted “your combat mind-set is not dictated by the amount of danger to which you are exposed at the time. Your combat mind-set is properly dictated by the state of mind you think appropriate to the situation.


Condition White: You are unprepared and unready to take lethal action. If you are attacked in White you will probably die unless your adversary is totally inept.

Condition Yellow: You bring yourself to the understanding that your life may be in danger and that you may have to do something about it.

Condition Orange you have determined upon a specific adversary and are prepared to take action, which may result in his death, but you are not in a lethal mode.

Condition Red you are in a lethal mode and will shoot if circumstances warrant. 


Whilst the model refers to specific threat actors, also known as adversaries,  it provides a base for understanding levels of connection to external environments and how we can gauge reactiveness effectively. The hypothesis of this model refers to the ability of one to be able to adopt a higher level of awareness in order to increase perception.



2. Increase the speed of our comprehension.


When you are highly familiar with your microenvironment, you notice the standard way of life, daily routines which play out around you; this is seen as normal behaviours.  This means that we can then notice when something is wrong.  The military has a great term for this:


‘Absence of the normal; presence of the abnormal’.


This expression helps to define what is different about our microenvironment – that which isn’t there but would usually be and vice-versa. We might also call these clues ‘threat indicators’, which makes them easier to communicate to others. Prior to deploying; ensure you research the environment thoroughly – at the regional, country and local level. This often referred to as context analysis in the humanitarian sector and helps you form your own threat identification. Ideally, you should consult a diverse range of sources so as to get a holistic understanding and ‘ground truth’ any issues you have come across, to help you comprehend the information you see around you faster.


3.  Increase the quality of your projection


There are a number of different ways we can increase the quality of our projections. Firstly, we can test them by checking in with our peers and those in similar positions. This may work best by having an open and informal conversation around what you’re seeing, experiencing and sensing around you. However, be aware that your own biases will affect the quality of your projection. You can also research recent issues and incidents within the region, to gauge how and why they played out – was it driven by political discontent, criminality, religious reasons or even another state having an effect on the country? The best method for this is to gain insight from as many different sources as possible.




It is vitally importantly to quickly develop a realistic understanding of your environment and adjust your behaviour to take account of the risks you may be exposed to.

Being ignorant or worse, deliberately inept to the environment around you means that a threat is able to assert an effect on you, beyond the time where you can take action to effectively mitigate it. Undoubtedly, some indicators of danger will be common across many different environments, but finding the ones pertinent to yours will only come with actively searching for them – before it’s too late.