It is important to note that situational awareness, being aware of one’s surroundings and identifying potential hazards and dangerous situations, is more of a mindset than a skill. Situational awareness is not only important for recognizing an existing or potential hazard, but it also serves to identify unsafe behavior, equipment and tools. The primary element in establishing this mindset is first to recognize that a threat or hazard exists. Ignorance or denial of a hazard make a person’s chances of quickly recognizing a threatening situation and avoiding it highly unlikely. Bad things do happen. Apathy, denial and complacency can be deadly.
A second important element of the proper mindset is understanding the need to take responsibility for one’s own safety. People typically operate on five distinct levels of awareness:
- The first level, tuned out, is similar to when you are driving and are engrossed in thought and arrived somewhere in your vehicle without even thinking about driving there. If you have done this, then you’ve experienced being tuned out.
- The second level of awareness, relaxed awareness, is like defensive driving. This is a state in which you are relaxed but are also watching other cars on the road and looking ahead for potential hazards. You are relaxed and enjoying your drive, but are still watching for road hazards, maintaining a safe following distance and keeping an eye on the behavior of the drivers around you.
- The third level of awareness, focused awareness, is like driving in hazardous road conditions. You need to practice this level of awareness when you are driving on icy or slushy roads. You need to keep two hands on the wheel at all times and have your attention totally focused on the road and the other drivers around you. You don’t dare take your eyes off the road or let your attention wander. The level of concentration required for this type of driving makes it extremely tiring and stressful.
- The fourth level of awareness is high alert. This is the level that induces an adrenaline rush, a prayer and a gasp for air all at the same time. 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. High alert can be scary, but at this level you are still able to function. You can hit your brakes and keep your car under control.
- The last level of awareness, comatose, is what happens when you literally freeze at the wheel and cannot respond to stimuli, either because you have fallen asleep or, at the other end of the spectrum, because you are petrified. 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.
Finding the Right Level
The basic level of situational awareness that should be practiced most of the time is relaxed awareness, a state of mind that can be maintained indefinitely without all the stress and fatigue associated with focused awareness or high alert. Relaxed awareness is not tiring, and it allows you to enjoy life while rewarding you with an effective level of personal safety. When people are in an area where there is potential danger (which, in reality, is almost anywhere), they should go through most of the day in a state of relaxed awareness. Then, if they spot something out of the ordinary that could be a threat or hazard, they can “dial up” to a state of focused awareness and take a careful look at that potential hazard or threat.
This situational awareness process also demonstrates the importance of all of us being familiar with our environment and the hazards that exist there. Such awareness permits some hazards to be avoided and others to be safe-guarded against.