Situational Awareness: Without This Skill You May Not Survive

From the extensive list of skills necessary to survive (and not only in SHTF), situational awareness is perhaps the one needed the most to stay alive in the first place. Even with the 7 Pillars of Urban Preparedness in place, no amount of food, ammo, or other ability will matter much to someone caught with their head in the clouds in a disaster or attack.

And that holds true not only in SHTF. Even when things are normal, there are dangers of all kinds lurking. Here I’m talking about the urban environment in particular. As Selco and I both say: The majority of us actually live in urban settings, so there is a reason why we need to pay more attention to preparing for urban survival. Cities are heterogeneous places. The sheer density and variety of people, vehicles, buildings, and structures, the multitude of systems and activities simultaneously taking place day and night – all that (and more) poses its own set of threats to our physical, financial and psychological integrity.

What is situational awareness?

In simple terms, it’s the ability to be aware of everything that’s happening around us. More specifically, it’s the perception of the environment and its elements, the understanding of its components, and the projection of possible scenarios. Everything considered I’d say situational awareness is more a mindset than a skill. 

Unlike animals in the wilderness, we don’t need awareness to find food or water in the city (maybe not yet, perhaps when the SHTF). But it’s extremely useful to navigate the various threats of the urban context. Being aware is the best way to avoid dangerous situations.

As Toby points out in the 7th Pillar-Personal Safety:

If you know there is a bad situation going down, don’t be there. That is as safe as you can be. For whatever reason, many people struggle with the “curiosity killed the cat: type thing. They just can’t help but head towards trouble just to see what’s going on. Don’t do it. The goal here is to stay alive and uninjured and as functional as possible. Avoiding trouble is a massive leap in the right direction toward that goal. 

The easy times are over: a fast-changing world demands higher levels of awareness

Those with a keen sense of reality know for a fact that in reality, it’s never been “easy” or completely safe anywhere. Even the most civilized cities located in the most advanced countries have hot spots, areas where it’s more dangerous than the average surroundings. Poverty, drug consumption, and trafficking – crime in general – may be more or less prevalent depending on the place, but they exist everywhere. The world is inherently dangerous. 

The level and depth of the changes society is currently undergoing always bring uncertainty and turbulence. Besides the shifts in the economy and the pandemic, there are many geopolitical, migrational, and demographic transformations taking place simultaneously. These changes affect distinct parts of society in different degrees and manners and contribute to aggravating the problem. 

Inequality is dry powder. These larger issues seep through and end up directly impacting our everyday life. Thinking “this won’t happen where I live” is the wrong mentality, especially for a prepper. It’ll happen everywhere, more in some places than others, but everything is connected today, and the current crisis is global. 

With the situation deteriorating, it’s expected that life in cities will turn more dangerous as time passes. Joblessness and homelessness on the rise will bring a spike in drug use and traffic, criminality, and social unrest. Other factors such as inflation, shortages, and disruptions may compound.

Those with their head in the clouds are easy prey

Lady Gaga recently had her dogs snatched from the walker at gunpoint. A reporter crew investigating a series of car break-ins in San Francisco had their camera robbed at gunpoint too. Think of that for a moment. These and other kinds of exploits were almost unheard-of in the U.S. for decades. But they are prevalent in 3rd world/developing countries: that and a lot more. 

Situations like these are what preppers like Jose and I have been warning about for years. Scams, swindles, and frauds will become more frequent, creative, and varied. The worse it gets, the more people get desperate. Consequently, there are more and more people resorting to criminal activities, both physical and digital. By the way, this is a bit off-topic but something to be aware of, too: cyberspace is ripe for all kinds of crimes. Why does it matter? Because it’s not enough to be situationally aware in the “real world” anymore. It’s equally important to be vigilant about our “digital life” as well. 

The “don’t be a victim” mentality. It’s a fact of life: predators of all kinds exist everywhere. There’s always someone around looking for opportunities to take advantage of. Even as a prepper, I don’t think this is a reason to live in an eternal state of paranoia or fear. As I’ll explain in the next chapter, we should apply the various levels of attentiveness according to the situation we find ourselves in. 

The surprise element is a significant advantage for criminals, even violent or armed ones: if they can catch someone unaware, their odds of a dangerous confrontation or some response from the victim, other people, or the authorities are significantly reduced.

Distracted people are also more prone to accidents of all kinds. I’m not even talking about full-SHTF here: with the situation getting crazier and changes coming fast our way all from all sides, I can assure you the threat-o-meter is about to go up a few notches, and quickly. When the money dries out, maintenance and personal safety cease being priorities. That leads to an increase in accidents and disasters.

Understanding the extent and connectedness of things is vital

I’m no expert, just a regular person who’s been into preparedness and survival for some time. By that, I mean achieving a higher level of situational awareness is within everyone’s reach. No one has to be a Jason Bourne: ordinary people anywhere can benefit from an increased sense of perception and judgment of the surroundings. (OP’s own 1st Marine Jarhead shared his experience and observations with OPSEC and Situational Awareness here.) 

I decided to focus on the urban environment for this article because it’s also my “training ground,” where I do my street survival routine. Which, to be honest, has development and practice of situational awareness as one of the main objectives. Walking and spending time in the streets and public spaces is one of the best and most efficient ways to develop and practice situational awareness. Many of the principles of situational awareness can be applied anywhere, with some adaptation.

I’ll start by listing the many dangers present in the urban environment, split into ‘categories’ according to my own viewing and understanding. In the next part, I’ll talk about how we can develop and practice this all too important survival skill, which has worked for me and others to whom I give prepping and survival guidance.

Physical Threats

We, as humans, are our own biggest threat.

If you think zombies don’t exist (yet), look around. They are the ones with eyes glued to a smartphone and can-type headphones over their heads all the time. They won’t attack or try to eat us (though they may stumble upon us inadvertently). Either way, this means there are many people out there with their two primary senses impaired and willfully tuned out. Even when crossing streets, driving, riding trains, cycling, or circulating in dangerous places. They represent a risk to themselves and others.

It’s a modern disease and a receipt for disaster. A 2018 research by Motus found that “…as smartphone ownership skyrocketed from 55 percent in 2013 to 77 percent in 2017, the number of accidents escalated from 5.7 million to 6.4 million, an increase of 12.3 percent”. That’s talking about car accidents only.

Smartphones and selfies kill almost five times more people than sharks.

Other research in Korea in 2017 also found interesting results in everyday situations: “Compared with normal users, participants who were addicted to smartphones were more likely to have experienced any accidents, falling from height/slipping, and bumps/collisions… This finding highlighted the need for increased awareness of the risk of accidents with smartphone addiction.”

The “deadly selfie” is a recent phenomenon, and it’s grown exponentially in recent years. Between 2011 and 2017, it killed, on average, 37 per year, according to a global study published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine in 2018. For comparison, the average number of fatal shark attacks between 2011‒2015 was 8.

Impaired ability to pay attention to surroundings can result in injury

No one needs scientists and researchers to tell that attention to surroundings gets impaired when using smartphones. But those are extreme examples. There are other risks in living and circulating unaware around town.

We can be hit by a car or another vehicle (or hit one), stumble into an obstacle or fall on a gap or pothole, get slammed by an opening door, or step on dog (or someone else’s) poop. I haven’t even started with all the other risks present on train and metro stations, staircases, public sporting courts, and even buildings and places considered relatively safe. The list of potential hazards is long. 

The result of those accidents can vary too, from just a scare to an injury or even death. No one wants to get injured, of course. But while in normal times it can be just a nuisance (even though there’s always the risk of a permanent or disabling injury), during SHTF, when help and support are usually impaired, an injury (even minor) can mean game over. 

Situational Threats

Think life in the city is predictable? Think again!

Most people believe that life in the city is stable and predictable. It may be to some extent, depending on where in the world you live. But upon closer inspection, we realize that situations are very fluid and unstable in every urban environment. The number of people, vehicles, places, multiple systems, and simultaneous activities and interactions taking place all the time implies a large number of risks.

Medium and large cities are a lot more diverse than smaller or rural towns. The variety and complexity of national, political, racial, religious, sexual, cultural, economic, and social representations co-existing in the same space is a big bonus during normal times. But it can turn into attrition and potential conflict if a disaster or some other undesired situation happens.

SHTF doesn’t have to be a “prepper’s wet dream” big-scale disaster. I’ve been through some near-SHTFs here, as told in other posts and my books. It can be a simple overhaul in the water supply system, as described in my book’s closing chapter, to highlight the importance of situational awareness. Frequently, it’s the sum of two causes: one natural and one grid-related, as we saw happen in Texas. A grid-down can happen suddenly and without warning, and it can be severe and even deadly. 

Other People

Most threats and risks that are found in the urban environment are in one way or another linked to people. Everything in the city is “constructed.” But this is specifically about the actual threats posed directly by the actions of other people. There are people everywhere, and lot’s of them. I’ll split the ones posed by masses or large groups of people and smaller ones (groups) and individuals.

People in great numbers always represent a risk.

Large concentrations of people are incredibly dangerous. There are many ways to get seriously injured or even killed when in the middle of a big group. Even events that can be considered “peaceful,” such as concerts, sports, parties, religious gatherings, and so on, represent a threat. 

Most times, everything goes fine for the most part. But the danger is in the count of people, not the nature of the event. The larger the crowd, the bigger the risks. Crowd mentality and behavior are an issue in itself. Herd behavior is unpredictable and powerful, hard to manage. Once it explodes, it’s very hard or even impossible to control.

There’s also the risk of large groups becoming targets to mass shooters, police raids, gang attacks, sweep-robberies. We call the later “arrastões” here in Brazil when a group of thugs (usually kids and teens) raid a concentration of people stuck in traffic or a place or event. Any of those can spark panic and turn into a stampede.

Varying risks in smaller groups can happen anywhere at anytime.

Smaller groups and individual threats include gangs and gang members, drug dealers and users, robbers, sporting event-goers, and team fans. Agitators in general, solicitors and panhandlers, beggars, violent immigrants, sexual predators, pedophiles, extremists, and radicals are included in this category. The risks are various too. This category is a bit more random and unpredictable because of the smaller numbers and variety of threats: they can happen anywhere and anytime, and anyone can be a target.

At this point, I’ll quote Daisy and highly recommend the reading of Rory Miller and Lawrence A. Kane’s excellent Scaling Force for invaluable knowledge on the topic. They have other books on urban violence, too, great for normal to slow-burning SHTF times. Another source of real-life-based expertise on the subject is Fernando “Ferfal” Aguirre in his street survival skills books based on his experience during the collapse of Argentina in 2001. There are videos on the internet with highly experienced experts dissecting the issue and situations (just beware of the B.S. money grabbing crap). Selco also has a lot published about violence in the context of SHTF too. 

The two things all these works have in common are the importance of situational awareness and escalation avoidance. Both are much better alternatives to dealing directly with problems.

Infrastructure

Many risks are posed by poor or decaying infrastructure (public and private).

Infrastructure is a huge factor in the city. Along with the dense population, it’s the most significant difference between the wilderness and the urban environment. By infrastructure I mean the entirety of buildings, streets, sidewalks; also overpasses, bridges, tunnels, lamp posts, metro and train stations and lines, elevators, and stairs. 

Underground infrastructure is a factor too, hidden from view but functioning nonstop to keep the Grid working: water and sewage pipes, drainage systems, heating and cooling, electricity and telecommunications galleries, and so on. The internet is rife with footage of sidewalks exploding, tubes and parts of buildings falling, bridges collapsing, water pipes bursting, construction accidents. There is a lot more that can happen in the context of a big city.

I live in a developing country with a high disregard for personal safety and infrastructure that leaves a lot to be desired. About sixty thousand people die every year in car accidents alone. It doesn’t matter much if most of those deaths result from reckless driving or impaired signaling and road conditions. It just proves that life can have low value and importance in certain contexts.

Infrastructure needs constant maintenance and even occasional rebuilding.

Since 2019, 12 bridges collapsed in 9 countries, including U.S. and Canada, China, and Italy. Engineering isn’t fail-proof and certainly not impervious to abuse or lack of maintenance. That works the same for buildings and any other structure built by people. Even if the supporting systems such as signaling or electricity fail, it can lead to accidents. Much of what is built in developed countries are at least 50 years old, and in many places, it lacks maintenance and care. 

Other things to keep in mind: with growth slowing and the economy falling, tax revenue will crash too. Keep an eye open for the effects on the infrastructure, both public and private. Maintenance and conservation will suffer. The fleet of vehicles used by people, professionals, and companies may also age/decay. Authorities’ oversight can become less efficient (and more corrupt), and all that combined can lead to more failures and, consequently, more accidents and tragedies. 

Natural Disasters

Never underestimate the power of Mother Nature.

The list of natural threats is quite extensive and varied. Depending on where in the world you live, you can be subject to rain, snow, lightning, hurricanes, and tornadoes, heat waves, volcanoes, earthquakes and tsunamis, floods, landslides, fires, and erosions. That’s a lot, and I’m sure I left a lot out of this list. 

I am not trying to be gloomy. I love nature and see the world as a beautiful place. But the power of natural elements and events do pose risks and can easily and quickly become overwhelming. Water is impossible to contain, and it can cause small damage (destroy furniture, appliances, food, or contamination, for instance) or large (floods and landslides). Ditto for most other forces – fire, wind, cold – once they surge. 

Understanding how those forces act and flow, how these systems work, and their effects are crucial if we want to avoid being hit directly by disasters or escape them with success. Forecasting may be possible, though many times, these come without warning and with fury and speed. Escaping, maneuvering, going with the flow, or diverging are common tactics to deal with nature’s powerful forces. (Daisy offers excellent information for what to do before, during and after a hurricane and also what to do during a blackout in these excellent digital books.)

Reprinted with permission from The Organic Prepper.

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