Being situationally aware

Grant Rayner
Apr 8, 2020 · 8 min read

How to better make sense of your immediate environment so that you can avoid threats to your safety and security while travelling.

The streets of Aleppo, Syria. Photo by Grant Rayner, 2020.

Countless security training programs and government advisories suggest that you should be “situationally aware” when travelling to higher-risk locations.

But what exactly does “situationally aware” mean?

It’s difficult to parse the street, particularly when you’re in an unfamiliar environment, where everything seems strange and out of place. It’s easy to misinterpret the benign as threats, while completely missing actual threats.

How can you develop your ability to filter the noise and make sense of your immediate environment so that you can proactively avoid threats to your safety and security?

In this article I’ll break down the concept of situational awareness into simple actions that you can easily adopt when operating in challenging environments. You can practice and refine these techniques when travelling. Depending on where you live, they may also be useful at home.

I specialise in assisting individuals and organisations to operate effectively in complex and higher-risk environments. This article is part of a series called “The Basics”, where I’ll explore some of the fundamental concepts of personal security while travelling. I hope you find it useful.

Breaking down awareness

To be able to maintain comprehensive situational awareness, you need to be able to break the concept down to make it actionable on the street.

The way I’ve learned to approach this is to focus on two levels of awareness:

  1. High level awareness — where I am, where I should go if I get into trouble, and how to get there.
  2. My immediate surroundings — what’s immediately around me, and what could potentially cause me harm.

I’ll break these levels of awareness down further below.

High level situational awareness

High level situation awareness focuses on where you are in town, the location of safe havens, and the routes between where you are at any one time and these safe havens.

It should go without saying that you should always know roughly where you are. Before you leave your accommodation, have a general plan and define the routes you’ll move along. Identify key landmarks that will enable you to keep orientated as you move.

Once you’re on the street, you want to limit the time you spend checking your phone or map for directions. This distracts you from what’s happening around you, and confirms to anyone observing you that you’re uncertain of where you are and where you’re going.

It’s always useful to have a good sense of direction. You can develop a good sense of direction by deliberately heading into (safe) areas and meandering around. A technique I wrote about recently is to learn to draw a map of an area from memory. This helps greatly with orientation.

If something was to happen along your route, what’s the closest place you could go to find safety or to get help? Safe havens could include police stations or checkpoints, international hotels, or even a shopping mall. What is considered “safe” will vary from place to place so it’s important you identify safe havens in advance during your planning.

At any point along your route, you should know which safe haven is closest, and how to get there from your current location.

If something was to happen, how do you quickly get from where you are right now to the nearest safe haven? This could be an obvious beeline along main roads, but over time it’s good to work out a number of different routes, including alleys or short-cuts through markets. Make sure you’re aware of any areas you should avoid, so you don’t get yourself into a worse situation when you should be getting yourself to safety.

Back streets of Damascus. Photo by Grant Rayner, 2020.

Your immediate surroundings

What’s happening immediately around you has the greatest likelihood of causing you harm due to its proximity. This is where you need to focus most of your attention when you’re on the streets.

Something a few metres away can be on you almost instantly. This may be a person or group approaching you on the street, a car pulling up alongside you, or a rabid dog. Ok, probably not a rabid dog. But you get the idea.

In a busy urban environment, there’s a lot of noise, so you’ll need to be able to filter the street. The technique I use to filter the street is to mentally separate the static environment (buildings and parked vehicles) from the moving environment (people on foot and in vehicles).

The static environment, by definition, isn’t moving. It’s locked in place, proving an assortment of accessways, protective barriers, and objects that can help to conceal from view. The moving environment is fluid, and is continually changing.

Register the static environment, and learn to monitor the moving environment.

The sidewalks of Homs, Syria. Photo by Grant Rayner, 2020.

It will help to break up the area around you into zones — front, left, right, and rear. You’ll be most aware of what’s happening in front of you and to your left and right. You’ll have no idea of what’s going on behind you, but remember that this is ground you’ve already passed, so the risk is limited to someone who is rapidly closing distance on you. You might get alerted to this by the reactions of people around you, or the sound of someone moving quickly behind you.

The closer someone is to you, the more potentially dangerous they are.

If someone approaches behind you, you can slow down slightly and move to one side (towards the road) to let them pass. This keeps people away from your back, which is where you’re most vulnerable. Being close to the road gives you options to move and create space if needed (this is a judgement call — if there’s lots of traffic moving at speed it may not be a good call).

If someone is approaching you head on, again make sure they have space to pass, preferring to move towards the road side.

As people move towards you from the front or sides, evaluate them to get a sense of who they are and what threat they may pose. This actually isn’t a difficult process, as you can evaluate each person based on obvious and visual criteria. As a general rule, you should be most focused on men, and in particular groups of men. (Note that we’re not focused on a surveillance threat here, but rather an assault, robbery, or kidnap attempt).

The first thing you should be interested in is how much attention they’re paying to you. If they’re minding their own business, then you can be less concerned. Men who are with their partners or kids are less of a concern, as are men who are staring at their phones playing Pokemon Go (or whatever else they are doing). Someone who is clearly paying attention to you is potentially of more concern. You’re not necessarily responding to this, but you are registering it.

You should also look for any hint of recognition. Once you’re at a distance where it’s possible to recognise the other person, if the person coming towards you displays a hint of recognition, or does a double take, that’s a cause for concern. It could be nothing (they may just be surprised to see a foreigner), or it could be the first sign you could be in trouble.

Look for responsive behaviour. If someone sees you and immediately takes their phone out to look at it or make a call, you should be more alert.

If you see someone adjusting something in their waist band or reaching into a jacket pocket, that’s cause for concern, and you should start evaluating the static environment immediately around you. Always watch the hands, as they say.

Another potential sign of trouble is someone that locks their attention on you, and holds that attention as they approach. This could be curiosity, particularly if there aren’t many foreigners around, but if mixed with other signals may be a potential cause for concern. Again, you don’t necessarily need to do anything, but you should certainly be more alert and again you should reassess what’s immediately around you.

In the winding alleys of Old Damascus. Photo by Grant Rayner, 2020.

When walking along a street, choose the side where most people are walking in the direction you’re going. These keeps you in the flow of traffic and makes you less noticeable (you’re not passing people face-to-face). Of course the risk is that people will be moving behind you out of your line of sight, but on balance you’ll be noticed less. This will require conscious route planning.

As you approach a junction, alcove, or alley, give it some space by moving closer to the road. You don’t know what’s around the corner. Also a good way to avoid being hit by people riding bikes or scooters on the sidewalk (significantly more likely in most places than being mugged).

Pay special attention to what’s around you as you transition between different types of space. Let’s say you’re walking along a main street, then use a shopping arcade or small lane to cut through to the parallel street. Watch who follows with you. Similarly if you move out of an area with heavy pedestrian traffic to an area with lighter pedestrian traffic, pay attention to anyone who’s still with you. May be nothing, but it’s good to be aware.

Transitions provide a good opportunity to identify change.

The streets of Aleppo after hours. Photo by Grant Rayner, 2020.

Night and day will have different considerations. First, depending on where you are and what time it is, there may be more threats at night. Second, your ability to recognise someone or identify movement may be degraded, meaning that distances will be significantly reduced. This brings people closer to you before you’ll be able to identify any potential ill intent.

The good news is that there are generally less people moving about at night, so it’s easier to filter. Depending on where you are and what you look like, it may also be easier for you to move about without being noticed.

There’s obviously a lot more to situational awareness in practice. It’s more of an art than a science, and it’s something that takes time and conscious practice to develop.

When you’re travelling, experiment with different techniques and see what works for you. Don’t allow yourself to get too anxious about it — if someone knows what they’re doing, you won’t see them coming anyway.

(Not sure if that makes you feel more comfortable or not).

Grant Rayner is the founder of Spartan9. His work primarily involves supporting clients navigate complex and higher-risk environments.

For additional information and insights, read The Guide to Travelling in Higher-Risk Environments and browse through our other publications. When you’re ready to go a level deeper, consider our training workshops. If you’d like to follow our work, the best way is via our monthly newsletter — subscribe here. Also infrequently on Instagram and Twitter.

If there are other aspects of travelling to complex and higher-risk environments you’d like to explore or learn more about, please let me know.

S9 The Basics

Fundamental skills for operating in higher-risk environments.