For people living or visiting the Austin, Texas region in 2018, the news was terrifying. Five apparently home-made bombs were detonated at seemingly random locations, killing two and injuring five others. Finally authorities identified a suspect and were close to capture before he took his own life with a bomb. While that may have ended this ordeal, police and other officials urged people to practice keen “situational awareness” as more undetonated bombs might still be at large. So, that begs the question…what is situational awareness and how does one engage in it?
The following are a few key elements of situational awareness that we instruct our clients to follow through our Executive Protection programs:
Defining Situational Awareness
As Pinkerton Region Managing Director Kevin Cox explained in a past blog post regarding executive protection, “Terrorism today can be carried out by one person looking to make a statement and cause chaos,” Cox says. “What it requires is that people are keenly aware of the situations around them at all times and, armed with advanced intelligence, are anticipating worst-case scenarios so that they can react if one were to come to fruition.”
We look at situational awareness from a holistic approach, relating each threat to each other to determine the level of risk. For example, in Austin during the past few weeks, the threat of injury from a bomb increased and people there were on a heightened alert. However, it’s important to understand that copycat behavior, through which someone aware of the bomber’s tactics could carry out similar activities, can happen anywhere, at any time. Therefore, as an example people far-removed from Austin should still be very wary of any unmarked or unexpected packages left at their home or office or found in out-of-place locations.
Situational Intelligence Gathering
Imagine if you got into a car not knowing your destination, road conditions, not observing the weather and not being familiar with how the car operated. You probably wouldn’t get far. The key starting point for situational awareness is gathering intelligence. Some key questions to ask are:
- What do you know about the situation you are in or will be in?
- What are the threats and the likelihood of them impacting you?
- Has anything changed recently that could cause a disruption?
- Is anything on the horizon that could impact your plans?
Examples of things to be aware of could include a recent election that put someone new in power, protests planned in areas where you will be traveling, the possibility of inclement weather disrupting schedules, terrorist activity focused in certain regions, power outages causing chaos for localities, even something as seemingly innocent as a sports team winning a championship resulting in thousands celebrating in the streets. Each of these scenarios increases certain threats to you and understanding them in advance will arm you with intelligence to make safe planning decisions.
The Boy Scouts of America have a motto, “Be Prepared.” Those are good words to live by in a world where threats come from so many directions. However, it is impossible to prepare for every situation, so which threats and variables do you choose to focus on? Obtaining and analyzing intelligence is essential so that threats and the likelihood their impact upon you are understood in advance. Equally as important is knowing how to react if or when something happens.
Understanding your personal security protocols is critical. If your cell phone was stolen, would you know what to do? If you lost your wallet, what is the first step you should take? Is anything you post on social media putting you at risk? In the Austin situation, if you saw a suspicious package, who would you notify and how?
Preparing answers to these and other security-related questions will go a long way towards being ready for many situations. Working with an agency like Pinkerton, consulting with authorities and researching current events are ways in which you can develop protocols that can mitigate your risks.
Remain Vigilant in Your Awareness
As a result of high-profile incidents in the United States many people have a heightened sense of situational awareness for certain threats in those areas. People are now on the lookout for bombs in Texas. Students, teachers and administrators are on guard in Florida regarding the possibility of school gun violence. When incidents happen, people become more vigilant by paying keen attention to their surroundings. However, over time, the vigilance can wane, resulting in a false sense of security.
It is important to remember that incidents can happen anywhere, at any time. Remaining aware of your situation, your surroundings and your protocols is important. If there are disruptions to your normal routine, determine the cause and if it creates new risks. Be on the lookout for anything unusual or out of place that could be a threat. It makes a difference. In 2002, for example, the New York City Metropolitan Transportation Authority began its “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign. The campaign was asking people to be more aware of their surroundings and act if they saw something unusual. The result was that reports of suspicious packages, bags, etc. increased from 812 in 2002 to more than 37,000 in 2003. That effort is now a national campaign lead by the Department of Homeland Security.
Overall, our advice is to pay attention. Look around. See what is happening near you. Be aware of local, regional or global events that could impact your safety. Don’t assume that “nothing like that would happen here.” Stay vigilant and you will do a lot to mitigate your risks.