By Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D.
Faculty Member, School of Security and Global Studies, American Military University
Recent news events have highlighted the need for active personal security awareness. For instance, California jogger Sherri Papini was abducted on November 2 while running outdoors; she later returned home safely. Similarly, a Somali-born student injured a group of people at Ohio State University on November 28 by ramming them with a vehicle and attacking them with a knife.
Personal security awareness is a simple concept. However, it can be difficult to put into practice. Initially, you will find you must consciously think about the process but with practice, it will become second nature.
Creating Behaviors to Raise Personal Security Awareness
Personal security awareness is a set of behaviors developed to make people aware of their surroundings in all indoor and outdoor environments. They also orient their planned responses to a potential attack to a set of graduated awareness protocols. For our purposes we will use a color-coded response system as outlined below.
People who practice personal security awareness do not like surprises. Environmental awareness is best accomplished through the techniques of scanning and calculating. In addition, having a system for measuring threats in the immediate area and having prepared responses to them is equally useful.
Since the horrific events of 9/11, Americans are in a world which many people consider less secure than in the past. Airport check-ins, sporting events and concerts, to name a few venues where large numbers of people gather, now place an increased emphasis on security.
DHS Develops Terrorism Warning System, but Personal Vigilance Needed
The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) developed a graduated advisory system, the National Terrorism Advisory System (NTAS), to communicate terrorist threats to U.S. citizens. This system sends out bulletins and alerts so that communities and individuals can protect themselves.
It is the responsibility of all citizens to protect themselves from attacks. Each citizen should remain alert and aware of their surroundings, especially when they are in a large and crowded public venue.
Heightened awareness of citizens’ surroundings is the basic premise underlying DHS’s “If You See Something – Say Something” campaign. American society is relatively safe, but many people still take their surroundings for granted.
Unfortunately, this complacency leads to peril. Criminal and terrorist acts may happen anywhere, even in secure environments.
Personal Security Awareness Must Be Instinctive
While the need for personal security awareness seems obvious, many people do not practice it on a regular basis. Servicemembers returning from conflict zones or people who live in crime-ridden neighborhoods often exhibit an increased concern about their immediate environment.
To be truly effective, a system of personal security awareness must be internalized. It must become second nature and be performed subconsciously.
Some years ago, I attended a briefing by an FBI profiler who proposed that we should trust our intuition and instincts. Intuition, he suggested, is tied to the human experience of much earlier times, when people lived in a dangerous natural environment.
So if we have a bad feeling about a person or situation, we should follow our instincts. Those instincts are tied to a “fight or flight” mechanism in our brain and are often correct in determining a potential threat to our safety.
Dr. Mary Ellen O’Toole, another FBI profiler, also stresses the importance of not ignoring our instincts. Intuition should be considered an integral part of our personal security awareness.
It’s important to remember that our “gut feelings” can be wrong; their usefulness is limited but also valuable. “Gut feelings” are just one tool in our awareness toolbox.
Identify Situational Threats through Scanning and Calculating
Scanning and calculating are techniques derived from the executive protection profession. Scanning involves continuously and subconsciously scanning one’s immediate area to identify potential security threats. Calculating is the mental planning of a response that takes place after scanning identifies the threat.
For example, if someone walks down a street and sees a suspicious individual approaching, he should immediately develop a plan of action in case the suspicious person makes any overt move to close the distance. This technique comes from Executive Security International’s Executive Protection Course in Colorado and other agencies involved in executive protection such as the U.S. Secret Service.
Color-Coded Systems Categorize Threat Levels
During World War II, the U.S. Marine Corps developed visualization, the strategy of aligning specific threat/response levels to colors in an easily understood manner. This system was further modified by Colonel Jeff Cooper, an advocate of personal self-defense and author of the seminal work, Principles of Personal Defense.
Cooper’s system assigns a color to various levels of personal security awareness. Colors range from white (oblivious) to red (ready to fight).
In Condition White, an individual is unaware of his or her surroundings and unprepared to meet any threat. Certainly, this condition has been growing in frequency, due to the mass use of personal electronic devices and the demand for attention they foster.
Condition Yellow indicates a state of relaxed alertness and an awareness of your surroundings and any persons/threats in the immediate area. However, this status does not imply paranoia in any way.
If an adverse action occurs, you plan a general response immediately, so that adverse actions by assailants do not come as a complete surprise. This condition has a distinct advantage because many would-be assailants are not prepared for a potential victim to respond decisively.
Condition Orange indicates that you have identified a specific potential threat. Your mental awareness will narrowly focus on the specific threat until you make a determination of its veracity.
You may subconsciously shift into this level of awareness several times in a routine day. You are expecting an attack, so ideally, you face your potential attacker. Your subconscious mind should be calculating a response based on similar attack scenarios and outcomes that you may have studied or experienced. “War gaming” potential attack scenarios is a useful exercise that can be initiated by simply asking oneself “What if?”
Condition Red occurs when a threat identified in Condition Orange becomes an actual threat posture from an attacker. Condition Red does not automatically imply offensive engagement. Instead, it simply changes the object of your focus from potential threat to a potential target.
When Situational Threats Occur, Locate a Secure Place for a Tactical Advantage
In both Condition Orange and Condition Red, you should identify places in your environment that provide you with a tactical advantage. Tactical advantages can be quite simple such as ensuring the sun is to your back and in the eyes of a would-be assailant or placing a chair between you and an attacker at an outdoor café.
Some veteran soldiers or law enforcement officers often use this security tactic in public. For example, they may sit with their backs to a wall and sit near an exit positioned directly ahead of them. These practices provide protection from attackers and enable these vets or officers to more quickly identify potential attackers.
Improving Personal Security Awareness Is Simple, But Requires Attention
Effective personal security awareness is not rocket science. However, it does require great attention to detail.
One way to improve security awareness is to watch the DHS-City of Houston video, “Run, Hide, Fight.” This safety video provides excellent advice for protecting yourself from injury or death during an active shooter event in your building.
Equally important is the will to take decisive action if necessary. This action can be engagement or flight, depending on your specific situation.
How you choose to cope with threats is up to you. But by acting effectively and remaining aware of your surroundings and potential attackers, you are more likely to avoid injury or even death. Proactive measures are superior to reactive measures.
About the Author
Jeffrey T. Fowler, Ph.D. CPS, CAS, CHS-III, is a U.S. Army veteran, having served as both an enlisted man and as a military police commissioned officer, retiring in 1997. He is the Mentor: Security Management Degree Programs at APUS/AMU, where he has developed and teaches security and law enforcement courses including global terrorism, airport security design, and ethics. Jeffrey is the author of the book, Axis Cavalry in WWII, currently in print and a frequent presenter on homeland security at the national level, as well as the author of several peer-reviewed journal and popular press articles on a variety of topics. Jeffrey has also served as a subject matter expert for the History Channel™. He is a Certified Army Historian awarded by the U.S. Army Center for Military History (CMH) in addition to his expertise in security matters. He resides in Missouri with his wife of 31 years.