Situational Awareness …

Once the Bullets Start Flying

In William’s first rape case as a responding officer, the victim decided not to be one,
and via an orchestrated response, turned the tables on her attacker. In the worst scenario,
she maintained awareness until she had opportunity to act.

It’s a lot easier to be aware of your surroundings before a critical event occurs. It’s quite another to do so when you’re in the thick of a fight-or-flight response. This could be a shootout, but it could just as easily be a bar fight, being caught in a fire or being the victim of assault. These situations can trigger the body’s stress response and become crippling for those unprepared — flight/freeze. On the other hand, they can also trigger the opposite reaction — fight. It takes only a microsecond for the brain to choose. The deciding factor between these two possibilities centers on the will to fight and the preparation preceding the incident.

Let’s start with the reality there is no easy way to plan for the start of a life-threatening situation. Sure, you can practice or take self-defense classes, but once the SHTF (Stuff Hits the Fan), it’s more than likely going to be a surprise and will cause an adrenalin dump. Instincts will try to take over, and the most basic instinct is to run. This is precisely what most people are going to do. Unfortunately, running is not always an option. This is when situational awareness during the fight could mean the difference between life
or death.

The situational awareness I’m talking about is more than just being aware of your circumstances. It’s more about looking at the totality of the situation and using the information gained as part of a survival strategy.

“With each failure to retrieve my revolver, I was resolute to survive … I kept telling myself I must not give up. I needed to seize the next opportunity.”

Awareness … During a Rape

I recall the first rape case I handled as a new police officer fresh out of the academy. A single female was sleeping in her bed and awoke to find a man with a gun standing over her. She focused intently on the weapon as he gave her orders. Facing a deadly threat, she was forced to comply. What stuck in my mind, however, was how she decided she was going to survive. More than this, she decided she was going to prevail. She began plotting a strategy as the unthinkable was happening to her. She knew she had a gun in her nightstand and made a conscious effort to distract him and move him in that direction. She used the circumstances to her advantage and finally reached her handgun. She fired a few shots, failing to hit the suspect, but she did cause him to take to his heels and flee. That’s situational awareness during the fight. Incidentally, she could recount the story in detail but couldn’t remember if she’d fired the gun and, if so, how many times she shot. She heard no gunshots and thought her gun had failed.

A concealed handgun can provide a false sense of security.
Without the mental skills, it’s just a hunk of steel.

In this situation, would you have the mental strength to consider your
surroundings and wait for the right opportunity to attempt an escape?

Awareness … With A Gun To Your Head

Another example comes from Anthony Low, a retired police officer. He was caught off-guard by a known violent gang member and ended up with the muzzle of his service revolver pressed against his head. Interestingly, Officer Low had previously arrested the gang member and sent him to prison for six years. One can imagine the thoughts running through his mind — especially when the gang member asked if he was afraid to die.
The suspect held Low around the neck from behind while holding the gun to his head. He forced Low to walk down the stairs rather than taking the elevator. Low recognized the situation and knew he had to take the gun back if he had any chance of surviving. He made a couple of attempts to do so, but without success. “With each failure to retrieve my revolver, I was resolute to survive … I kept telling myself I must not give up. I needed to seize the next opportunity,” Low recalled.

Finally, two floors from the ground, the opportunity appeared, and he took it. He spun around, grasped the gun tightly and pulled it from the suspect’s grasp. They tumbled down the stairs together, both fighting for control. The suspect then jumped back and pulled out his own gun. That’s when Officer Low said his years of training and instinct kicked in. He fired three shots, one of them fatally striking the suspect in the chest. That ended the fight.

Practicing the boring things until they become a subconscious response
is a vital part of leveraging situational awareness during a fight.

Have you ever practiced simple actions like drawing a spare magazine?
Think it’ll be easy during a fight for your life?

Overcoming Natural Response

I realize some people are reading this and telling themselves these stories illustrate survival mindset more than situational awareness. I agree they are stories of survival mindset, but their situational awareness aided them to a successful conclusion. Survival mindset, as demonstrated in the above accounts, is the first step. Situational awareness is what makes it possible to win.

The inherent question is how to cultivate situational awareness and the ability to survive. It’s a tricky question to answer because many things make it possible. The first is the understanding of the stress response and how it will affect us. Understanding you might lose a portion of your vision or hearing (or both) allows you to be ready to compensate for these bodily responses. If you know, for instance, you’re likely to fixate on the weapon you face, you can consciously fight to take in the surroundings. Being aware your mind will experience time distortion and a distorted thought process is another prerequisite. Rather than letting these experiences control you, you have the chance to manage them.

Another key is the training you receive. I used to feel foolish practicing Kata in the karate dojo. My inner voice was screaming, “Why do I have to do this? It’s worthless!” Then, I responded automatically to a threat during a sparring match and saw its value first-hand.

Situational awareness applies to remembering you might have other tools on
your person during the middle of a fight. It sounds obvious, but when fighting for
your life, will you think about that flashlight or set of keys in your pocket?

Expecting natural responses like tunnel vision allows you to overcome them.
If you can pull your attention from the sound of gunfire in front of you, perhaps
you’ll notice the escape route right behind?

The same can be said about practicing emergency reloads. Who wants to spend hours doing that? But when put in the broader perspective of survival skills, you can see why it’s essential. You need to be able to execute these basic actions automatically. It will free your brain to focus on more important matters, like solving the crisis at hand.

This isn’t just a call to regular training, although it certainly is that too. It’s a call to develop these mechanical skills to the point where your mind is free to focus on other things. It needs to focus on what is happening rather than recalling the steps to clear a malfunction or other basic process.

To do this, make your practice ever more complex by bringing in stress, multiple targets or anything that will force your mind to adjust to what you’ll encounter. It’s called stress inoculation. It’s training the mind as much as the body because the mind is the ultimate weapon. Realizing this makes everything else look like tools available for your survival.

This is the reason I recommend training rather than just shooting. Push yourself incrementally further each time so your mind can adapt and overcome when your life is on the line. My wife calls my training paranoia. She says my constant alertness is unnatural. I agree; it is unnatural, but there’s nothing natural about overcoming a deadly threat. If a battle ever appears, I plan to win. 

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