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The Use of Force Spectrum: Situational Awareness



Situational awareness (SA) is the awareness of all important factors affecting a scenario, an understanding of the effect of those factors on the situation, and the ability to project those statuses into the immediate future. The term was first used in aeronautical warfare but has since been applied to all forms of engagement. SA is an important aspect of the Use of Force spectrum because its effective use allows a person a great deal of initiative and an understanding of all the parameters at play in a potential encounter.  Just as Awareness of Self affects all aspects of the Use of Force Spectrum, SA affects all aspects to a great degree. In fact, some would argue that Self Awareness and Situational Awareness should not be placed on the Use of Force spectrum because they are pre-conflict. Because they are both critical in every aspect of Use of Force, their inclusion is easily justified as a study of Use of Force.



Avoidance is the capability to prevent contact with a person or group, either by movement, stealth, or both. The next article covers factors in escape and avoidance, so this article won’t be going into details on that aspect of Use of Force, but there are several factors when thinking of avoidance that are augmented by SA.

First and foremost, successful SA grants the ability to know there is a contact in the area that may be a threat. Successful SA might mean that the protector in this situation knows of the presence of the threat before the threat is aware of the protector. In this case, the protector is granted initiative in the encounter, and has a far greater chance of escape and avoidance because the threat is not yet aware of the protector. The protector can choose to engage or disengage from the situation.

SA grants an understanding about the potential contact. Is the contact a threat or not a threat?  Is the contact a single individual or multiple people? Are they in one group or have they split up? Are they visibly armed? Are they engaged in the environment or does something stand out (such as if they’re at a carnival, are they enjoying the place or do they look more ready to do something out of character for the environment)? Have they singled out someone as the focus of their attention? Did they enact something based on something they saw?

800px-Two_F-22_Raptor_in_column_flight2.thumb.jpg.a605e98d6ef902fdf24cefc3793298d9.jpg SA also grants an understanding of the local environment. Knowing a location, terrain, escape routes, hiding places, etc. are all important factors in understanding the environment’s role in the capability of avoidance. Is the area crowded and one can evade or blend in the crowd? Is it very quiet where running footsteps will be easily heard? Is there a direction and route that assures safety, such as getting to the authorities? Are there rain or wet surfaces that might preclude running at full speed? Are there animals such as dogs that might start barking to give away one’s presence? Successful SA takes these factors into account.

I read a situation report from an individual at a Detroit area gas station. While he was pumping gas, he noticed two people look at him and point. One of them casually approached while the other went around the building. Because of successful situational awareness, this acquaintance was able to position himself so he could see the other person emerge from the other side of the building while the first person engaged him in conversation (pretense for contact) and head towards him. Using situational awareness and verbal de-escalation, he was able to convince them to go elsewhere. Their plan to have one person distract while another snuck up from behind failed, and seeing that they no longer had the element of surprise, the contacts went elsewhere.


Verbal De-escalation

Successful SA in verbal de-escalation means the protector can accurately determine if a person can be reasoned with or talked down, or if the situation is more likely to go to a physical force or greater altercation. It can give insight into how to de-escalate (intimidation/dominance or a feigned capitulation).  Like the example above, it also can determine if the contact is employing a stalling technique or an attention diversion. Successful SA might give insight as to potential avenues of discussion, or certain empathies the contact may have that will yield a greater chance of de-escalating.

Physical Force through Lethal Force

SA used in all parts of established contact scenarios can help a protector successfully survive an encounter. Much of the same environmental factors still apply, with an understanding of how they can be used in a force related event. Awareness of obstacles to attempt avoidance translates into cover or concealment obstructions in a force related event.

Successful SA can provide what level of force an enemy is starting with and what they may resort to if things change. Something so simple as an adjustment to a waist belt can be a ‘tell’ that the person has a concealed pistol. Making pretense to get close to the target can indicate they have a knife or other handheld object to effect their assault.

Likewise, successful SA can tell the protector clues about the attacker’s capabilities. Things like a limp may provide an advantage, as well as noting an athletic build and assured gait may mean the attacker is formidable and requires a different response.



Situational Awareness is key to understanding the myriad of parameters in all stages of the Use of Force continuum and allows for the greatest chance to successfully mitigate the threat of harm since it can provide initiative in an encounter, and multiple paths to ensure personal protection.


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