Every security operator should be concerned with whether or not their officers possess situational awareness. Most everyone has a vague idea of what that is, but they can’t define it, and they certainly don’t know how to tell if a guard has it.
As defined by the United States Coast Guard, Situational Awareness is: "the ability to identify, process, and comprehend the critical elements of information about what is happening to the team with regards to the mission". More simply, it's knowing what is going on around you.
Having situational awareness and training situational awareness are two different beasts, but both are highly important factors. Let's dive into a few strategies that will help you cultivate and improve situational awareness among your security officers.
What Is Situational Awareness?
After years in the security industry, I define it as understanding how your surroundings, your customer’s needs, and the chain of escalation in your own company should impact your actions in high-pressure situations. These situations can vary from internal or external threats to environmental issues within the company.
For example, if your officer works in a manufacturing plant, they need to account for the forklifts, multi-ton presses, hot liquids, hazardous chemicals, and hazardous items. Security officers need to be careful and attentive around this equipment, or they could put themselves or someone else into a dangerous situation.
In an emergency situation, guards have to be able to quickly evaluate the situation and make split second decisions. When the emergency hits their post, when fight or flight response is in full alert mode and the adrenaline is flowing, that extra second delay because they weren’t paying attention to their surroundings can be costly.
Many otherwise great managers and officers can’t think in a crisis or emergency situation. Some people are built to be able to think on their feet and do the right thing, immediately. They can size up the situation and make the correct decision, most of the time, within a nano-second.
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Teaching Situational Awareness
But situational awareness is as much an acquired skill as it is inborn. While people can have those instincts and awareness, it can also be taught. You have to endeavor to teach your officers, and yourself, how to have that awareness. It’s not easy, but it could save their lives.
One thing I always teach my officers is to be a little bit paranoid. Yes, paranoid. I’d rather they be somewhat paranoid rather than dismiss noises, leaks, or items out of place. The people that react best in an emergency are the ones that are already expecting the worst and paying close attention to their surroundings.
So, how do you train officers to be paranoid? Start by teaching them to investigate everything, even down to the smallest noise. You want them to develop a baseline awareness of their surroundings and question everything that’s out of place.
Even when there’s no emergency, this awareness is important. As a security officer, 30 years ago, I heard what sounded like someone whistling coming from a corner of the manufacturing plant that I had locked up securely. I investigated and finally reported it. Turned out it was the wind rushing under the polyurethane covering on the roof that needed to be replaced. I got a healthy thank you from the maintenance and plant managers.
Obviously, you don’t want security officers that are so paranoid and scared of their own shadow that they’ll panic and call the police or supervisor at the slightest sound. However, if you utilize team building and observation exercises in your monthly or quarterly meetings, they will be better observers and acquire that awareness.
Encourage officers to investigate things they see in their peripheral vision. Try to put them in a position where they’re not rooted to a post and can go check out something they see. At worst, they may spend a couple minutes investigating a raccoon. On the other hand, they might stop a trespasser or a break in.
It even goes as far as smell. If you or your officers smell something out of the ordinary, sniff like you’re sniffing bacon and coffee first thing in the morning. It may look strange and ridiculous, so it’s your job to create an environment where officers are rewarded for this vigilance rather than mocked for it.
Be Mentally Prepared
In addition to maintaining vigilance, you have to run various scenarios through your mind so you are prepared for any kind of event, no matter what it may be. I always instructed my officers to think as a criminal to prepare themselves for a situation and then how-to handle it, quietly, efficiently, & effectively as a professional.
One of the precepts of a good managerial team is to recognize the limitations of their people, whether they are managers or employees. Sometimes you’ll have supervisors, who otherwise are good at handling their people but can’t think straight in an emergency. In that case, the company needs to appoint someone else to lead the team to safety. That someone may even be a regular security officer.
Are you the one to lead all the employees to safety? If you answer negatively, then you may want to train yourself along with your officers in the situational awareness you need so you can be counted on in a crisis event. No one needs to be a hero, but everyone in your organization should be ready to handle a crisis.
- Situational awareness is hard to learn but easy to lose. It takes practice and a conscious effort.
- Pay attention to events out of the ordinary.
- Look for unusual behavior of civilians, employees, and team members around you.
- Maintain a proactive approach to gathering information.
- Be quick to act in a compromising situation and communicate effectively.
- Understand the site you're working and the common risks associated with it.
- Constantly assess the situation.