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. 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.