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Situational Awareness

What is Situational Awareness?

We are surrounded by stimulus. Some of the stimulus is important and some of it’s just white noise distracting us from our mission. Some of the stimulus we bring on ourselves, while most of it is a natural reaction to the environment that we are operating in.

A person is situationally aware when they are in tune with their surrounding environment. The environment can be their physical environment or their social environment. This includes the interactions occurring around them between climate, nature, people and things. These interactions are understood by the interpretation of specific “cues”.

The “Cues”

This is the foundation of which situational awareness is based. The following cues come together to provide a holistic picture of the environment.

  1. Topographical information, or streetscape, or room layout etc.
  2. Position of objects, dead spaces, heights and depths, hidden areas.
  3. Climatic effects associated with the environment.
  4. Movement of objects and their speed in relation to other objects.
  5. The behavioural actions of individuals or groups.
  6. Equipment and operating systems and also the stimulus they represent (radios, instrument panels, gauges).

The meaning of the “Cues”

Observing the cues is just the start. To be situationally aware, a person is required to understand what the cues mean. The depth of their understanding will directly correspond to the depth of situational awareness that they have.

Generally speaking, a person’s personal knowledge of what each cue represents will be gained primarily through their own exposure and experience. This can be enhanced should the person have an element of formal education pertaining to the cue. Further depth is gained through shared normalative behaviours, beliefs, symbols and procedures. This is better known as culture and can be in the form of storytelling or lesson transfer through conversations.


A young child has no idea how dangerous a road is. For an adult, arguably a person with experience, the dangers are obvious. An adult approaches the road with a heightened degree of situational awareness. They can discern between different types of traffic noises (cars, buses, trucks, trams, trains). An adult understands vehicle movement speeds and driver behaviours, ringing of bike bells, sounds of horns the schedule of traffic control signals. All these things help shape the person’s situational awareness and allow them to gain a reliable picture of what lays ahead.

An adult, generally, also has the added advantage of formal driver training.  In some cases, they might have extra road safety training or job-specific driving training, dependant on their employment. In addition, the adult has heard stories about the dangers, they may have seen traffic accidents first hand and watched news reports of fatalities. The cues have been reinforced and the stories and training validated. So, it can be argued that most adults have a heightened situational awareness around roads.

Predicting the Future based on the cues.

Having good situational awareness is a brilliant survival mechanism, it means that the individual can predict what might occur next depending on what action they themselves take. A person with situational awareness can better predict what is going to occur because of the stimulus they are observing. This is a powerful tool as it allows a person to remove threats, treat risks, adjust behaviours or undertake different actions to shape the outcomes.

When things don’t seem right.

What may look like a normal situation could in fact be something very different if there are certain cues missing or there are additional cues that don’t make sense in the context.

The absence of normality.

When something is normal it means that it fits a specific construct, that is to say that relative to every other time this is the normal outcome or the normal pattern. For example, when walking through the woods, it’s perfectly normal to hear the birds chirping away. If the birds suddenly stopped, then there is now the absence of normality.

The presence of abnormality.

When something is abnormal it means that its presence does not fit that construct, that is to say that relative to every other time this is now a different outcome or pattern to what would usually be expected. The reason that the birds have stopped chirping could be because of the sudden presence of a predator, or your dog.

Perceptions of what’s in or out of place.

Your interpretation of the cues drives your perception of what is in or out of place. However, the human brain becomes quickly accustomed to new things and changes its perception of what is normality. So, to be situationally aware it’s important to be attuned to your surroundings and to identify the presence of any abnormalities.

Changes can be subtle too. People changing their routines can be an indicator that things aren’t normal. For example, it was common for women and children to run away from villages in Afghanistan when the Taliban would be about to attack a foot patrol. This is an absence of normality. This change in the pattern of life was an indicator to ground forces of an imminent attack. It’s easy to see how variations of this can be an indicator of an event about to unfold. Another example is the ‘spotter” a person who would sit on the side of the hill and report troop movements. This is the presence of an abnormality. Their presence was not normal. A goat herder would usually be walking with their flock, perhaps whistling to keep them moving along or ringing a hand-held bell, not directing mortar fire from a handheld radio.


In life, having situational awareness is a crucial skill. It basically means that you’re able to see a few seconds or even minutes ahead. Having this awareness means that you can prepare yourself for what’s about to occur. There are some things that detract from your situational awareness, and not surprisingly they are things that diminish your senses. Your head buried in a smartphone screen is the most obvious example. Always connected, but not really connected. Other stimuli can be equally as distracting: TV, loud music, people talking or the action occurring around you.

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