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Observation Techniques to Avoid Terrorist and Criminal Threats

With increased public awareness of terrorism and crime, there is a corresponding interest in finding ways to protect ourselves from violent attack. Whenever the subject of personal security is discussed, the experts recommend increased “situational awareness”. Tips such as “Keep your head on a swivel,” “Stay alert,” or “Watch your six,” are repeated. All of this is good advice, but ineffective. People are too easily distracted for these platitudes to be useful. We try to pay attention to our surroundings but within seconds our minds wander. Additionally, this advice tells us to look but does not tell us what to look for.

Even when we start with the best of intentions, we are easily distracted,. The next time you are in Walmart, Costco, or the gift shop in a Cracker Barrel, look around you. You are faced with a vast array of images, colors, and sometimes sound and movement, all cleverly contrived to grab and hold your attention. Each package is scientifically designed and tested to compel you to focus on it. In this environment how long are you going to stay alert? How likely are you to notice a possible threat?

For some time I have advocated commentary driving to keep alert to potential problems. Commentary driving requires you to talk to yourself out loud about your environment as you drive. While this is an effective way to remain alert while driving, talking to yourself as you wander through stores or other public venues may draw unwanted attention. (It might be less noticeable in Walmart.)

In those cases where security experts go beyond the catch phrases, they often advise you to identify the nearest exit. Again, good advice, but it alone hardly provides sufficient awareness or preparation to escape a violent attack.

So how do you develop the habit of being vigilant? The same way you develop any habit. As Charles Duhigg outlines in his book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, developing a new habit requires three things – a reminder, the routine (new habit), and a reward. Repetition is obviously also required to fully integrate the habit.

I recommend using something yellow as a reminder. Placing a small piece of yellow tape on your cell phone is one effective technique, especially if you tend to pay too much attention to your phone and too little to your environment. When you see the yellow tape you are reminded to follow the procedure outlined below.

The routine is to use a mnemonic to observe your surroundings and, just as importantly, to remind you of what you are looking for. The mnemonic is “ESCAPE(D).” The letters stand for the following:

Environment. Is the general environment hostile or friendly? Is it likely or unlikely that an attack could occur here?

Scan. Scan the entire area in an all-inclusive pattern. Keep your eyes moving. Do not focus on one single thing.

Cover and Concealment. Is there anything that will protect you from a likely threat (small arms fire, vehicles, etc)? Is there anything that will hide you from the threat?

Allies. Is there anyone who can help you? Is there anyone you must help?

Potential threats. What are the likely threats?

Entrances and Exits. Where are the entrances and exits? Where is a threat likely to come from? Can you get to an exit?

Distance (after the initial escape). Get as much distance between you and the threat/incident as possible as quickly as possible.

The reward is improved awareness and the beginning of an escape plan.

Finally, we must repeat the routine until evaluating the environment is ingrained and automatic. Eventually doing something without having to consciously decide to do it is what makes the routine a habit.

Obviously, if you go shopping or to a public event, you will focus on things other than threats. However, you should use the technique each time you enter a new environment and frequently reevaluate your surroundings as the environment evolves.

Remember – ESCAPE!

Richard Bradford is a West Point graduate, former Army Special Forces Officer, and retired CIA Paramilitary Operations Officer who designed and taught personal security courses to CIA and other personnel deploying to hostile areas. He is the author of Personal Security: Preparing for the Unexpected in an Wra of Crime and Terrorism, available at

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