How to Improve Situational Awareness


Situational awareness is a vital skill or mindset that everyone should be aware of. It’s also something you must constantly practice. Make it your goal to improve situational awareness each day. The better you are at analyzing your surroundings and pinpointing potential threats, the higher your chances of surviving said threats.

It’s not enough to know that there exists such a thing and to practice it constantly. You should also strive to teach your loved ones how to practice situational awareness. You won’t always be there to tell your family if something’s up. They need to fend for themselves when you’re not around.

Incidentally, September 26 is National Situational Awareness Day. This is the perfect time to introduce your family and friends to this particular survival skill and to help them create a mindset revolving around their safety and security.

The annual holiday, which started through the efforts of Pretty Loaded, aims to promote personal safety. The date was chosen in memory of Dru Katrina Sjodin, who was born on this day. In 2003, the 22-year-old college student was abducted by a convicted rapist and level 3 sex offender from the parking lot of a mall where she worked.  Her body was found five months later.

The Dru Sjodin National Sex Offender Public Registry was signed into law in 2006. This registry allowed the public to obtain information on sex offenders across the country. It was a little too late for Dru but her passing didn’t come in vain. People are now more aware of their personal safety and are inspired to improve situational awareness.




Most experts teach people to Observe, Orientate, Detect, and Act (OODA). The OODA Loop is the brainchild of the late military strategist John Richard Boyd. The former Air Force fighter pilot and veteran of World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam War believed that to come out victorious, one needs to make the right decisions quickly based on the situation at present.

To do that, you must first Observe your surroundings using your senses. The facts collected from your observation will then go through Orientation, which is simply to analyze and synthesize the data. Based on this analysis, you will now come up with a Decision on what course of action to take. Finally, you Act on your decision by putting the plan you quickly concocted in your head into effect. Since this decision cycle was conceptualized during wartime, the whole process should be quick. It’s still the same when applied to current more peaceful times.



According to former Navy SEAL Chris Sajnog (see video below), the OODA Loop is not really a loop but a linear sequence. The SEAL Loop, however, stays true to its name by stressing the importance of learning from your experiences.

The SEAL Loop stands for See or Sense, Evaluate, Act, and Learn. Situational awareness is not just about using your eyes to observe. You have other senses that you should take advantage of. Look around. Listen to what you are hearing or what you are NOT hearing. Take notice of the scents you pick up. If you smell gasoline, that’s a red flag unless you’re at a gas station. It’s also important to be in the present. This helps a lot in making you more aware of your surroundings.

After observing, evaluate quickly what you have picked up. For example, you smell something burning and you know that no one is having a barbecue party. So what does that tell you? Even if you can’t see the smoke, your mind tells you there could be fire.

So what will you do with that piece of information? You need to act fast. Inform security that you smell smoke then try to look around for the possible source. Keep an eye on the exits and be ready to evacuate in case there is indeed fire.

Finally, you should learn from this experience. In the example given above, you learned that you are correct not to disregard what you sensed. If you did something wrong, like forgetting to locate fire extinguishers upon entry, then this mistake will teach you a lesson. Next time you enter a building, you’ll be more aware of fire extinguishers.



As mentioned, a key aspect of situation awareness is being in the present. That’s exactly what meditation teaches us. You need to achieve a state of mindfulness to improve situational awareness. This is possible through regular meditation.

Mindfulness is described as the state of being conscious or aware of something. One of the benefits of meditation is the capability to accept things as they are, which in turn makes it easier to let go. This translates to relief from stress. If you encounter something stressful, just accept it as that and move on. Let that feeling linger and you’ll end up annoyed, frustrated, angry, restless, and insecure.

If you let yourself be stressed, your mindfulness suffers. When that happens, you are less capable of paying attention to what is happening around you. You become less aware thus you are not ready when something goes wrong.


Practice Your Observation Skills At Home

Start improving your observation skills by being more aware of your immediate surroundings. You’ve been living in your home for years, many of you perhaps since you were born, but can you proudly say you know every nook and corner?

Sit down on your couch and just look around. Close your eyes and picture the scene in your mind. Start with the left corner of the room. Can you recall what items are on your left? Open your eyes and check if you got them all. It is a simple exercise but if you practice it regularly, your observational skills will eventually improve.

Also, memorizing a scene will help you identify if something is amiss. For example, you come home one day and notice the back door slightly open or some broken pieces of glass by the window. If you’re oblivious to your surroundings, you might not have noticed them immediately. But if you have developed situational awareness, you know something’s wrong and will call for help immediately.

While you’re at it, check the whole house for things that shouldn’t be there. That knife on the table? Put it back in the drawer or knife holder. See the toy truck near the bottom of the stairs? That’s an accident waiting to happen.

This exercise will help you work on your skills to spot potential disasters. This will also help you develop your mindset that you can make things safer around you.


Develop Situational Awareness In A New Environment

Whenever you are somewhere unfamiliar, the first thing you have to do is familiarize yourself as best as you can. Start observing before you enter a building. Check if they have security personnel stationed and see if they’re attentive. The lack of guards on duty or distracted security people is a red flag. If there’s a threat, they won’t be prepared to neutralize it.

Once you’re inside, look for emergency exits. You should know the nearest exit from wherever you are in case you need to evacuate. Analyze the routes to get there, as well. Be wary of obstructions.

Look for potential hiding places or areas that provide cover in case of an earthquake or if someone comes in with a gun. Be wary of the people around you. You should be able to tell if a person beings in that place. Anyone who sticks out like a sore thumb could be a red flag. Don’t be too paranoid, though. Just be wary of that person and continue to observe others while going about your business.


Install A Home Security System

Having a security system at home is a must whether you’re trying to develop your situational awareness or not. Think of the surveillance cameras as extensions of your eyes and ears. You can continue to observe your surroundings when you physically can’t just by connecting the system to your phone or other devices.

DIY Home Security Tips to Keep Intruders Away | Photo by Kasia Bialasiewicz/Bigstock

Before installing security cameras, you need to figure out the most strategic spots first. That means giving your home and the rest of your property a thorough examination. Determine the layout and find weak points such as dark places and areas where intruders can hide. This should also give you an idea of spots that need additional lighting.

Ideally, you should have your home security system installed by professionals. Their experience in the industry should make it easier for them to find the right spots for your cameras. Still, it won’t hurt if you practice your observation skills, as well. See if your skills match up with the pros. While you’re at it, you should get some tips on how to spot risk areas and analyze different scenarios you may see on your screens including people’s behavior.


Practice Your Observational Skills In the Dark

I’m pretty sure you’ve experienced walking home and passing through dark alleys or streets with busted lampposts. Perhaps you’ve been terrified while walking to your car in a dark parking lot. Or maybe you have stared into the dark trying to see what caused the strange noise outside your home.

Being aware during the day is hard enough. Imagine how difficult it would be to observe your surrounding in the dark. This is why you should develop your senses and practice situational awareness in the dark.

In the evening, turn the lights off and condition yourself for the darkness. It’ll be difficult to see so use your other senses. Take note of what your senses pick up. Use a flashlight or even a night vision monocular to observe in the dark. This practice should help you get used to the dark.


Take Photos

Take a photo of a scene that you always encounter. It can be your room, the front of your house, or even your office or workspace. The next time you visit this place, stop for a minute and try to observe if something is different. Then check your photos if you are right.

Looks like someone picked up those dirty clothes you left on your floor. Oh and look, that car in front of your neighbor wasn’t there before? Wait a minute. Did someone take your favorite stapler from your desk? These are simple exercises but will definitely help improve situational awareness.



Play A Game

It’s our job as parents to protect our children from harm. However, no matter how much we try, we can’t always be physical by their side. That’s why we need to teach them how to fend for themselves.


Did You Notice…?

The best way to teach your children situational awareness is to turn it into a game. Wherever you go, ask them questions that will develop their observational skills.

After leaving a store, for example, ask them if they noticed where the exits were or if they saw the old lady wearing a bra for a face mask. Did they notice the display near their line at the cashier? Make sure you ask different questions to help them become more aware of people, things, places, and events. If you keep asking questions like these, they’ll eventually become more aware of what’s around them.

Check out the video below. Did you notice anything?


I Spy With My Little Eye

This is a fun game to play when you have nothing to do. It doesn’t require any toy or prop. You just need your keen sense of observation. If you’re not familiar with the game, it’s pretty simple. You just say “I spy with my little eye something…” and then describe that something. If you say something round and orange,” they’ll start looking around until they spot the basketball in the neighbor’s yard.


Kim’s Game

Graywolf Survival suggests improving your observational skills by playing Kim’s Game. The game is often used by Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and even the military to develop their situational awareness. It is based on Kim, the 1901novel by Rudyard Kipling. If you don’t know Kipling, he’s the dude behind The Jungle Book.

In the novel, the teen-aged protagonist named Kim O’Hara is training to become a spy under the British Indian Secret Service. As we’ve seen in numerous spy movies, an agent needs a certain set of skills to succeed in his or her missions.

One skill shown in the novel is situational awareness. The spy-in-training was playing the Jewel Game or Play of the Jewels to develop this particular skill. The Jewel Game involves a number of stones that one must observe at a given time. Once time is up, the player must tell what he observed. In the video clip from the 1950 film version, Kim got the total number of stones wrong. His second attempt at the game also ended in failure though he did show some improvement in his observational skills.

To improve situational awareness, you must constantly observe your surroundings but not to the point of obsession. Remember, you’re doing it to be prepared for whatever may happen. It’s not some magic trick for you to show off.


Watch and Learn

It pays to be a movie buff. You can learn a lot of things just by watching films and television shows. Aside from the movie version of Kim, there are plenty of films and television shows that tackle situation awareness.


The Bourne Identity

Perhaps the most popular example of situational awareness shown in a film is the diner scene in The Bourne Identity. Matt Damon’s character, Jason Bourne is suffering from amnesia but still picks up a lot of details from the moment they parked their vehicle and sat inside the diner.

Bourne was able to memorize the plate numbers of all the cars parked outside the diner. He also figured out that the cab or gray truck likely hides a gun. Bourne observed that the waitress is left-handed and could tell how much the male customer at the bar weighs and that he is a capable fighter.

Those may be a tad extreme, superhuman even. Normal people couldn’t deduce all that without practice, and I mean PRACTICE. One thing Bourne mentioned that really made sense is that he checked all the possible exits (and sightlines) upon entering the establishment. This is one of the most important aspects of situational awareness.


Patriot Games

In the video clip below, Harrison Ford’s Jack Ryan can be seen looking around and observing. He notices (sense of sight) the young man picking up the newspaper, which rouses his suspicion. He then hears (sense of hearing) a vehicle revving its motor, which also catches his attention. As he walks on, he continues to observe his surroundings allowing him to spot the same young man now trailing him.

While Ryan keeps walking, he collects all the data and figures out a course of action. He figured that the white truck will provide enough cover to distract his assailant. He succeeds in disarming the man. Luckily, soldiers were there to neutralize the threat.


Sudden Impact

The iconic “Go ahead, make my day” line came from the diner scene from Sudden Impact which shows a bit of situational awareness. While Dirty Harry Callahan was preoccupied with his paper (a big no-no, actually), he did notice something different with his coffee (sense of taste). He then checks the coffee shop and realized that something was wrong after the closed signs were put up. As you can see in the clip below, it didn’t end well for the punks.


The Last Boy Scout

In The Last Boy Scout, Bruce Willis’ character came home and, while talking to his wife, noticed the steam in the shower and the toilet seat up. He also quickly observed that his wife’s hair was dry so it wasn’t her that used the shower recently. His instincts told him something was not right. Thanks to his observational skills, he discovered that his wife was cheating on him with the dude hiding in his closet.


Learn How to Read Non-Verbal Language

Action speaks louder than words. We’ve all heard this, right? This basically summarizes another aspect of situational awareness. You need to learn how to read body language and other non-verbal signals. This is more telling than the words coming out of a person’s mouth.

In the video clip from Sudden Impact, the waitress kept looking at Harry hoping he’d catch on with what was happening. Unfortunately, he was too focused on the paper. If he looked up just once, he would have noticed the non-verbal signals the waitress was giving off. Fortunately, the quick-thinking waitress put lots of sugar in his coffee to tell him something was wrong. Dirty Harry always took his coffee black.

Fourteen-year-old Elizabeth Smart was abducted from her home in 2002 and went missing for nine grueling months. On the day she was rescued, a couple of women spotted Smart with her two abductors and called the authorities. When the police came and questioned them, one of them noticed something amiss with the girl’s body language. According to the police officer, the girl looked so nervous that he could see her heart beating on her shirt. Fortunately, the police officers didn’t give up until the girl admitted that she was indeed Elizabeth Smart.

To improve situational awareness, you must be familiar with the different facial expressions. You should know the difference between happiness, sadness, anger, surprise, fear, and other expressions. Facial expressions are more truthful than words.


Smart refused to admit she was the missing girl for 45 minutes out of fear of her captors. She was abused, brainwashed and threatened if she said something to other people. Despite what she was saying, her facial expression and body language told the police that something was wrong. She continually broke eye contact with the police officer often looking at her captor. This is also a sign that she is trying to hide her true feelings.


Get Off Your Phone

Technology has brought us closer to the rest of the world. It also made us oblivious to what was going on around us. There was a time when people walked upright looking at others straight in the eyes and offering pleasantries. Nowadays, most people are looking down at their phones while walking or driving. Check out the video below to see how dangerous it can be.

Don’t take your phone out in public except when it’s an emergency. If you really have to, stop and take a look around before taking or making a call, answering a text message, or asking Siri for directions.

This is particularly important when you’re driving. Most vehicular accidents happen because the driver is distracted by a device. If you’re on the wheel, your situational awareness should automatically kick in. You need to focus on the road and your surroundings. Don’t use your phone while driving. It’s stupid and irresponsible. Most of all, it may end up costing your life or other people’s lives.


It’s not enough to just improve situational awareness and be able to assess situations to determine the possible threats to your safety. You also need to be prepared to defend yourself or do what it takes to survive. This means you should always have your everyday carry (EDC) kit, which consists of tools to get you out of any predicament.

If you’re trapped in a building or vehicle, a glass breaker or window punch would come in really handy. Tactical pens and flashlights usually have built-in glass breakers so they’re EDC kit must-haves. Speaking of pens, you’ll also need this along with a small notebook to jot down important information such as plate numbers or to leave notes.

Everyday Carry: Top 10 EDC Items For The Prepper Newbie
Everyday Carry: Top 10 EDC Items For The Prepper Newbie | Photo by bsd555/Bigstock

An EDC kit won’t be complete without emergency whistles and non-lethal weapons. A whistle will alert other people if you need help. If you notice someone following you, for example, you can blow your whistle to scare the threat and call the attention of other people.

Get yourself a multi-tool, pocket knife, and pepper spray. A stun gun is also an option as long as it follows local laws. Follow Gentleman Pirate Club to know more about tools or items that can help you deal with emergencies and disasters.


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Gentleman Pirate Club aims to share valuable knowledge and tips on how you can prepare and survive emergencies and other dire situations. We think of different scenarios and show you the many ways you can survive them. We also believe in self-sufficiency as a way to prepare for whatever lies ahead. As our ship sails in these waters, we look for valuable treasures. When we spot one, we tell you where it is.

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