Situation Awareness

In our everyday lives, we can find ourselves in situations that can become life-threatening from one second to the next. Supposedly without warning, people repeatedly get into situations that often scar the victims for the rest of their lives. In the process, subsequent reflection often shows that there were indeed omens for what happened, which are sometimes more, sometimes less subtle. In all occupations that pose an above-average risk of danger, there is a strong focus on so-called situation awareness in training. Recognising a potential danger at an early stage and reacting adequately to it saves lives in case of doubt. Incidentally, this realisation applies not only to soldiers, police officers and bodyguards, but also to ordinary private individuals who, if they are attentive to the world, are less likely to be surprised by natural disasters, crimes and accidents.

Situation Awareness (also called situational awareness) is a term from psychology that refers to the understanding and perception of the environment and events that take place around us. It refers to the ability to gather, interpret and understand information from the environment to get an accurate picture of the current situation.

A person who has a high level of situation awareness has a better chance of recognising potential threats and dangers in their environment and acting accordingly. An example of this is a motorist driving on the road who is aware that it is raining and the roads are slippery. This person will drive more carefully and possibly prepare for a possible skidding or accident situation.

Situation awareness is an important factor for safety and performance in many fields, including aviation, medical, military and law enforcement.

A distinction is made between three aspects of situation awareness:

  1. Perception: This refers to the ability to perceive the environment and events around us. Unfortunately, we very often cheat ourselves of the efficiency of our senses. Headphones with loud music on the ears, eyes fixed on a screen, a coffee mug in the hand. Shielded in this way, many of the small warning signs that could have warned the victim in time do not stand out. As examples one can cite: The engine noise of an approaching vehicle which you do not hear because of the music, a faint smell of burning which you do not notice because you are already eating the strong-smelling food on the train or you overlook the robber who is already fixating on you because you turn into the dark side street without looking up at the smartphone navigation.
  1. Understanding: This refers to the ability to understand the meaning and implications of the information and events in our environment, for which it is particularly helpful and important to first know what is normal for the place and situation I am in. Only when we know what is normal can we identify deviations and classify them according to their hazard potential. Here it is helpful to consult in advance with people who know the area or locals and to recognise the warning signs that may indicate danger. Whether the column of smoke on the horizon is a forest fire and action is needed or whether it comes from the local waste incinerator and thus does not pose an acute danger, you will quickly find out if you only ask with interest. If “normally” warning signs indicate the way to the nearest emergency exit but are missing in your own hotel, you should notice this and find out if there are no emergency exits or if they are present but not signposted.
  2. Possible consequences: This refers to the ability to foresee and be prepared for possible future developments or events. Many potentially dangerous situations follow certain sequences and thus, when the first warning signs appear, it is possible to make predictions about what will happen next. If you know that the main quake is regularly followed by aftershocks, which often cause severe damage to the damaged buildings, you will not run headlong back into the buildings after the first quake has passed. Those who know what environmental conditions lead to black ice will avoid participating in road traffic in these situations. And those who know the effects of a prolonged power blackout will also prepare themselves.

Situation awareness can be improved through training and practice. However, it also requires a conscious decision to be attentive and to consciously perceive and interpret information in our environment. In order to illustrate the different states of consciousness within situation awareness, the so-called colour codes of awareness are often used.

The “Colour Code of Awareness” is a method for increasing personal safety developed by US military and police officers. This method consists of a scale of four colours that represent different states of consciousness and are intended to help recognise and react appropriately to dangerous situations.

The four colours are:

  1. White: This state represents carelessness and ignorance. In this state, one is not prepared for possible dangers and is not consciously aware of the surroundings. Unfortunately, as described above, the vast majority of people find themselves in this state almost permanently.
  2. Yellow: In this state you are relaxed but alert. One is aware that dangers can occur and watches out for possible signs of them.
  3. Orange: In this state, you are prepared for a possible threat and have a plan for how you would react. One is alert and observes the surroundings closely.
  4. Red: This state occurs when a concrete threat has been detected. One reacts to the situation accordingly in order to protect oneself.

The Color Code of Awareness is intended to help people become more aware of their surroundings and recognise possible dangerous situations at an early stage so that they can react appropriately. The sequence of the described states is not always linear either. Attentive people may well go through several of these states in the course of a day, in varying order and duration. Also, the change between the phases can be almost seamless. In some cases, the described scale is extended by a 5th level “Black”. This condition describes the complete inability to act due to shock, fear or injury or powerlessness. Since in this state, which must be avoided at all costs, it is no longer possible to influence events anyway, this state should only be mentioned here for the sake of completeness.

How is it possible to train one’s own situation awareness in everyday life and as a civilian? As in the professional field, “practice creates routine”. So in the course of a day, keep asking yourself things like, “Where is the nearest emergency exit?” “Is my car parked to the left or right of the entrance to the building I’m in?” “If I had to brake now ..will I really make it?” The more often you focus on situations and analyse their potential dangers, the more likely you are to develop a reflexive scanner’s eye and, if the worst comes to the worst, you will be able to make sensible decisions to protect yourself and your loved ones from harm.

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