Situational Awareness Skill or Instinct?

Many of us in the security and protection industry have heard the term ‘’situational awareness’’, however, few understand its full meaning or the complexities of its components. This may help.

First, to explain the definition of the term situational awareness we will use Endsley’s definition established in 1999:

Situational Awareness is “the perception of the elements in the environment within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning and the projection of their status in the near future” and is divided into three levels:

Level 1- Perception of the elements in the environment.

Level 2- Comprehension of the current situation.

Level 3- Projection of future status.

Regardless of your profession, it is vital to consider situational awareness as your most valuable instinct. It is an instinct because you are born with it. When the hair on the back of your neck stands up when you hear a dog growling behind you, or you suddenly find yourself surrounded by rain clouds… Instinct. When you turn and throw a stone at the dog to avoid being bitten or run inside the house to keep from getting wet…Skill

How effectively you use your instinct to protect yourself is a skill you must develop to survive in any environment.

I have routinely been asked if I can teach ‘’situational awareness’’. I usually answer this question with a question;

Are you aware of your own ability to apply your knowledge and skill to your surroundings, adapt to changes in the conditions affecting your environment, or recognize when you are not capable of these?

More simply, I can teach the theory of “Situational Awareness” but are you capable of combining and applying what you learn with your own existing natural instinct?

Some people can orient themselves easily to their environment and remain aware of activity affecting it while remaining ready to adapt to changes in it. Others cannot pay attention to the most obvious things around them due to distractions or even denial, or an inability to recognize environmental characteristics which could threaten their security or safety. Cellphones, intense conversation with others, overly noisy environments, darkness, heavy crowds, high crime areas, unstable governments… the list is endless, but all add to an inability to focus your senses on conditions which could mask specific threats.

After many years in the business I am conditioned to think as a security professional, even when not working. Taking my niece to school, jogging, shopping, or traveling on vacation or to work, I study my routes, weather, social and political activity, and even laws or rules which could affect my movement. There is no difference between when I am working and when I am not. There are few times when I completely ‘’shut down’’ or relax. I notice people who might be watching me, those lingering or loitering with no purpose, animal activity or behavior (because they react to things humans can’t hear or see), and I look for changes in weather, know what time it will be getting dark in July versus December and know what time the highway will be jammed with traffic. In addition to these, I always know what time it is. I study which way a door opens, closest exits, whether tables are bolted to the floor in a restaurant, and if I can sit and see the door without being directly in front of it. I look for people’s reactions when the Police walk in and if the girl jogging by my apartment has made more than one pass in the last 20 minutes.

Factors that can negatively affect your situational awareness: 

Focusing too much on one source of information

Such as environmental factors or technology and gadgets.


There is a reason some in our line of work consider routine activities to be as deadly as a bullet. Habits form complacency which can lead to a numbing of the senses.  You must remain alert at all times.

“Burn Out”

Experienced supervisors and team leaders know well that overworking your operatives can be very dangerous for your operation and your clients. An operative who is required to work 16 hours or more will lose focus and energy and attention to details will suffer. Awareness of environmental factors affecting situational awareness as well as reaction times and cognitive thinking will suffer. Personally, I do not allow any of my operatives to work more than 10 hours in a day and insist that they be given the appropriate time to rest.

Psychological factors/Stress/Personal Problems

Any of these can affect your ability to gather and process information. You must know how to identify things which can negatively influence your ability to properly manage stress and emotional challenges.

Physical illness/medication

Being physically ill or in pain, or on medication will affect operational ability and your situational awareness.

Preconceptions and misinterpreting

People tend to try matching information to specific ideas rather than having all the parameters and the whole idea of what is going on. This happens with new practitioners as well as overworked veterans. Misconceptions of the protection industry by Hollywood and inaccurate reporting by the news media are also to blame for preconceptions. Misinterpreting information from your environment will give you false situational awareness, which will lead you to taking incorrect or harmful actions that will put your and your principal’s safety in jeopardy.

Lack of proper training

Basic training is not enough. being repetitively trained in different scenarios will enable you to take the correct actions when a situation/threat occurs in real life. When you are trained in different scenarios, you will be more likely to know what a situation looks like and have an appropriate response to deal with it.

A Situational Awareness checklist

  • Ambiguous information

Do you have information from two or more sources that do not agree?

  • Confusion

Are you uncertain or uneasy about a situation?

  • Primary duties

Are all team members in their respective places and performing their assigned functions?

  • See and avoid

Is there too much heads-down time without looking around? is your vision/hearing occupied by other distractions?

  • Fixation

Are you focused on any one task? Do you know what time it is?

  • Communication

Have you heard or made any vague or incomplete statements?

  • Contradictions

Have you failed to resolve any discrepancies or contradictory information?

  • Orientation

Have you lost your orientation of your current position to exits, safe spaces?

In your effort to bring back the level of your situational awareness you can practice the following:

  • Train yourself with different scenarios in different environments. Use the ‘’what if’’ method so you avoid any surprises.
  • Gather as much information you can. Use all available resources, contacts, tools.
  • Scan your environment always. Don’t focus only on small details but also stay focused on the bigger picture. Each must be considered and evaluated equally.
  • Plan ahead. Study the environment adapt to changes.
  • Do not assume. This leads to misinterpreting information and the situation resulting in incorrect actions.
  • Watch movies or television shows and look for fallacies in the script, make-up, wardrobe, scenery, technical subject matter accuracy and other things to test your attention to detail.

Situational Awareness involves a constant study of all things in your environment that can have an effect on it, including you.


Denida Zinxhiria

Founder & CEO

Athena Worldwide LLC

Athena Academy


The contribution of Body Language in dealing with Terrorism and Crime

By Andreas Venetis

Founder & CEO

Venetis Consulting & Training Services


In 1989, the FBI had arrested a person for espionage against the USA. After a large number of interrogations, the investigators could not get any information about his possible partners. “They tried several times to persuade, by citing his patriotic and humanistic feelings – that he could save many human lives – but they didn’t get any extra information about his partners. At the end of the interrogations, they decided to make a last attempt through the use of body language. “They put names of possible partners on 13-centimetre tabs. In each tab that showed him (total 32 to 33), they asked him to tell them in general what he knows about each individual.

They knew for sure that in the past he had been associated with them professionally and they assumed one of them might have also been his partner in this case of espionage. During the interrogation process, they weren’t paying any significant attention to his verbal answers, since they had not been able to get any information from his words. But, they focused observing his facial expressions.

They observed that while they showed him two specific names, on the tabs, his eyes first opened wide, then through the contractions of the eyelids they diminished, and finally his pupils looked elsewhere as if he felt a threat from these two names. This could be interpreted maybe because they had threatened to kill him if he ever spoke about them. In a subsequent investigation of these two individuals, they admitted their participation in the espionage case. «From the unconscious contractions of the suspect’s eyelids and eyes, which happened as a reflex, independently of his will (through the limbic system, especially the tonsil), led to the elucidation of a national security case for the USA (Navarro, 2007, p. 173)

Οn the contrary, the cerebral cortex plays the basic role in all brain functions, such as memory, attention, perception, thoughts, language, and consciousness helps us consciously check and decide what to say. Eyelid contractions, which cover part of the eyeball, are automatically controlled by the amygdala.

When we see something that interests us, the eyelids extend upward and the eyes open wide; when we do not want to see something or we do not like what we see, the eyelids twist and the eyes “diminish”. When we do not want to see something, our pupils turn elsewhere (sometimes the whole head) or even close our eyes – for example, in the incident of a terrible accident or during a horrible spectacle. All of those become “reflex”, spontaneous and unconscious, coming from the amygdala. An example of amygdala-function, from which someone can get important information, is a case of espionage reported by writer Joe Navarro during his service with the FBI (Navarro, 2007, p. 22)

During the incidents, I faced while I was working as the security director at a Casino, the aversion of gaze was the first thing someone did when I showed him the item he had stolen. There was a series of soothing moves that followed and, at the end, the most obvious movement was the excessive look in the eyes with the palms open, a move that states “I have nothing to hide”, as the suspect was trying to convince me that he had not steal it.

In a case where an object of high value was stolen by a member of the staff (and while there were indications, but not cameras evidence), during my conversation with the suspect, I noticed that she constantly had her fingers braided with each other, which is a classic stress indication, as it will be discussed in the following chapters. She quite often covered her neck area with her hand – a characteristic women’s move when they feel insecure, threatened or stressed, and at the same time she had a great difficulty in breathing, while she was saying: “I didn’t steal it” (all the above-described moves are typical stress indications).

However, her verbal denial was not accompanied at the same time by the negative movement of the head, as it is customary. Instead, she first said “no”, without beckoning at the same time, as it is normally expected; and then, at the end of her verbal denial, she made the negative head move. In short, what she was saying verbally in relation to what her body was saying was asynchronous. To me, this was a strong indication that something wasn’t right. After fifteen (15) minutes of conversation, she admitted that she had stolen it. Stress, whether you are a spy, a thief, or an aspiring assassin, is expressed in a similar way by all people. And this is because we are biological human beings with the same internal organs and biological functions. The only thing that changes is the frequency of the movements, depending on the stress degree someone has, but also on the sex (if one is male or female).

***The article is a small part of my Thesis on ”The contribution of body language in dealing with terrorism and crime: A comparative analysis of international cases” and the picture used for the article is from the incident taken one min before the assassination of the Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov***

Andreas Venetis


Venetis Consulting & Training Services