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By Joe Alton, MD of, co-author, The Survival Medicine Handbook

It’s pretty clear at this point that there’s a New Normal out there. There will always be the possibility of a terror event or shooting anywhere that crowds of people gather. It seems that every day, there is an event where a terrorist or madman had decided to take out a soft target. If you learn to be situationally aware, you have a better chance at getting out alive.

Photo credit: JAS-39C Gripen – Pavel Vanka

The basics of situational awareness are described in what is called the OODA Loop. It was first devised by Air Force fighter pilot Colonel John Boyd. Originally meant to help in an aerial dogfight, it’s useful in all sorts of settings. The four steps of the OODA Loop are: Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act. It’s called a loop because you go back to the observe step after you act to see if the situation is resolved or not.

Observe: Yellow Alert

You’ve heard of red alert, but let’s go to yellow alert as our stance in most cases. Yellow alert is best described as “relaxed awareness.” you have your head up and scanning the surroundings with all your senses. Most people associate situational awareness with what they can see, but you also learn a lot from the sounds (or lack thereof) and even smells in the environment.

It’s important to stay relaxed. Staying relaxed ensures that you remain focused on the important aspects of the environment.

Put yourself in a position for optimal observation. You need to be able to take in as much of your surroundings as possible. When you enter any environment, place yourself so that you can view as much of the area in question. If it’s a restaurant, have a view of the exits (maybe a table by a wall). You might not be able to choose which table to sit at, but you can pick a chair which gives you the best view of what’s what.

Orient: Baselines And Anomalies

Being observant, however, isn’t enough. You have to know what you’re looking for and then put that information into context. The Orient step establishes baselines and anomalies for a particular environment and the human behaviors that match it or don’t.

Whatever setting you’re in, establish a baseline. A baseline is what’s “normal” in a given situation, and it’s different for different instances. For example, the baseline at Starbucks is people reading a book, working on their computer, or talking with their friends. The baseline at a rock concert would be loud music and people jumping up and down and shouting. If someone is jumping up and down and shouting at Starbucks, that’s what we call an anomaly.

Anomalies are things that should happen in a situation but don’t or things that do happen but shouldn’t, and are what we need to focus on. Questions you might ask yourself in a crowd:

What’s the general mood? How should people be behaving? Who is doing something that’s different from the norm?

For example, is someone acting in an aggressive manner? Most people are in submissive mode normally. We all want to get along, after all. If someone is at a burger joint, screaming at the guy behind the counter “I said no cheese, you idiot!”, that’s someone to keep an eye on.

Is someone acting too interested in something that ordinarily wouldn’t catch their attention? If you see a guy staring at the garbage can in your workplace, that’s an anomaly. If they’re too uninterested, though, that’s also something that’s not normal. Say there’s a ticking suitcase in the middle of the mall, and only one person isn’t paying attention to it, that’s an anomaly.

Perhaps the most significant anomaly is someone that’s acting uncomfortable in a place where everyone is relaxed. People appear uncomfortable in many ways. One of them is constantly checking their “six”; that is, always looking nervously behind them. If someone is constantly looking over their shoulder, that’s an anomaly and deserves your attention. That’s not to say that everyone who’s uncomfortable is a threat. They might be late for work, for example, or just had an argument with a significant other. Still, you might want to keep an eye on them.

On the other hand, someone who’s comfortable when others are in a panic, such as videos of the Boston Marathon bombers showed, could be someone who expected the disaster to occur.

You might take a look at what people are doing with their hands. Law enforcement often wants to see the hands of someone they’re suspicious of. People who are constantly patting a pocket or reaching inside a jacket, especially if a jacket isn’t warranted for the weather, could be concealing a weapon or worse.

Decide and Act

Once you decided that there’s an anomaly that might represent a threat, have a plan of action to counter it. If a guy with a gun shows up at your workplace, the best course of action might be to hoof it out of there. If he’s right next to you and escape is unlikely, however, your best choice might be to act to incapacitate him.

To recap: Observe the situation, Orient to establish baselines and look for anomalies. Decide on an action. Act.

All this attention to detail may seem paranoid to you, but it’s time to realize that these are dangerous times. Incorporate a constant state of Yellow alert by putting away those smartphones and incorporate the OODA look whenever you’re in a crowd. Do this and you’ll be situationally aware enough to gain extra time that could mean the difference between life and death.

Joe and Amy Alton are the authors of the 3 category #1 Amazon Bestseller “The Survival Medicine Handbook”. See their articles in Backwoods Home, Survival Quarterly, and other great magazines. For over 800 articles on medical preparedness in wilderness, disaster, or other austere settings, go to their website at The opinions voiced by Joe Alton, M.D., and Amy Alton, A.R.N.P. are their own and are not meant to take the place of seeking medical help from a qualified healthcare provider.


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