10 Tips for Improving Your Situational Awareness on Campus

These 10 activities will break you out of your routine, make you more aware of your surroundings and make you a better campus emergency manager.
Published: September 18, 2017

Let’s face it — we go about much of our daily activities on cruise control. It’s that level of habituation that helps us manage the many routine aspects of our hectic lives with minimal conscious effort. Thus, we are able to wake up, wash up, get dressed, arrive at work and enjoy our first cup of coffee often without really remembering how we got there while simultaneously obsessing over the minutiae of the morning’s scheduled office budget meeting.

The power of this phenomenon can be observed by simply renting a car that is different in make and year from your own and recognizing the level of attention to detail required to operate the accessories and drive it.

So it seems fair to ask, if auto pilot is such a clearly useful coping mechanism in an increasingly complex, technologically oriented society, why the angst? From an emergency management perspective, concern arises from two sources: mix and timing. To be an effective life strategy, habituation must be blended with prudent amounts of consciously engaged “situational awareness.”

The U.S. Coast Guard defines situational awareness as “the ability to identify, process, and comprehend the critical elements of information about what is happening to the team with regard to the mission.” More simply, it’s knowing what is going on around you.

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Kevin Reeve, founder of onPoint Tactical, describes situational awareness as the acquired “ability to scan the environment and sense danger, challenges, and opportunities … in the course of normal activity … in sufficient time to affect an outcome.”

Two aspects of this definition are worth noting here. First, this is an acquired skill set; learned rather than inherited. Second, if properly executed, the ultimate value of situational awareness is that it endows the educated practitioner with enough time and choices to mitigate events.

Choosing to be situationally aware is essentially an act of will that typically involves three steps:

  1. Understanding what constitutes the “baseline”
  2. Being sensitive to “normalcy bias”
  3. Refusing to be distracted by “focus lock”

The “baseline” is simply an appreciation of what is usual, common or normal for a given environment or activity. Are vehicles parked in appropriate spots? Are doors locked that are required to be locked? Is there a fire extinguisher available and does the AED work, and if so, do I know how to operate either? In an active shooter event, where is the nearest shelter with a locking door?

“Normalcy bias” refers to the natural human tendency to minimize the unusual to make a given situation more psychologically manageable and ourselves more comfortable. Exercises and after action reports have shown time and again that the more intensely frightening the event, the greater the urge to rationalize and discount the initial perceptions, often with unfortunate results.

What’s the takeaway? If it sounds like a gunshot or smells like smoke, act immediately as though it were a gunshot or fire. Few would disagree that it is infinitely preferable to risk feeling a little foolish than to become a victim.

Finally, “focus lock” refers to those distractors that routinely compete for our attention that can be particularly detrimental for the emergency manager. Whether being mesmerized by something on your cell phone or having tunnel vision in the response phase of an incident, we lose sight of the big picture.

Clearly, under such circumstances, our chances of understanding the situational baseline, let alone detecting deviations, is arguably close to zero as is any realistic opportunity to anticipate and mitigate incipient threats, problems and impacts.

Certainly, there are dozens of scenarios: active shooter, severe weather, hazmat spills and civil disorder, just to name a few, that illustrate the importance of situational awareness for the emergency manager. Each raises a single issue: “What else is there to do?” Likely, the answer for every event would be, “it depends on what else is going on.”

No wonder it is important for emergency managers and public safety officials to be intimately familiar with the baseline of their campuses, which of course change each day and often throughout the day.

So, as a practical manner, emergency managers are confronted with an important question: How do you develop situational awareness on a university campus? It takes a little work, a willingness to step away from the email and quite possibly enjoy some of the activities on campus that we may have overlooked:

  1. Tune into the campus radio station
  2. Read the campus newspaper
  3. Get out of the office; walk around, meet people; see what’s going on; put on the Fitbit and get some exercise while you’re at it
  4. Daily review the campus-wide calendar, which normally includes guest speakers, athletic events, student activities, symposiums, etc.
  5. Participate in various committees
  6. Know the location and condition of emergency equipment and how to use it
  7. Teach a class — perhaps even the freshman seminar class to get a better feel of what’s on in the minds of your new students
  8. Attend events as a guest/fan and consider the impact of severe weather and security issues upon your emergency preparedness posture in the context of such large crowds
  9. Serve as an organizational faculty/ staff advisor
  10. Enroll in a class; the view from the student’s perspective can be both surprising and enlightening

Ultimately, the decision to become situationally aware, to hone the supporting skill sets that underwrite the anticipation so critical to affecting outcomes, is an intensely personal, but not necessarily exclusive choice. Less obvious perhaps are the collateral consequences of that deliberation. Faculty, staff, students, administration and visitors routinely rely upon our judgment. In that larger context, much is at stake.

At its core, situational awareness is not about being paranoid; it is about being alert. So, the next time the National Weather Service places your campus in the Moderate Category, look beyond the storm clouds and focus on what else is going on. Get out of the office, pick up the student newspaper and tune into the campus radio station! The sooner the better.

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Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series