Using Situational Awareness to Identify Pre-Attack Indicators

Know the signs of an individual who might act out immediately – or weeks or years from now – so you can address student, teacher and staff challenges, as well as prevent violence on campus.

If a gunman or someone else with ill intent were on your campus, when would you want to know about them? At the parking lot, or main entrance? The parking lot. At the main entrance or in the lobby? The main entrance. Lobby, or in the hallway? The lobby. Hallway or classroom? The hallway. You get the idea.

Situational awareness allows you to recognize the early signs of danger in order to prevent violence or at least mitigate an attack. More of an attitude than a hard skill, situational awareness is the ability to identify and process information about what is happening on and around your campus. It is something we all have some of the time but not all of the time.

RELATED: PAINs: Warning Signs of an At-Risk Individual

As is the case with most abilities, there are varying levels of situational awareness. Jeff Cooper, a Marine and innovator of tactical training, pioneered the concept of levels of awareness.  His system, Cooper’s Color Codes, has been used to train military and law enforcement for decades.  Cooper’s Color Codes have nothing to do with warning code phrases or the outdated Homeland Security alert system; they simply assign a color to describe a level of awareness.

Yellow is the goal for optimum situational awareness. By being prepared, alert and relaxed you are best able to observe your environment and notice changes that may pose a risk. Sometimes these observations are subtle and identified via intuition. Intuition is not magical; it is an educated hunch based on your knowledge and experience. Nothing is more intuitive than survival. Intuition is a natural defense mechanism that alerts us to possible danger.

To enhance situational awareness, take time to understand the baseline of typical activities where you work. This operational environment analysis will help you to quickly identify concerning behavior and orient yourself if emergency response is needed.  Early recognition enhances response, which is critically important when seconds matter. Response to attack and decision-making will be addressed later. First let’s look at prevention.

Campus Violence Doesn’t Just ‘Happen’
Prediction can seem daunting when a mass killing is framed only within the context of the shooting. Imagine the same hypothetical killer mentioned earlier, but instead of you seeing him exhibiting concerning behavior in the parking lot, you observe his intention in the form of a social media post months before the first shot is fired. Despite how they are portrayed by the media, active shooter attacks do not start when the first shot is fired.

The length and observability of these precursor incidents increase the possibility of prevention. The challenge is having the situational awareness to observe a potential threat and then direct the appropriate resources towards the person in question before it is too late.

On April 20,1999, 13 people were murdered at Columbine High School. While not the first mass killing in a school, Columbine is the event that coined the term “active shooter.”  “Active shooter” certainly describes the event that immediately surrounds the tragic murders, but the Columbine attack did not start on April 20.

The attack did not start at 11:19 a.m. when, according to a witness, one of the two killers yelled, “Go! Go!,” and they both pulled guns from beneath their trench coats and began shooting. Nor did it begin at approximately 11:18 a.m. when the two assailants left their vehicles in the junior parking lot after their explosive devices failed to detonate. It did not begin when they carried the explosive devices into the school and attempted to set them to detonate at 11:15 a.m. during a busy lunch shift.

The attack did not start on April 20 when they loaded their weapons, or even that year when they rehearsed their attack. While we will never know the exact date, the attack probably started in 1996 when a blog associated with an online gaming site took a violent turn. From that point forward, warning signs were exhibited, and there was a chance to prevent what eventually happened three years later.

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