How to Build an Area Study for Emergencies and Community Security – Forward Observer Shop

How to Build an Area Study for Emergencies and Community Security

One of the big reasons why I encourage students to build an Area Study is so we have a framework through which to understand our neighborhood and broader community. Organizing community security before or during an emergency is a lot like building a house. We need expert builders, we need quality materials, and we need to have a plan. This Area Study informs our team of the conditions, the fault lines, vulnerabilities, active and potential threats, and the who, what, and where that matters during an emergency. We need to make well-informed, time-sensitive, and mission-critical decisions during a natural disaster or other emergency, so we need local intelligence to help us make the best decisions.

One benefit of having an Area Study is that we have a document that gets everyone on the same page. You can flip through an Area Study and quickly orient yourself to the area, its threats, and the infrastructure affecting the situation. When I think about my community, I know there are neighbors who are going to help out during the next hurricane or emergency, but they’re not planning or preparing for it yet. With this Area Study, I’ve already done some homework to get everyone oriented, so we can all jump on the same mission of protecting our community should a worst case scenario happen. And that’s really the value of intelligence; that you’ve taken the time to do a site survey of your street or block, that you’ve scouted out your neighborhood and compiled a list of concerns and considerations, that you’ve recorded this and have it in a binder or in some consumable format. And then we can share that information with others, get them up to speed and on board, and then work on mitigating risks and threats in the area so that all our families can hopefully enjoy some safety, even if life is uncomfortable. And should things get really bad, we’ve already thought through what could happen, we’ve collected information, and developed some intelligence that can be turned into action. When your work enables you, or your family, or your neighborhood to make better decisions about safety and security, you’re going to be a hero for having built this Area Study.

But the problem is that intelligence doesn’t produce itself. I’ve heard a few people say, “I don’t need an Area Study because I already know this area like the back of my hand.” Well, I’m not going to argue with you, but I’ll just point out that there are people who don’t know the area that well and you or your family might have to depend on them to do something during an emergency. And if they get lost, if they don’t know where something or someone is, or if they don’t have basic information about the area as a reference, then you risk mission failure. If I were in that situation and I were able to look back and say, “You know, I had the chance to get a few extra maps from the AAA office or the U.S. Forest Service,” or “I had the chance to print out a few local street maps from my home or office,” or “I had the chance to compile a bunch of very useful information into a binder, and I didn’t”, then I’m going to feel very foolish. My conclusion is:

  • I probably don’t know everything about the area that I need to know, and there is certainly some risk that I’m missing critical information
  • Unless I think this through methodically, I probably won’t be able to find out what I don’t know (intelligence gaps)
  • If something happens to me and I’m the guy with all the information, then my family will be left without all my expert knowledge
  • So an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, in the words of Benjamin Franklin

If you want to produce a very thorough Area Study, then I recommend you attend an SHTF Intelligence Course or sign up for the new online training area in about two or three weeks, where I’ll be covering how to build an Area Study, step by step from scratch. (And if you want more information about what we’re doing with the online training, be sure to join the weekly mailing list at the bottom of this article.)

In the meantime, I do have some recommendations for how to build an Area Study, and this should be enough to get you started before I roll out all my best tips and tricks.

The first things you absolutely must have are some maps. Maps are great for a few reasons. “Yeah, I saw this gang/mob/event… uh, I don’t know what the street names are, though”. Okay, show me on this map where you saw this thing that’s potentially important to our security. We kind of experienced this while battle tracking the Ferguson riots. Some street name came up on the police scanner, and I’m not from there and I had no idea where that street was. But Google knew. Yet if we didn’t have the internet, it could have taken us some time to find this particular location before we could plot it on our map overlay. And a wonderful thing happens when we begin to plot events like robberies, or fires, or rioters, or other things on our map overlay. Over time, we get a really good sense of the security situation. We can look at this map overlay that has a couple dozen events marked on it, and see that, “Eh, this area looks pretty dangerous,” or “You know, over the past couple of hours, this group of rioters/looters/criminals or these kinds of events are starting to get closer to our area”. This is called Battle Tracking and it’s impossible without a map of some kind. I highly recommend having three types of maps: topographic, (recent) imagery, and a street map. I go over more for maps and overlays in The Ultimate ACE Startup Guide.

The next thing we need is to consider who and what‘s in our neighborhood. Who are your neighbors and what’s their contact information? What are their professions? Figure out if they’re going to help you or hinder you, or maybe even pose a threat during an emergency. Are they the type of people to pitch in and help rescue neighbors from flood waters, or are they the ones who’ll need to be rescued? Beyond our neighbors, let’s start looking at gang and criminal activity. There are lots of online databases with the names and pictures of sexual predators and if your jurisdiction reports crime activity, you can even view this information on a digital map. CommunityCrimeMap, for instance, provides this data, but there are others. For other information, we may need to pay a visit to our local sheriff’s office or police station and, as a concerned citizen, ask for some crime information about our neighborhood. Better yet, if you start or join a Neighborhood Watch (highly recommended), then you can often get blotter reports of everyone who’s been arrested and what crimes they’re accused of committing. Or see if your local police have a ride-along program, and then ride along and ask your officer about what’s going on in the area.

Beyond the good guys, the bad guys, and anyone in between, we also want to see what kind of infrastructure is in the area. What keeps your world spinning and your neighborhood running? Power plants, grocery stores, natural resource depots like fuel storage and lumber yards, Super Walmarts, and lots of other buildings and facilities could be considered critical to your area. What buildings or facilities could be useful or used during an emergency? If we need to house flood victims, is there a local warehouse that a company might let us use as makeshift lodging? Who owns it and how can we get in touch? Note their locations, map them, and put this information in your Area Study binder. You never know when this kind of information could come in handy.

Next, let’s look at politics and governance. Who are you elected officials and what do they believe? Who’s in charge of what in the area? How can you contact these people, and if they’re trying to get a message out during an emergency, where will they do it? Find out that information and put it in your Area Study binder. Along those lines, we should also have some information about local law enforcement, military, and security outfits. Who are your local law enforcement officers? Are they corrupt? Are they great people? How can I reach that police officer that did the ride-along if I have a question? If local authorities have to put out a message or warning during our emergency, where will it be transmitted? At a minimum, I can explain to a neighbor that his job is to monitor this radio frequency or this station or channel and then write down anything significant that gets reported.

And lastly, economic and financial data is also important to have. Who are the area’s major employers and economic drivers? Which areas are economically depressed, and which areas are more affluent? Where do the poorest and the wealthiest people live? What are the threats to the local economy? Which significant business operate in the area? Let’s think through some second- and third-order effects if our area’s largest employer lays off workers — how is that going to affect local conditions, to include the crime rate?

What we’ve just covered are the six layers of the Operating Environment, which is a formal way of saying the six factors that affect our operations. I recommend dividing your Area Study into the following six layers:

  • Physical Terrain (maps; mountains, rivers, bridges, etc. that could affect you)
  • Human Terrain (the beliefs, attitudes, behaviors, and culture of the people around you)
  • Critical Infrastructure (the things that keep your world spinning)
  • Politics & Governance (the people who make decisions that could affect you)
  • Military/Security/Law Enforcement (the people with guns and badges who could affect you)
  • Economics & Finance (the companies and money interests that could affect you)

These six layers inform us of various aspects of our community and the better we understand them, the better we can anticipate future events or conditions. Furthermore, once we understand the threats in our area, we can determine how these characteristics of our community will affect us and these threats. For instance, looters are probably going to look for soft targets with high payoff. If I have a soft target with a high reward in my community, then I might consider ‘looting’ to be on my list of potential threats.

Get together with your family, your community security team, or your preparedness group and think through likely scenarios. What will you need to know? Now pretend that there’s no power, internet, or cell phones and there’s no way to get this information during an emergency. Whatever that information is, compile it into your Area Study binder now.

If you enjoyed this article and want more of my thoughts on intelligence, security, and defense for an uncertain future, be sure to subscribe to my email updates.

Always Out Front,

Samuel Culper


PS. If you’re concerned about where we’re headed as a country, whether on the near-end of the spectrum or the far end of the spectrum (social, political and economic instability; domestic conflict; or collapse of empire), and want to stay informed on what the headlines don’t cover, then I invite you to try us out. Our special operations and intelligence veterans track the day-to-day risk of global and domestic conflict. If you’re not happy within the first two weeks, I’ll refund your monthly or annual subscription cost – no questions asked. You can get access to our intelligence reporting and training area here.



Mike Shelby is a former military intelligence NCO and contract intelligence analyst. He spent three years in Iraq and Afghanistan and is now the intelligence and warfare researcher at Forward Observer.

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