ASL – Lesson One: Area Study Overview & First Steps – Forward Observer Shop

ASL – Lesson One: Area Study Overview & First Steps

Hello, and welcome to the very first lesson in Area Study Live.

First, if you haven’t registered for Tuesday night’s lesson (12 Feb), you can do so here. It starts at 7pm (Central) sharp.


Second, in Lesson One, we’re going to focus on four things:

  1. The Area Study Overview: What goes into an Area Study?
  2. Defining the Operational Environment
  3. Dissecting the Operational Environment
  4. Physical Terrain & Weather


Third, Due-Outs for Week 1 (of 4):

  1. Assemble your Area Study Binder (info in course prep)
  2. Begin your Area Study document (word processor, Evernote, etc.)
  3. Complete Title Page
  4. Complete Area of Operations Overview
  5. Complete Area of Interest Overview
  6. Complete Route Maps for AO and AI
  7. Complete Physical Terrain & Weather
  8. Identify intelligence gaps and list your Intelligence Requirements

These steps took me about three hours so far, not including the time spent waiting in line to buy the dividers. You should have this completed by Tuesday, 19 February.


1. The Area Study Overview

Here’s how I structure my Area Study. (You can download this template here.)

  1. Title Page
  2. Area of Operations Overview
  3. Area of Interest Overview
  4. Route Map of AO/AI
  5. Physical Terrain & Weather
  6. Human Terrain
  7. Critical Infrastructure
  8. Politics & Governance
  9. Military, Security, & Law Enforcement
  10. Economy & Finance
  11. Threat Overview


2. Defining the Operational Environment

Before we begin laying out or collecting information for our Area Study, we need to define some boundaries.

AO/AI GoogleEarth Tutorial/Walkthrough


Area of Operations (AO): The area around our home or neighborhood where we expect to conduct security operations. For most, this is a small area; it’s the boundary of your property or perhaps just beyond your property. Others might determine their AO by the range of their rifle scope. If you don’t foresee yourself venturing farther than a mile from your home, then your AO should be less than a mile radius. If, during an emergency, you don’t see yourself venturing more than 100 yards from your home, then your AO should be less than a 100 yard radius.

Here’s my AO for this project:

Area of Interest (AI): Once we establish your AO, then we need to establish the boundary of the area around our AO, called our Area of Interest. We don’t expect to operate here, but we may still be interested in what happens here. For instance, my AO doesn’t include the nearest police or fire station, nor does it include the nearest school or Walmart; however, I’m still very interested in what happens there. The AI is the area that we’re going to monitor because what occurs there could indirectly affect us.

Here’s my AI for this project:

This is an important step because it’s going to focus our planning and intelligence gathering within these specific boundaries. Threats are a game of proximity; the farther away they are, the less relevant they are to us. But at some point, threats become very relevant because they enter our AI or AO. That’s why we need to identify these boundaries.


1. Let’s start with your AO. On a map overlay or computer mapping software, draw your AO. It could look like a circle, a square, or any shape of polygon. Remember that the boundary of your AO can change, so don’t worry about getting it perfect the first time. As you learn and investigate more through this course, you may need to change the boundaries of your AO and that’s perfectly normal.

2. Next draw the boundary of your AI. Consider the homes, buildings, facilities, and landmarks around your home and neighborhood. One way to determine this is to say, “How far away from me can a robbery occur and I remain interested in that event?” A quarter mile? A half-mile? Or, “What’s in my neighborhood that’s so significant to me that I would want to know about events occurring there?” A police station, a grocery store, a gas station; the list goes on. Identify what would be relevant to you, and then include those locations in your AI.

IMPORTANT: The boundaries of your AO and AI can be changed. They are not set in stone. If you get into this Area Study and realize that you need to include or exclude a piece of real estate, then amend your AO or AI as necessary. (I’ve redrawn my AI three times.)

LAST WORD ON AI: In addition to our immediate Area of Interest, we can also have what are called “Targeted Areas of Interest” or TAI. One of my top concerns for AO LONGHORNS is traffic coming out of south Austin and into the Southwest Hills. Once I have coverage for my AI, I want to start thinking about keeping an eye or ear out for the intersections of Mopac/Hwy 1, Hwy 290, and where they intersect William Cannon Dr.

These TAI corridors are represented in yellow on this map:

You may not need additional TAIs, but they’re a good way to prioritize certain pieces of terrain that don’t intersect or border your own AI.



3. Dissecting the Operating Environment

The Operating Environment (OE) includes the characteristics of your AO. These characteristics influence what happens in our community. Good, bad, or ugly, the more we understand about the elements of our community, the better we can judge the future conditions of our community. Specifically, the OE can be broken down into six layers: physical terrain, human terrain, critical infrastructure, politics/governance, law enforcement/military/security, and economic/financial. Let’s get a better look at the six layers.

Physical Terrain: The Physical Terrain includes traditional terrain features — mountains, hills, valleys, lakes, rivers, etc. — and man-made features like roads, houses, buildings, fences, etc. Weather is often grouped in with physical terrain, so we’ll cover weather and climate patterns, as well. Understanding how these factors could influence future conditions is an intelligence task.

Human Terrain: The Human Terrain includes the people, along with their attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and customs. From a community perspective, identifying all the elements of the Human Terrain helps us to identify security partners and potential threats and foes, especially if disaster were to strike.

Critical Infrastructure: Critical Infrastructure includes the facilities and people who provide access to food, water, fuel, electricity, transportation, commerce, communications, and the internet; all of which are critical to the average AO.

Politics/Governance: Politics and governance includes elected officials, political appointees, government employees, their institutions and facilities, and their political and ideological beliefs. The better we understand how local political and governance works, the better informed we can be of their potential future decisions, especially during a protracted emergency.

Law Enforcement/Military/Security: Police departments, sheriffs’ offices, National Guard and Reserve components of the military, and private security corporations all take part in security and emergency operations. Understanding these organizations or units, their personnel, and their capabilities goes a long way in staying informed of what they’re likely to do in the future.

Economic/Financial: And finally, the economic and financial drivers of a community matter, especially if these systems are disrupted. Disruptions to economic and financial factors have very significant second- and third-order consequences, and understanding how these factors will affect the community is critical.


4. Physical Terrain & Weather

In my Area Study template, you’ll find that I’ve already completed the first draft for Physical Terrain & Weather.

– You can download the Topographical .KML (Google Earth file) here:

– You can retrieve your 1:24,000 scale topographical map from the USGS by searching your address at the following link:

– You can download FEMA Flood Zone maps here: (If you’re expecting to travel during an emergency, ensure that you have the flood zone maps for the entire trip, plus the area around your destination.

– I used GoogleEarth to prepare the Ingress & Egress maps. (The Path tool is right next to the Polygon tool. Refer to the AO/AI Walkthrough on Google Earth.)

– I retrieved the Weather & Climate data for my area at (You can probably just print off the entire page for your Area Study. I clipped images out for my Area Study.)


Week One Lesson

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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