The Area Study: Disaster Intelligence (Part One) – Forward Observer Shop

The Area Study: Disaster Intelligence (Part One)

If you’re a regular reader, chances are good that you and I have a lot in common.

We’re both concerned about how current trends will shape our future.

We’re both concerned about how the next natural disaster might affect us.

You may live in an area that will be hit hard by the next recession, which is likely within 12-24 months.

You may expect the results of the next financial crisis to permanently change the landscape of U.S. society and politics.

You may live in an area that experiences organized political violence, increased gang activity, or systems disruption that creates numerous additional threats and challenges.

From a risk and intelligence perspective, all of these are very valid concerns, but many people genuinely underestimate the likelihood of any of these events.


I’m here right now to convince you of one thing: the absolute need for localized intelligence when any of these events occur.

No amount of beans, bullets, and band-aids will allow you to collect real-time intelligence during an emergency.

No amount of beans, bullets, and band-aids will reduce your uncertainty about what happens in the future.

Only intelligence can do that.

Only intelligence can give you a more accurate expectation of what could happen in the future.

And when we have accurate expectations of the future, we can be better prepared.


So what’s the best way to get started with localized intelligence?

The Area Study.

The 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.

In Iraq and Afghanistan, before our teams undertook any operation or went on any mission, they’d come to us to get the latest intelligence. Why? Because they’d need to make mission-critical decisions on the ground, and that’s made much easier with accurate intelligence.

Similarly, we may need to make well-informed and time-sensitive decisions during a natural disaster or other emergency, so we need local intelligence to help us make the best decisions possible.

Get knee-deep into an emergency, and you’ll know the need for quality and timely intelligence.

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, the infrastructure, and the conditions affecting the situation.

Another benefit is that in a time where power or internet is disrupted, we’ve already collected the information we’ll need. It’s printed out and in our Area Study binder.

Think through the information you’d need if the lights went off right now. Consider your plans and then identify the knowledge required to execute those plans. That’s a really good start.

There are six layers of the Operating Environment, which are a central part of the Area Study.

Think through your knowledge requirements for:

1. Physical Terrain
2. Human Terrain (people, attitudes, beliefs, etc.)
3. Critical Infrastructure
4. Politics & Governance
5. Military, Law Enforcement, & Security
6. Economy & Finance


Practical Exercise:

Questions that we have about these layers can be considered “intelligence gaps” — literally gaps in what we know to be true.

For instance, we might ask:

  • How many people live in the new apartment complex down the road?
  • Which power plant does my electricity come from?
  • How many police officers are on the local department?
  • What types of units are at my local National Guard armory?

We now have a few Intelligence Requirements: statements or questions that describe our intelligence gaps.

Spend 15-30 minutes by yourself or with your preparedness group and write down all your Intelligence Requirements for each of the six layers.

By having this list of Intelligence Requirements, we now know what mission-critical information to collect.


The bottom line: What information do we need to make good decisions? That should be in your Iist of Intelligence Requirements.


Always Out Front,

Samuel Culper
Director of Intelligence
Forward Observer

P.S. – One of the most things we can do to improve preparedness is to gain valuable skills. If you want to start developing new skills and knowledge for emergency preparedness and disaster response, you can join our online intelligence training area here. Take our SHTF Intelligence Crash Course and then peruse over a dozen hours of webinars and formal lecture on intelligence, security, and defense.




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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Name *