Why Situational Awareness Is Not Enough – Forward Observer Shop

Why Situational Awareness Is Not Enough

One of our greatest challenges as intelligence folks involved in a neighborhood watch program, community security team, or preparedness group is maintaining situational awareness on the important things happening beyond of our line of sight.

Crime is a persistent problem in much of the country. There are crimes happening all around us that we never even know about, and being aware of crime in our area and current crime trends could save us a lot of pain. Case in point: several months ago, a friend of mine who’s a police officer in here central Texas called and told me about a new crime trend.

Thieves were driving around neighborhoods and looking for trucks and SUVs with any kind of NRA, military, or weapon decals. The thinking went that those people were more likely to have stored a firearm in their vehicle overnight, and the thieves were correct. Criminals were stealing dozens of firearms out of these vehicles, which presumably were then sold or used in the commission of other crimes. In this case, I don’t necessarily need to know who is breaking into vehicles to steal firearms or what the gang is, and I don’t necessarily need to know the effects of more criminals with access to firearms. In this case, simply being aware of the risk is enough for me to make a better decision about not storing my firearm in my truck overnight, or ever. But this kind of situational awareness isn’t going to be enough…

Let’s take last year’s Hurricane Harvey as another example. We knew that looting was happening in Houston neighborhoods. We knew that, in the worst cases and in the worst areas, people were shooting at law enforcement and humanitarian workers. Houstonians knew that it would only be a matter of time until things resumed some kind of normalcy, and so being aware of these situations was usually enough to make better decisions about safety and security.

But the problem for us is that we may encounter a scenario where we don’t know when the lights are coming back on, and we don’t know that in a few days we’ll have a return to normal conditions. We can begin thinking about our neighborhoods and ask (and hopefully answer) the question: what will my community look like after 12 hours without power? 24 hours? 48? What will be happening in my neighborhood if people are out of work and without power for an entire week, and we don’t know when services will be restored? What are the second- and third-order effects of not having power or public services? Asking these questions is the simple part and they deserve your attention. Answering them is more difficult, but they can be answered through intelligence.

The point I want to make today is that in this instance, situational awareness is not enough. If I know that detectives and law enforcement are trying to catch the guys breaking into vehicles and stealing firearms, then I don’t necessarily need to get involved. If I know that my power is coming back on in a few hours or a few days, then I don’t necessarily need to know what’s going on in the worst areas around me.

But if law enforcement is out of commission in a without-rule-of-law scenario, and we don’t know when our power is coming back on (and neither do the criminals who are starting to loot and harass my community), then we absolutely need to have something more than situational awareness. We need situational understanding.

Let’s think about a soldier in Iraq or Afghanistan. He simply can’t be just aware that insurgents are around him. He and his leaders need some intelligence about the area. Soldiers need to have some specific expectations of what will happen when they’re on patrol, and we in community security are no different. It’s not enough to just be aware, we need to understand.

Situational Understanding informs us of why things are happening; the who, what, when, where, why, and how behind the events. Situational Understanding means that we can identify a threat’s potential courses of action because we understand the situation. It means that we can identify second- and third-order effects of an event and how the event will affect what happens in the future. Situational Understanding is the difference between just being aware that a threat exists, and understanding the threat so we can begin to have realistic expectations of what he will do in the future. Situational Understanding is intelligence, and intelligence reduces uncertainty about the future.

Starting on Thursday (5/24), I’ll be adding videos and webinar-style lectures to a new training area we’re setting up on the website. My aim with these videos is to turn students into intelligence collectors and intelligence analysts. We training intelligence officers, if you will, because the future we’re going to inherit is going to call for a lot of Situational Understanding.

I’ll be teaching the skills, concepts, and information required to move far beyond situational awareness. I’ll be teaching the skills required to create informed, competent, and capable intelligence officers.

Here are some videos and lectures I’m preparing now:

  • How to write an intelligence summary
  • How to set up a map board
  • How to set up and run a police scanner
  • How to battle track riots, disasters, and other extreme scenarios
  • How to automate local intelligence collection
  • How to build an area study
  • How to run an ACE
  • How to set up and run a Neighborhood Watch

And when I get done with these, I’m just going to keep preparing new practical lessons each month that you can put into practice immediately. That way, during the next disaster, you’ll be able to contribute to your family’s security and provide your neighborhood watch, preparedness group, or community security team with vital intelligence about future risks.

This approach to creating intelligence officers is going to pay huge dividends for the next disaster, whether it’s natural or man-made. The chance of another disaster is 100%, so if picking up a few skills can help secure your community, make your family a little bit safer, or potentially have greater benefits, then I’m happy to teach this stuff if you’re happy to learn.

And for the rest of this week, we’re offering some Early Bird discounts before we launch.

If you want access to top notch community security and intelligence training, you can subscribe here.

If you want access to this training PLUS our three intelligence reports each week, you can subscribe here.

I’m so very excited about this new project and can’t wait to start putting my physical courses into a digital format for new students.

Always Out Front,
Samuel Culper




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.

1 Comment

  1. Sam, As always you are out front and many should be taking lots of notes.
    I am always updating and building on my area studies, based on the old SF ASOT models.

    Another data set that all of us should have built into our map boards, Google Earth, etc,. This would be the plotted locations (homes) of all welfare recipients, benefits dependents, economically enfranchised retards that grew up thinking that all privileges are “rights”.

    There must be somewhere online where we can find kml or kmz (ArcGIS or GE) files that contain these points. US CENSUS data generally sucks as it is left wingly managed and they protect the shammers.

    Do you think we can get a crowd sourced effort to find such data in a countrywide data set?
    Thanks and best regards,

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