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How to maintain situational awareness while on duty

Knowing your surroundings and being able to react to them are crucial skills every police officer needs


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By PoliceOne BrandFocus Staff

Maintaining your sense of situational awareness can improve your decision-making under pressure and allow you to get a better understanding of the circumstances you’re dealing with, whether that’s a patrol run or a SWAT operation.

(Image/iStock)
(Image/iStock)

Without situational awareness, officers run the risk of endangering their colleagues, themselves and the public. You need to always “have your head on a swivel,” scanning the environment while focusing on the task at hand.

The following are tips to improve your own sense of situational awareness.

Use Cooper’s Colors

Police officers are taught Jeff Cooper’s “Color Code,” which breaks down situational awareness into four levels of increasing alertness. It’s useful to remember and review these levels when practicing situational awareness.

Condition white refers to the level at which an officer is completely relaxed and unaware of his or her surroundings. Normally this condition is adopted only at home or in other perceived safe environments.

Condition yellow is the stage at which an officer is still relaxed but paying more attention to his or her surroundings. Cooper explains that if someone is attacked in condition yellow, it shouldn't come as a surprise. You should be in this mode when on duty or when armed off duty.

Condition orange is the level at which an officer has identified an object/person of interest that could be a possible threat. At this point, you would be expecting and preparing for an attack.

Condition red refers to the level at which the object/person of interest does something threatening, at which point your focus changes from a potential threat to a potential target.

Adhere to Objective/Subjective Measures

During training, you can assess your situational awareness by testing yourself against objective and subjective measures.

Objective measures compare an officer’s perception of the circumstances with reality during a simulation task. The assessor asks the officer questions about his or her observations and impressions before, during and after the task. Afterward, the assessor critiques the officer’s perceptions and observations and provides more context about the task to help the officer gain perspective and improve the accuracy of his or her perception.

Subjective measures determine the officer’s rating of his or her own situational awareness or the situational awareness of other peer officers. For this exercise, an officer participates in a simulation task and notes his or her observations and perceptions during. Afterward, the same officer rates the quality of his or her observations, with the help of hindsight.

In general, the idea is that you will be able to use solutions determined during training in future real-world scenarios.

Recognizing Patterns of Behavior

Closely observing and exploring situations can improve your sense of situational awareness as well. Look for behavior that doesn’t fit the expected context of the situation, based on training exercises. This can help you quickly take initiative and gain some control of the situation.

Scan your surroundings and identify cover points, possible ambush points and escape routes. Engage in more scenario training so that your responses are automatic, leaving your conscious mind to plan and make decisions in the moment.

Maintain a Tactical Edge

As you speak with members of the public, no matter how mundane or unimportant the call may be, you should always have a tactical response in your mind. Remember to keep a safe space between you and the person you’re speaking to and be ready to make a quick response to any sort of physical threat.

Situational awareness is a critical skill for police officers, who must make quick decisions under high-pressure, high-stakes circumstances. By improving your awareness of your surroundings, you can make decisions that better protect the safety of yourself, your colleagues and the citizens you serve.

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