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Observing On The Fly

The Cues To Look For While On The Move

Making assessments about people while walking is a challenging exercise, as the amount of time that you have to make decisions is extremely limited.  As the distance between you and others decreases, the consequences of making incorrect assessments go up dramatically.  Think about a time when you were walking down the sidewalk or through the mall and because you are on the same level as everyone else, you aren’t able to observe many of the people around you.  Take a look at this video clip. How many people are you able to actually observe and assign to a cluster?  At what point are you able to actually assess each person?

Considering the fact that proximity negates skill, the limitations of being on the ground level make the need for informed judgments even more important. To overcome the challenges of being so close to so many potential threats, we need to understand which observations are the most important when observing on the fly, and which observations can be reserved for situations where you have time for more detailed analysis.

We don’t have time to do a detailed search while walking because by systematically scanning the area in overlapping layers, we would quickly become overwhelmed as people moved rapidly through our view.  Even attempting to analyze each and every person in a detailed way would ultimately cause us to miss most people.  Instead, we have to rely on a series of continuous hasty searches to ensure our safety.  A hasty search is conducted by doing quick scans of the area and look for a limited number of cues to determine if a person is an anomaly or not.  The number of potential observations is intentionally limited so that the number of people nearby doesn’t overwhelm us, facilitating quick decision-making.  This supports a yes/no decision based on this very restricted amount of information.  We do this because our baseline is constantly changing with every step and every corner that we turn.  The brain will naturally look for easily confirmed indicators that have proven to be effective in the past to overcome the complexity of this rapidly changing baseline. This can prevent the subtle indicators and the anomalies below the baseline from revealing themselves. While on the move or profiling at very close range, you are going to have to rely on the anomalies above the baseline, the extra indicators that are present, to alert you to a person requiring further attention.

While on the move and observing at close range, I begin by relying on indicators such as mission focus and dominance as two of the cues in my hasty observations.  These indicators allow me to focus on those moving with a purpose or those whose body is preparing the fight response.  Once I am done searching for those who have made their intentions clear, I begin looking for quick indicators of a person trying to conceal their violent intentions.  Factors such as situational awareness, extreme discomfort, and patting or touching of areas are the cues that I am continuously cycling through as I am looking to orient on anomalies as quickly as I can.

The reason these five observations (mission focus, dominance, discomfort, patting, and situational awareness) are the ones that we rely on is due to the fact that they are anomalies in most areas and for most people.  This is because recognizing these observations are a good enough reason for us to focus our attention on specific people while at close range. While there may be culturally specific situations where dominance and discomfort are common, these five behaviors reflect typical fight or flight responses, making them reliable regardless of where I am.  When there isn’t enough time to develop a thorough baseline, these five observations are reliable to bridge the gap until that norm can be established.

Watch the video above one more time, and determine how deep in the screen you were able to focus.  Often times, people are focused on those people closest to them.  While this is a dangerous range as your ability to respond would be limited, it is common when learning a new skill.  Think about where brand new drivers often focus their attention their first few times on the highway. More often than not, they are focused on the cars that are right in front of them and aren’t yet able to look far enough down the road to steer clear of bad drivers or objects in the road until it is too late.  However, with more time and more experience behind the wheel, drivers become comfortable assessing the intentions of other drivers that are both nearby and those further ahead.  This is no different when learning to consciously analyze the behavior of those around us. By continuously practicing these five reliable observations and making them a habit, your ability to quickly recognize them will improve, allowing you to shift your focus further back in the video, ultimately gaining the time needed to take proactive action.

GCT Baseline ImageThis video is taken on the ground level (directly below the point) from where the video used in this issue’s Video Training section was shot from.  If you watch the baseline video, notice the difference in how far out you are able to observe when in an elevated position compared to when on the ground.  In a situation where there is a high quantity of traffic and people can only be observed for a few seconds at a time, whether you are on the ground or elevated, the observations are still limited to these five basic behaviors.  It is for this reason that Marines, Soldiers, Police Officers and security professionals should always employ the Guardian Angel concept, keeping a team of observers in an elevated position to observe further out than the patrol on the ground can.  When you have the comfort of time and space, each additional domain of behavior observed will provide additional insight. However, since more time will be spent on patrol or walking a city’s streets, begin by ensuring that these five reliable cues are ones that you can make in any situation to improve your ability to orient on anomalies despite the inherent difficulty.

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1 Comment

  • Justin Rovtar

    My instinct when in a crowd is to observe the pace of the baseline using my peripheral vision while actively scanning the hands of those coming into my personal safety bubble (21′ radius). If someone is either moving faster or slower than baseline they become more of a focus until I can rule them out as a threat. I use the hands as my main scan area because anyone with weapons will be reaching towards their pocket, waistline, or inside a jacket. If I can’t see their hands they are instantly more of a threat. You can also see tension in the hands for someone that is aggresive. They might be walking with their arms and fingers rigid as in walking aggressively with purpose or hands balled up into fists.

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