Friday, June 25, 2010

Situational Awareness

A guy steps out of his tent, yawns and stretches into the pink dawn and watches his breath form a small cloud as he exhales. Suddenly, a bear rises from the bushes and charges across the clearing, tearing our camper right out of his pajamas. At first glance, that sounds like a mishap that was unavoidable. It certainly wasn't caused by anything the camper did — right? 

But accidents don't just happen. Survival situations don't just happen. There is always a root cause for every outcome. In many instances, some decision, somewhere along the line, leads to a set of circumstances that eventually evolves into consequences, either good or bad. 

I am not saying that people intentionally get themselves into hot water, nor that they deserve what happens when problems arise. I've seen my own share of uncomfortable consequences that could have been prevented, had I (or someone else) made different decisions. Stuff happens. But lots of that kind of stuff can be prevented, if we learn to pay attention to what's going on around us. 

Let’s have a look at the unfortunate situation above, to see if we can identify some root causes and decisions that led to these unpleasant consequences. 
  • The man chose to go camping — Hey, good decision, but a decision nonetheless, so we can't say this was inconsequential. 
  • The man chose where to camp, perhaps understanding that this was bear country. But then maybe not. Decisions based on ignorance or incomplete understanding might be deemed innocent, but they can still lead to unfortunate consequences. 
  • After last night's supper, the unburnables were gathered and stuffed in a plastic trash bag, ready to be hauled out and disposed of later. This was a decision about food/trash etiquette. A scrap of tin foil with the hint of last night's supper on it is all it takes to invite unwelcome company into camp.
  • It was his decision (although probably not consciously made) to exit the tent with less than complete awareness of what was going on outside. 
Hopefully you see the pattern. Decisions, even those we aren't intending to make, contribute to final outcomes. Nothing just happens. You step left instead of right and, Wham!, a rattlesnake strikes your calf from behind a log. Who is to blame? Well, blame isn't the name of this game — the name of this game is Situational Awareness, a technique that is valuable in the prevention of mishaps. 

Situational Awareness is nothing more than being aware of what's going on around you all the time. If you're aware that rattlesnakes like to hide in the shade where they feel safe, and if you are aware that you are in rattlesnake country, then you can make decisions to avoid "snaky" places and take other measures to reduce the chances of a nasty encounter. 

But it isn't just about bears and rattlesnakes. It might be running out of gas, or food, or propane, or firewood. It might be about a lost child, or getting lost yourself, or getting sick from drinking foul water. It's about a lot of things, all of which involve decisions that lead to consequences of one nature or another. 

To put situational awareness to work, it's necessary to gather pertinent information and be able to answer fundamental questions. Here's a checklist to get you started. It's by no means complete, so customize your own checklist to fit your situation. 

Where are we going? 
  • Are there natural predators in the area? 
  • If so, what are their habits? 
  • What is proper behavior to avoid confrontations? 
  • Are there seasonal hazards? (extreme heat, cold, flood, avalanche, etc.) 
  • Are there other dangers? (tides, waves, poisonous spiders, snakes, disease-bearing insects, killer bees, fire ants, etc.) 
  • Will we need passports or photo ID and birth certificates? 
  • Do we need special permits? 
  • Are inoculations required? 
  • Is it recommended that we take precautions for water purification, or that we avoid certain foods? 
When are we going? 
  • Is it hunting season? 
  • Is it tornado season? 
  • Hurricane season? 
  • Is this the season and region that baby rattlesnakes are born? 
  • Do we have to travel through rush-hour traffic? 
  • What is the long-term weather forecast? 
What are we going to be doing? 
  • Are we adequately trained and equipped for special activities? 
  • Have we personally inspected and tested the equipment? 
  • If we get separated, can we maintain voice contact? 
  • Are we prepared to handle medical emergencies? 
  • Are we prepared to handle evacuation? 
  • Are we prepared to fight a vehicle fire or a runaway campfire? 
Who is going? 
  • Does anyone have special medical or nutritional needs? 
  • Are there children who will require constant supervision? 
  • Is there a detailed plan about camp duties? 
How will we be traveling? 
  • Are we prepared to handle vehicle-related emergencies? 
  • Do we have maps for the route? 
  • Have we made reservations, where necessary? 
  • Do we have enough food and water for the trip? 
  • Do we have a cell phone so we can call for assistance? 
  • Do we have a PLB to summon search and rescue? 
  • Do we have enough money (are you kidding!)? 
  • Have we left a “flight plan” with relatives or friends? 
How does everybody feel? 
  • Is anyone ill, or feel something coming on? 
  • Is anyone apprehensive about the trip? 
  • Is everyone well rested? 
  • Is anyone nursing an injury? 
These questions might seem tedious and trivial, but answering them will lead to decisions that will, in turn, lead to consequences. Being aware of what is going on around you, and the way the situation is evolving, will help you identify and trap potential problems before they can become mishaps.

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