Situational Awareness and Safety During the Holidays
Posted on December 23 2019
The term “situational awareness” is one that most of us will come across fairly frequently once we become focused on self protection or emergency preparedness. In plain terms, situational awareness (or SA) simply means being aware of what is going on around you and whether someone or something in your area is a potential threat to your safety. In some cases, we see references to situational awareness as a way to thwart terrorism, as in the “See Something, Say Something” campaign; however, situational awareness helps us identify criminal behavior and other dangerous situations in the most normal of times, such as a storm on the horizon or traffic stopping suddenly ahead of us. Having a good idea of what’s going on around us at any given time, in any given location, can do anything from save us time by skirting traffic on the way to work to saving our lives by helping us avoid, or be proactive in responding to, life-threatening actions by others.
Clearly SA is something we should be thinking about, and working on, throughout the year - so why would it matter more during the holidays? Starting in late fall, especially in the USA, we have a calendar chock full of extended weekends, big celebrations, and blocks of time that are traditionally spent on the road or in the air. Many of us are out shopping, with cash and credit cards in hand and huge crowds around us. Lastly, with the large number of people traveling by every method available, we will face more traffic, longer lines, and stressed out, potentially cranky fellow travelers who have the potential to act out inappropriately, as well as those who plan to prey upon everyone possible in such a target-rich environment.
Expanding our situational awareness during the holidays can usually be broken down into two major needs: time at home and time away from home, including going out shopping, going to holiday events, and spending extended periods away from our homes and possibly via methods where we cede control of both the area and the mode of transportation (such as moving through airports and flying). Entire books have been written about situational awareness, such as Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear, and I strongly encourage you to continue beyond the quick tips in this article to help learn more about situational awareness and how to appropriately respond to the threats that could come up in these, and other, situations. Such resources will also help you move along in your preparedness efforts if you feel you’ve got a good handle on being situationally aware and need to challenge yourself further.
Let’s start with how we can be more aware at home during the holidays! First of all, all of us should be making an effort to practice the basics of home safety and security, such as locking doors and windows when they don’t need to be open, and analyzing our home for entry points that bad guys could use against us. Come holiday time, though, we need to amp things up a bit, because said bad guys know that this is the time of year that families are stacking up gifts and goodies that they may want to steal. Obviously, good home security will serve you year-round, so don’t hesitate to consult with local law enforcement on ways you can improve your home security. Being neighborly also benefits us all year, but particularly so during the busy holiday season: knowing your neighbors means having someone you may be able to trust to watch your home or pets should you travel, and it means you’ll be more likely to know that your neighbor is out of town and there shouldn’t be a big van in the driveway swiftly filling up with furniture and valuables!
Since so many of us host guests and do lots of cooking this time of year, our situational awareness needs to take into account common causes of injury and illness. Being aware could include making note of the chimney that has some creosote build-up and scheduling a cleaning before cold weather hits; it also means checking smoke and carbon monoxide (CO) detectors to make sure they are in good working order before firing up the stove or when everyone piles into bed for their “long winter’s nap”. It can even be as simple as making sure to follow industry standards for extension cords and chaining Christmas tree lighting to prevent electrical fires. Your local fire department or utility company may be able to do an assessment for you on such safety issues. Another option is to visit websites and work down a checklist yourself. There are great lists and suggestions for holiday and year-round safety assessments through the National Fire Protection Association (http://www.NFPA.org), the Electrical Safety Foundation International (http://www.esfi.org), and the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors (http://www.nachi.org).
In addition to being aware of these safety concerns, consider these holiday tips for home security:
- Hide packages/gifts and don’t display them where passersby, including burglars, can see them. Knowing that thieves are looking for gifts this time of year and making it look like they aren’t there is part of the battle.
- Assess your schedule and consider having purchases sent to your office or placed in a parcel locker so package thieves can’t scoop things up before you get back from work or school.
- Be aware of who may be listening when discussing holiday events and travel with colleagues or friends.
- Deal appropriately with boxes from big ticket items; piles of boxes from expensive TVs, laptops, and game systems are a dead giveaway when they are stacked outside your home waiting for recycle day! Consider keeping them indoors until recycle day, taking them to work for recycling, or carrying them to the local refuse center for recycling instead.
- Watch the neighborhood. An unfamiliar SUV full of giggling folks in “ugly” holiday sweaters in your neighbor’s driveway is totally normal this time of year; the bumbling burglars from Home Alone will stand out if you know that neighbor mentioned thawing out in Bermuda over Chanukah.
- Watch for the mail carrier or delivery driver - the real ones and the fakes! While these folks are super busy during the holidays and may have some very late deliveries, it’s important to be aware of what you have ordered via online sales and when it is due to arrive. If the doorbell rings at 9 PM and you know you don’t have a package on the way, safety dictates leaving the door locked and assessing the situation.
Speaking of Christmas, let’s discuss shopping. Obviously, a great option for personal safety and security is to skip the crazy lines and chaos and shop the sales online - bonus points for being able to kick back in our jammies! You’ll want to research good cybersecurity practices - your bank and local police department likely have tons of ideas for you there. However, if a big part of your holiday fun is to get out and about to do your shopping, here are some suggestions for staying aware and safe:
- Gear up. Whether your every day carry is a firearm, a TASER, or something else - have it on you and make sure you’ve practiced accessing it if you’re bundled up due to winter weather.
- If possible, go shopping with someone else. Even if you split up inside a store, meet up before heading to the parking lot and approach your vehicle together. At the very least, communicate with loved ones where you are going and when you plan to be back, as well as at what point “late” turns into “I need help”.
- Map out your route to/from the stores and plan for alternate routes in case of bad weather, horrible traffic, or other issues. Also know the layout of the store(s) you are going to; look for emergency exits as you shop so you know where to go should you need to leave quickly.
- Keep your head up and your eyes sharp! Many of us are working from lists for gift buying and need reminders of what we are getting next, but being aware of your surroundings means not burying your nose in your phone, and marking off items on your list quickly, then scanning the aisles around you for suspicious behavior from humans and mischievous Elves on Shelves.
- Keep your hands free as much as possible. If you carry a purse, consider switching to a sling or cross body style over a clutch or other item you have to hold while shopping. DO NOT leave a purse unattended in a shopping cart!
- When leaving a store with multiple packages, use a cart. Not only does this save your back and shoulders from overload, it means your hands are free should you need them. Should you be approached by someone with ill intent, the cart provides a bit of a barrier between you and them, and even gives you something to ram them with if need be.
- Check out your vehicle as you approach and put parcels in quickly, then get into your vehicle and lock the doors as soon as possible. Should you see someone loitering near your car, consider going back into the store for assistance or an escort from store security or law enforcement. Situational awareness means listening to that little intuition that says someone isn’t just waiting for their fellow shoppers or trying to find their car keys.
Check your mirrors! This busy time of year means more cars in parking lots, more runaway shopping carts, and more little ones potentially running behind and in front of moving vehicles. Take the time to make sure your area is free of hazards before leaving your parking spot. Keep in mind there are folks out there who will purposely get in your way so they can create a collision and take advantage of you or your insurance company.
While we’re out and about, let’s briefly discuss our last segments of being away from home: attending holiday events and extended holiday travel.
Both of these opportunities for celebration include some of the above ideas. For instance, if you know that the town’s holiday light parade is always a big deal, you will also know that you should learn as much as possible about the routes to and from the parade venue, where the safe parking is, and where your emergency exits are. If attending with a group, choose a meeting point should you be separated, even for something as simple as being moved apart by a large crowd. Depending on how far from home your event is, either wear or pack sturdy shoes and socks in case you should need to walk a distance from the event in an emergency. Most especially, if attending a party, designate a driver if you drink alcohol, and never leave any drinks unattended. (If you carry a firearm, do everyone a favor and stay sober. It’ll help you stay more aware, and eliminate a legal issue should you be forced to defend yourself.) Keep with your group and listen to those feelings should you observe any activity that throws up a warning flag to you. Communicate your planned schedule to loved ones and stick to it.
Traveling further from home by car? Call me a mean mom, but safety dictates that you check the weather report, plan your routes, wear your seatbelt, and stay off the phone (particularly texting) while driving. You aren’t aware if your nose is on your phone! Keeping your eyes on the road means you are aware when traffic on the freeway slows, when a herd of deer are edging toward the road, and when that gentle snowfall changes to “time to put the chains on” or means you should take the next exit and find a hotel for the night. Consider shipping gifts to your final location to leave room for vehicle emergency supplies, and to make your vehicle less tempting if you don’t have a fully covered storage space (such as a trunk) that will keep gifts out of sight.
Be aware that sharing your travel plans is never a good idea - no matter how well you’ve got your social media accounts locked down, you just never know where information will be shared further. Post pictures from your big trip after you get home.
Flying or taking other public transport? Consider the following:
- Keep your itinerary to yourself as much as possible and keep your eyes open. People watching is fun - and very common - at locations such as airports and train stations, so it’s the perfect place to practice your situational awareness skills! Who is leaving their bag behind to go fill their water bottle - is that really all they are doing? Now is a good time to work through a plan for yourself; if they leave behind a suspicious package, how should you react? Is that couple in the corner lovingly whispering sweet nothings in each other’s ears or are their actions more suspicious and making the hairs on the back of your neck stand up?
- Never leave your belongings unattended; doing so could mean a simple theft of your valuables, but it could also lead to legal issues if someone slips something into your baggage or reports your behavior as suspicious.
- If traveling out of your usual cultural region, make the time to learn ways to be a good guest. Try to learn as much as you can to communicate effectively, blend in, and dress and act appropriately so as to not offend, but also to prevent legal issues cropping up on you. Know what behavior is “normal” for the region you plan to visit, so you can be better prepared to recognize potentially dangerous situations, such as carjackings, muggings, abductions, and terrorist activity.
Research the weather and natural disaster risks of your destination and watch for warning signs. Situational awareness means being aware of what is going on around you, and it’s not limited to the behavior of human beings.
As previously mentioned, entire books and other resources are available on the subjects of situational awareness and personal safety. I strongly recommend that you keep researching and learning throughout the year so that you continue to be a hard target. Check with local law enforcement, colleges, or outdoors stores for the NRA’s Refuse to Be a Victim program (a non-firearms related personal safety course) to learn more about these matters. Another great option would be to research the works of the late Colonel Jeff Cooper, Lt. Colonel Dave Grossman, and Rob Pincus (of Personal Defense Network). A huge part of self protection is knowing what is going on around us and having a plan in place for how to deal with it. I hope that this holiday season you will continue further along your path to preparedness by making the most of your opportunities to look around, plan, and learn.
Melonie Kennedy is a military spouse, homeschooling mom, and freelance writer. She is a chapter leader for The Well Armed Woman (TWAW) Shooting Chapters and an NRA-certified Range Safety Officer and Refuse To Be A Victim instructor. Learn more at MelonieK.com or on Instagram.
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