This week, Chris Pendas from Staying Safe Self Defense, posted a great lessons-learned video (embedded below) for his readers about situational awareness by analyzing security footage from a mall food court. Chris was gracious enough to let us share the video so that we could expand on his debrief for our readers using the behaviors and terminology taught in Left of Bang and in our training programs.  

So first, watch the video (it is about 5 minutes long and requires sound) to take in the scene, to observe the theft of a purse and hear the teaching points that Chris highlights for ways to ensure your personal safety in public spaces.


Here is how we would work our way through the Baseline + Anomaly = Decision observation process. For an explanation about all of the assessments used below, we recommend that you download our “Cluster Cards” for more information.

The Baseline:

  • Upon starting the video, I immediately began the observation process by conducting a hasty search of the area to establish an initial baseline. This is done to ensure our immediate safety before taking the time to establish a deeper definition of the norm and is where we would assess the collective mood for the food court.
  • I assess the collective mood as having Positive Atmospherics, as the area is clean and fairly orderly, showing that people have a sense of safety and security in the food court.
  • I confirm this assessment by observing that everyone (except for the criminals) is displaying the Comfortable Cluster.
  • This answers the question, “What is going on here?” by establishing an initial baseline of a positive collective mood for the area as a whole.

The Initial Search For Anomalies:

  • In an area with positive atmospherics where individuals are displaying the comfortable cluster, I turn to asking, “What is going to make someone stand out from that baseline?
  • My search for anomalies would include anyone displaying the dominant, submissive, or uncomfortable clusters in this setting.
  • The man and woman that are about to steal the purse are immediately identified as anomalies because they are displaying the Uncomfortable Cluster.
  • The indicators that I use to assess both the man and woman criminals as uncomfortable are:
    • Elevated situational awareness: you see them looking around and looking at the people in the food court.
    • They are pacing back and forth.
    • They are shifting their weight back and forth – constantly moving.

As Chris talks about shifting from a relaxed awareness (Condition Yellow) to a focused awareness (Condition Orange), one of the things to consider in Condition Orange is also how you are going to reduce the “false-positive,” the person who displays a behavior that stands out from the baseline, but isn’t doing it because they are a criminal or attacker. It is important to remain objective and consider both valid/non-violent causes for behavior as well as violent/illegitimate reasons for what you observe.

Thinking about the likely causes for the man and woman’s discomfort and their elevated situational awareness for people in public areas, here are the two non-violent/valid reasons I considered:

  • Situational awareness could be focused on establishing a new anchor point, a place to sit in the food-court once they get their food, but that doesn’t make sense since there are tons of open seats, reducing the likelihood of that being the source of discomfort.
  • Their situational awareness could be looking around for someone else they are meeting up with, but that doesn’t seem likely either because when the man and the woman start pacing to look around, their attention and interest goes directly to the table, not where their friend would be coming from.
  • Another element here that Chris highlights, is he says that “they are not standing in an ideal spot” as they are in the way of other people in the food court. That path that people are walking along is what we refer to as a natural line of drift (NLD), and while people often stop along an NLD annoying those around them, they often don’t have any situational awareness when they do it and don’t realize that they are in the way. However, when they are in the way of people, and aware of their surroundings, it becomes one additional indicator that their awareness might not have a legitimate purpose.

As I would start to eliminate the false-positive reasons why they are at an elevated level of situational awareness, my focus on them as being potential criminals would start to increase as I start to consider how I would respond to them. The way that I would personally handle a situation like this is the same way that Chris talks about. I’d make some sort of statement to let them know that I saw them without escalating the situation. But I’d also be looking to see how they respond. I’d be looking for any indication of them shifting into the dominant cluster as that would alert me that they might react aggressively towards me.

Videos and practice opportunities like this are great because they allow us to deliberately develop our abilities and situational awareness. We refer to exercises like this as taking your daily free throws to become better at recognizing each of the behaviors that go into our program and the process to recognize anomalies, and if you’d like to learn more about what “Blue’s Clues” can teach us about how to practice, here is one final article for you.

Make sure you take a look at Chris’ site: Staying Safe Self Defense to see some of the other great resources and articles that he has put out.