My Story: Street Smarts & Situational Awareness

The Story Starts

My day started out as a beautiful Autumn morning. Very pleasant, in fact, despite the frenzied atmosphere as we readied our son for school. We had recently moved and were living in Europe, in a new city beginning a new school year. As my son and I rushed out the door and headed down the street to the school bus stop, I began the usual morning parental interrogation: Brushed your teeth? Check. Have your lunch? Check. Money for field trip? Check.

A few minutes later, we arrived at the corner with other school children and pedestrians on their way to work. As we chatted, waiting for the school bus to arrive, I noticed one of the older students, the pretty daughter of a family who lived nearby, standing next to an older man a short distance away. Just then, the school bus rolled up so I gave my son a hug and kiss goodbye. He and the other students shuffled towards the bus to board—all the students, that is, except for the girl, Jean.

I watched her for a moment, wondering why she wasn’t approaching the bus, then noticed that the man was standing between her and the bus. Each time Jean tried to walk around him he blocked her, moving his face closer to hers as he stepped back and forth in her path. At first I thought it might be a male friend, another student intent on teasing her. Then I noticed that he was an adult, and I saw the look on her face. She was worried.

The Confrontation

I told my son to wait and I approached the two. I first asked her if she was okay. “I’m fine,” she said in a frightened voice. I then asked the man, “Who are you?”

“I’m nobody,” he replied, rudely.

“Well, okay, she needs to leave now,” I told him.

“I’m not done talking to her,” he said, as he moved around to face me.

“She’ll miss her bus, so she has to leave now,” I added, trying to stay calm.

“No, not yet.”

“Yes, she is leaving now. Look, she is too young for you, anyway,” I warned.

“I don’t care how old she is,” he countered.

His last, disgusting statement made me angry. Anger is an interesting, tricky emotion, a double-edged sword. It can be a good thing when it stirs someone to action, when needed. It can be also be a bad thing if not controlled and kept in check. When it’s not….

Despite my growing anger I tried to keep calm. I had been in another fight a few months earlier (protecting a victim who had been attacked in a subway), and did not relish the idea of returning to the office of Security in the U.S. Embassy and filling out another report. I gave the harasser another chance.

“Listen, her dad is a big guy, and a rugby player. You don’t want to mess with this young lady.”

“Right,” he smirked, “and what are you going to do about it?” With that last comment he gave me a shove. What was he thinking?

Actually, there was not much thinking from that point on, just reaction. I shoved him back. He stormed back at me with fists raised. I threw a punch, which hit him squarely on the left cheek. He came back for more. I struck him again, a blow which left him on the ground, his back against a tree. He then reached for his bag so I kicked it, sending pastries spilling out across the sidewalk.

The would-be sexual predator then whined, “Leave my croissants alone.” I answered, “Okay, if you leave her alone.” It would have been funny, if not for the violence.

The Lessons

I don’t tell this story to boast. I’m glad I intervened, but I made mistakes. 

What did I do wrong?

As I grew angrier, and angrier, I experienced a bad case of tunnel vision. My situational awareness went out the window, so to speak. I couldn’t see anyone but the man, the aggressor. I had no idea if he had friends, family, or accomplices in the area. I mostly just saw his face.

What did I do right?

I had arrived at the park with satisfactory, situational awareness. I was aware of my surroundings as I waited and began loading my son onto the bus, despite the stress of trying to be on time, and distractions while saying goodbye. I noticed the bus drive up, I saw others in the park, I recognized the students who were moving towards the bus and clearly identified others: pedestrians, people on their way to work, even retired people, milling about or sitting on benches. And I saw the jerk.

Despite the emotions, and anger, I still maintained some semblance of situational awareness. But emotions can make it difficult. Emotions will do that to a body. Emotions—anger, frustration, jealousy, even excitement—can cause someone to miss important details that we must notice, recognize, and process. Details that can save us from being assaulted by one man, or ten men. Details that can make the difference between being sexually assaulted and going home safe and sound. Even the difference between life and death. Emotions can impair our observation skills, and our awareness.

The Four Conditions

Many in the security field teach the concept of conditions, or levels, of awareness, or state of mind—white, yellow, orange, and red—and that we often drift between them during a typical day, often depending upon our emotions:

Condition white describes someone who is basically “asleep at the wheel.” She will not see the open manhole cover on the sidewalk, or telephone pole in her path, nor the suspicious man lingering near her car in the grocery store parking lot. She will not see a thing, other than her cell phone text messages, until it is too late.

Condition yellow indicates she is alert but relaxed. She knows someone is walking behind her on the sidewalk, is aware of someone shopping in the same aisle in the shoe store, sees the  manhole cover on the sidewalk, and vehicles (makes and models, even drivers) which take multiple turns with her as she drives home.

Interestingly, and contrary to what you would think, she is not paranoid because she is aware. (I would argue that people in Condition White are probably the most paranoid.) She is not scared because she is prepared. Everyone should stay in condition yellow—women and men—until they encounter a threat.

Condition Orange defines a state when a specific threat has been identified, such as the man who followed her around the shopping mall and is now standing next to her car. Once she has recognized a threat she will move to Condition Orange. She might have seen someone many times, over time and distance (not someone she notices in the same store, over a short period of time, for example), and has confirmed that she is under surveillance—that she has been followed by someone threatening. She will now take steps to either move away from the threat, or fight to escape.

Condition Red: At this point, the man who followed her through the movie theater has blocked her path towards her car, and tries to drag her inside his van, or the thug at the restaurant is trying to pull her out the exit door. She now has the Flight or Fight. (I put Flight first, since that is her best bet.) She will scream for help, she will resist with all her strength, she will run, she will kick and scratch and spray him with her pepper spray, and she will fight with all her strength, even fight dirty.

By remaining in Condition Yellow, by staying aware of her surroundings, a woman can avoid many situations before she is in danger, maybe when an assailant is still planning something. Many assailants, including rapists or sexual predators, follow a similar, chain-of-attack (unless they find a “target of opportunity”).

Predators will:

  1. Select a target
  2. Follow and surveil her to identify habits and route
  3. Finalize a plan, or possibly choose another, softer target
  4. Surveil her some more, and lastly,
  5. Deploy at a site along her usual route, waiting on the “X” (figuratively, the spot where he wants to kidnap, rape, assault, or even seduce a woman—for some sexual predators, it might be the back seat of his car)

Obviously, the optimum time to thwart an assault is early on—the earlier the better: better to identify him when he first approaches her, or strikes up a conversation, or is following her, or watching her, than to wait until she is standing on the “X”, or is in the back seat of a sexual predator’s vehicle.

How can she break the chain?

She needs to be observant and aware. She needs to see when a predator’s actions correlate with her own. She needs to notice when he is browsing through magazines and then leaves the store at the same time she leaves. She needs to see him enter another store with her. She needs to notice when he finishes his coffee at the same time, or walks to the food court at the same time. She needs to notice his demeanor: is he nervous, glancing at her, loitering without a purpose. She needs to really see him.

When she sees possible correlation—between his actions and hers—she can take more provocative steps to confirm that he is following her. She can walk through the Walmart in a “stair-stepping” pattern, making several turns while heading to the Pharmacy, for example, rather than two long straight-aways. This will force him to take the turns with her, and make it easier for her to confirm that he is following her.

She can execute a “reversal,” turning back down an aisle towards him, maybe looking him in the eye and letting him know that she knows. She can do a u-turn (vehicular reversal) when driving, heading back towards him, while jotting down his license plate number as she passes. She can then speed dial her dad, brother, friend, or the police, depending upon the situation. If she is in a store, and knows that someone is following her, she can go to the Manager of the store, or a security guard, and ask him to escort her to her car.

What happens when she is aware?

When a woman is aware, she will recognize an “X” and not go anywhere near it. If she sees a man standing next to his van, on her path ahead of her while walking from class to her dorm, she can stop well in advance. She will notice if he stops what he is doing, to see if there is any correlation with her action. Does he look in her direction, and act nervous? Or does he grab bags of groceries from his vehicle and head up the stairs into his home?

She might see a group of men in a parking lot near the exit of the movie theater, before she exits. She will stop, possibly act like she’s on the cellphone. She will notice whether they continue talking and laughing before they proceed to their vehicle, or she will notice that they are watching her, and wait.

She will notice a young man who is loitering near the entrance to her apartment building as she approaches. Is he sexual predator who is waiting for a young woman to arrive so he can push his way in the door and rape her? She can assess the situation and know if he is dangerous by stopping and waiting some distance away. She can watch, and might see the man’s girlfriend exit a minute later, and see them leave hand-in-hand—mystery solved, danger averted.

How will she feel?

Will her situational awareness cause her some perceived embarrassment? Will she feel paranoid when she turns down a ride from a man she does not know well? Will she feel foolish that she hesitated, that she was a scaredy-cat, when she waited inside a store, or asked the manager to accompany her to her vehicle? Will she be embarrassed if she intervenes on behalf of a friend who might be in danger?

No! She will feel proud that she is careful, aware, and smart. And you know what? She may never know that that her observation, awareness, and pause—that extra few seconds of waiting—might have just saved her life or the life of a friend.

Was I embarrassed that I got in a second fight, in less than 6 months? Maybe, a little. But I was glad that I was aware enough to notice a young woman in need of help. What might have happened if I had been oblivious and focused only on getting my son on that bus, anCIA Street Smarts for Women 9781462117680_fulld hurrying off to work? Who knows. But it didn’t happen, because I was situationally aware. And Jean went to school and returned home later that day, safe and sound.

B.D. Foley’s new book CIA Street Smarts for Women: Spy Skills to Tell the Prince from the Predator provides more information and specific skills, the same skills that he used and taught in the CIA, on how to test, vet, and “read” men; elicit information on their true intentions; avoid emotional vulnerabilities and manipulation; project a confident demeanor to stay off a predator’s “radar”; turn down an invitation or break-up safely; and much more. Stay safe!    


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