A Situational Awareness Reminder from the NY City Subway Bomber

This week’s bombing in the New York City subway system during rush house just below Times Square and the Port Authority Bus Terminal is a frightening reminder that vigilant awareness can make the difference between a very scary incident and a terrifying catastrophe.   Quickly after the first explosion, police were able to jump on the terrorist and stop him from trying to detonate the rest of the bomb strapped to his body. Thankfully, the four officers were able to remove the explosives without further incident.

While we don’t know all of the details yet, it’s a stark reminder to remain vigilant and aware at all times. If it weren’t for the alertness and quick response of the four brave police officers who first saw the subway bomber, things would have likely been a lot worse.   Simple things like don’t keep your face buried in your phone when you’re out in public. When you’re sitting waiting for the bus or the train, look around and make note of people’s behavior, their dress. Are they looking around nervously to see if anyone is watching them? Are they dressed appropriately for the weather (for example, are they wearing a jacket when it’s 80 degrees outside)? Is there a package left unattended?   There have been several times when I’ve been in a public place, such as an airport or busy shopping mall, where I’ve seen a bag left unattended. I know other people have seen it as well, but somehow and frighteningly, I’m the only one who actually goes up and alerts an official or police officer. Don’t be afraid, the adage “better safe than sorry” couldn’t be truer than in today’s frightening world.

I don’t always get it right, and sometimes I need to be reminded as well (which is why I write these blogs – for you and for me). I went to a doctor’s office last week with my fiancé’ (a former IDF soldier). There were three rows of chairs for patients in the waiting room, and after checking in at the desk, I took a seat in the front row – I guess it was instinctive to me, since I always like to be first. My fiancé, on the other hand, sat in the back row against the window in the last seat next to a far door. He leaned forward and quietly said to me “you couldn’t have picked a worse seat!” I turned around to look at him (not realizing he wasn’t right next to me), and said embarrassingly “wow, you’re right.” From his vantage point, he could see everything that was going on in the room, and he had mapped out a quick exit.   From where I had originally chosen to sit, someone could have easily come in from behind without me even noticing, and I’d have to scramble to find the exit. I immediately knew I had made a big mistake, my guard was down, I was focused on the doctor’s appointment, and this was a relatively “safe” place. But all you have to do is Google “shooting at doctors office” and there is no shortage of incidences and tragic deaths.

My fiancé is now a pilot, and he told me that even his airline’s flight attendants are trained in situational awareness – not just to spot potential bad guys but also to spot good guys who can come to their aid if needed.   Have you ever boarded a flight and as you’re passing the galley, the flight attendant smiles at you and offers you (or the person in front of you) a bottle of water but not to everyone? I sure have, many times, but never knew why. This flight attendant has been trained to check passengers out, look for able-bodied individuals who are friendly and engaging – someone they can come to and count on in an emergency. They’re making mental notes of where the big strong guys are sitting in case they’re being attacked mid-flight or someone who’s engaging, aware and alert who can help. It’s comforting to know there’s a lot more going on behind the scenes than we know, and it all boils down to alertness and planning.

There are lots of articles out there on things you should do to improve your situational awareness, and I’ll even list some of them below. But until it becomes automatic, if we’re not doing them ALL THE TIME and letting our guard down because of our busy, hectic lives, we could be putting ourselves in real danger.

Tips for Situational Awareness:

  1. Don’t walk, sit, or wait distracted. Keep your head out of your phone and even if you’re talking to someone, make sure to multi-task and stay aware of your environment.
  2. Situate yourself strategically. When you take a seat somewhere, make sure you have a good vantage point of the room and your surroundings. Don’t be in a position where someone can sneak up behind you or things can happen that you’d be unaware of.   Be as close to exits as possible and make sure to look for alternate escape routes, not just the entrance you came in from.
  3. Play the “What If” game. Always ask yourself “what if someone walked through that door with a gun, what would I do, where would I go.” Think of anything that could happen and plan how you’d react.
  4. Don’t make excuses. Our brains can work hard to put things in a “normal” box, so even if we see something that’s really out of place (for example, a guy wearing a thick jacket and hoodie in the summer), we may make excuses in our head of why it’s not out of place (like “oh, that’s just the style kids wear today”). If we see that package by itself in the middle of the mall, we may think to ourselves, “someone just left it there by accident and will probably be right back for it.” Don’t fall prey to what’s called normalcy bias. Trust your initial instinct and don’t second-guess it. Even if it turns out to be nothing, it’s better to alert authorities and have it checked out than to have a catastrophic situation occur that could have been stopped.

Stay alert, stay safe and stay prepared…

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