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Key Situational Awareness & Response Strategies Your Frontline Workers Need to Stay Secure

As the world and society become increasingly aggressive and complex, it’s important to know how to spot and respond to dangers in public spaces and act in ways that reduce the likelihood of violence

As we see more criminal and aggressive incidents committed against utility workers, it’s important that your frontline workers be equipped with training that helps them act in ways that reduces their risk. Personal attacks on utility employees often happen unexpectedly and are preceded by a variety of customer threats—whether verbal, physical, using animals to intimidate, displaying weapons and so on. These incidents might be caused by customer anger of bills or service outages or could be instances of workplace violence committed by either a co-worker, former co-worker, family or personal acquaintance.

The Tactics of Attackers

There are three basic components that compel a person to attack:

  1. There is a desire by the attacker for personal gain or retribution. Attackers are often motivated by some reason to attack.
  2. The ability of the attacker to be successful. If a criminal is bigger than the victim, has an age advantage or uses weapons, the attacker will be more likely to attack
  3. The opportunity to be successful. Attackers act on what they consider ideal opportunities, including location, time of day, lack of victim situational awareness and so on. They typically try to use the element of surprise on their victims. These individuals will likely form an opinion of your vulnerability and situation, then find ways to exploit it.

Attackers often shop for a vulnerable person. Distinct actions of the victim include fumbling for keys, acting or looking distracted or having one’s hands and arms full of packages, tools, etc. In addition, Attackers may look for individuals who display items of value that are easy to take. Locations of opportunity may include stairwells, elevator, alleyways, and dimly lit areas, etc.; all likely out of the public eye.

Attackers may use distraction techniques to take you off guard, such as asking for a cigarette or a lighter. Also, another technique might be asking for directions or a time of day, as well as offering assistance for with a dropped item. Moreover, they may simulate a disability or injury to lure you into a situation of compromise.

Tips to Minimize Your Vulnerability

            Here are 14 helpful strategies to help your workers minimize their vulnerability:

  1. Be mindful and alert
  2. Use situational awareness
  3. Know what businesses are open in the area
  4. Use extra caution in high-risk areas
  5. Consider varying your schedule to minimize a pattern
  6. Exercise extra caution during night-time activities
  7. Keep a reactionary gap in your personal space if a quick exit is warranted
  8. Avoid isolation by staying in the public eye and observe others’ behaviors and their potential state of mind, as you may be able to anticipate their intentions
  9. If a conversation turns to a confrontation, excuse yourself and leave
  10. At the first indication of dangerous situation developing, leave immediately
  11. Get familiar with the immediate location and know where the closest emergency service facilities are (i.e., fire, police stations, hospitals, etc.).
  12. Always lock and secure your vehicle
  13. Never assume you are not being watched
  14. Keep your valuables in the vehicle hidden from view at all times

Avoiding Victimization

Experts estimate that two out of three people will be a victim of a crime at some point in their lives. So, what do victims look like is? Well, they do not have a specific look, but there are characteristics. If one is prone to being or looking distracted, it is more likely they will become a victim. That’s why it’s important to teach your team about situational awareness fundamentals, including being aware of one’s surroundings and observing people’s body language.

In addition, your team members should be trained on having a self-defense plan if an attack is unavoidable? They will need to know how to decide whether they need to take a self-preservation action such as fighting back. In all instances, your team should be trained to avoiding fighting, whether is their personal property or the companies. And, most importantly, your team should be trained to recognize how to escape and flee a situation before it becomes an attack.

Understanding the Importance of Situational Awareness

Situational Awareness is defined as the perception of elements in an environment within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future. In other words, being situational aware is more of a mindset than a hard skill. It is something that can be learned and practiced by anyone with the resolve to do so. And, this mindset is vital in helping workers identify criminal and/or suspicious behavior, as well as other dangerous situations within your immediate surroundings.

The reality is that the threats are going to exist whether your worker is aware of them or not. By empowering your team with skills that enable them to avoid potentially dangerous people or situations, your organization arms them with the ability to reduce the likelihood of becoming a victim.

Understanding the Different Levels of Awareness

            There are five levels of awareness that individuals may display. These include

  1. Tuned Out,
  2. Relaxed Awareness,
  3. Focused Awareness,
  4. High Alert,
  5. and Comatose.

To help define them, I will provide an example of each level in a vehicle driving scenario.

Tuned out driving occurs when operating the vehicle in a familiar environment. They can be immersed in thought, having a daydream. Further, the driver could be on their cell phone, or listening to music. These drivers may experience arriving somewhere without thinking about how they got there.             Relaxed awareness drivers are comparable to defensive driving. These drivers are watching other vehicles on the road and looking ahead for potential hazards. This mind set typically does not make the driver weary and they can stay in this state for extended periods of time. These drivers have to be mindful and careful not to slip into “tuned out” mode. They can still enjoy the trip and maintain watching for road hazards, maintaining a safe distance and watching the behavior of other drivers around their vehicle.

Focused awareness drivers are comfortable driving in hazardous road conditions. They prefer to keep two hands on the wheel and have their attention totally focused on the road and other drivers around them. There is no time for distractions, such as radio, cell phones, or other devices. The level of concentration required makes it extremely tiring and stressful. Imagine yourself driving in a powerful rain storm, snow storm or icing conditions. The stress level of focused awareness is elevated for most people.

High alert driving prompts an adrenaline rush that can aid reflexes. This state of mind can only be maintained for brief periods of time before exhaustion sets in. This high alert phenomenon occurs when the moment arrives. There is the sensation for quick, and maybe life altering actions, such as entering an intersection and the car you are observing is running the red light and you are not going to be able to stop and avoid a collision. You can still function at this level as you hit your brakes and make every attempt and maneuver to avoid a collision.

Comatose driving mode is a restrictive state of mind to a situation. The mindset is to freeze and not respond to life altering events. There is panic-induced paralysis as the brain ceases to process information in a time restricted event. The driver cannot react to the reality of the situation, may be in denial with thoughts of this is not happening to me. The driver will likely feel they are watching the event, rather than actually participating in the event. The drivers’ thoughts may be that time suddenly came to a stop, a temporary pause in time. Regardless of how well we prepare most of us remain, we are still susceptible to being caught off guard.

Appropriate Level of Awareness

Finding the right level of awareness is not that simple for most and can vary depending upon the situation presented. High Alert can be maintained only for brief periods. Most people cannot operate at focused awareness for extended periods of time. Basic levels of Situational Awareness that should be practiced most of the time is relaxed awareness. This level can be maintained indefinitely without stress or fatigue and is an easier to transition to focused awareness like defensive driving. It is important that your team members learn how to practice working at a state of relaxed awareness and know how to switch to other levels of awareness as needed.

Job Site & Field Work Best Practices     

When your workers are out in public-facing jobsites, there are some things they can do to best be ready for potential danger.  It is a good idea to start with an area survey noting access, obstructions, and people loitering in the area. Additionally, your organization should have in place processes where your workers can alert your team as to the exact address or area they intend to be at. Another best practice for job site workers is to park in a manner that allows for a quicker ability to leave the area. Back into a stall, make sure the vehicle is free from obstacles and position the vehicle closer to an exit location. Additionally, it’s a good strategy to park in a well-lit, highly visible location with all emergency lights activated. Scan around the vehicle before you exit and, as mentioned prior, keep any valuables out of sight.

If your workers are out in working neighborhoods, remember that many people in any neighborhood will be concerned about a stranger walking around in their yard. Be sure your workers are always displaying their company ID badge, uniform, PPE and/or high-visibility safety vest.

If your organization doesn’t already have a process in place for employees to contact corporate security or police in incidents where it is needed, you should build this process right away.

  1. When the work is done, here are some helpful strategies for workers to consider:
  2. Complete paperwork away from the job site.
  3. When returning to your vehicle, have your keys in your hand
  4. Be aware of occupied vehicles around you
  5. Look inside your vehicle before entering.
  6. If you are carrying tools or bags – try to keep one hand free.
  7. Use the windows of your vehicle as a mirror as they may be able to reflect what is behind you
  8. Pre-program 911 into your cell phone and keep it with you.


            Most of us have heard the adage, “There is no job so important or service that is so urgent that we cannot take time to perform our work safely. Safety and risk taking when it comes to the workplace and personal violence is no different. A worker’s security and personal safety holds the same value as any hazardous jobs you perform. The bottom line is that the job only becomes dangerous when work policies and practices are not in place or followed.

            As society of criminal behavior appears to be increasing and more brazen, so must the individual and work crew vigilance of situational awareness, whether on the job or your personal time. Be mindful to decrease opportunities, be aware of potential distractions, and minimize your vulnerability of victimization. By keeping in mind the information set forth in this article, you can help minimize your team’s chances of being victimized.

About the Author:

Charles Keeling is a 35-year Safety Professional in General Industry, Construction, Emergency Management and Public Safety. Mr. Keeling is a retired Law Enforcement Officer from the NYPD. Mr. Keeling holds CHST, CUSP and NYS Certified Workplace Safety Consultant designations. Further, Mr. Keeling holds a BS in Fire and Emergency Management and is currently working with PSEG Long Island conducting Safety & Regulatory Compliance. Mr. Keeling is also the ASSP Region VIII Metro Area Director. He can be contacted at