21 Years of Situational Awareness Training 1996-2017
In 1996, I published what may have been the first article in the popular “tactical/gun” press on John Boyd’s OODA loop as a model for maintaining situational awareness and decision making for personal combat. I presented a simplified version of Boyd’s elegant thinking and detailed expansion of the OODA loop, in a way that I felt, at the time, would be immediately usable by tacticians unfamiliar with the concept.
Sixteen years later, the OODA loop and Boyd’s work and how to apply it to personal combatives armed and unarmed are the subject of endless articles and internet forum debates and the concept is an integral part for most credible combative training systems.
This wasn’t the case in 1996, when most of the established firearms instructors were weaned on Cooper’s Color Code. In several discussions with notable tacticians, I pointed out that the OODA loop didn’t necessarily replace the Color Code, but it certainly added an additional dimension for utilizing efficient information processing.
The OODA loop concept took hold in the tactical community (it had long been part of combat aviation, military psychology and strategic planning) after other instructors and writers found utility in the simplified model and joined me in spreading the word.
So today knowledge of the OODA loop is expected in any serious tactical practitioner.
The concept of situational awareness, which I also introduced in the same article, has grown significantly as well. Let me make clear I didn’t develop the idea, I took it from military psychology and combat aviation research and put the idea into the context of personal combat. Situational awareness is a topic of serious study for the military; applying Boyd’s model to personal combat raised questions the military has long batted around: What is situational awareness? Can it be specifically defined and identified? Is it an inherent trait or is it instilled? And, most to the point, can it be taught in training?
Based on the research, experimentation, and field testing I’d been doing since the late 80’s on how to utilize accelerated learning, stress inoculation, and pre-conscious processing to recalibrate habitual baseline states to enhance performance under stress, I went on to share those concepts in another 1996 article SHOOTING WITH THE MIND’S EYE in which I stated my position: yes, the components — the critical path of the cognitive process I defined as situational awareness — can be identified, and since those components can be identified they can then be enhanced and taught.
Among the organizations I shared this with was NASA. NASA is the lead agency for study and research of “situational awareness” and provides a clearing house for the various interested agencies like military aviation, the intelligence and law enforcement communities. I consulted with the Psychological Services Division of the Medical Sciences Branch of NASA. My consultation focused on how to apply the blend of stress inoculation, accelerated learning, pre-conscious processing and scenario based training I’d developed to parts of the Astronaut Training Program.
One of controversial (at that time) positions I took, in discussion with the top military and space psychologists and psychiatrists in the world, was that situational awareness, in my experience as a trainer, was one part genetics, one part life experience, and one part training; and that situational awareness could be identified in prospective candidates, and further enhanced or taught (installed) into astronaut trainees who lacked the operational experience and training of the candidates who came in from the hard-core Department of Defense flow (ie fighter pilots, combat veterans, test pilots, etc.).
The polite (i.e. “official”) response was: “That’s not our position The area merits more study, but we tend to believe that situational awareness is in large part a skill you either have or you don’t; if you don’t, all the training in the world won’t give it to you.”
The unofficial response, over beers in a famous astronaut bar also trafficked by the US Naval Special Warfare community, was: “Ah, bullshit. You can’t teach that.” And then a long pause: “…but if you could…”
I wrote my consultation report and then went on to do other things, among them develop a training program for installing situational awareness subsequently adopted by the South African Police Service (who, at the time, had more officer-involved shootings monthly than the US had yearly) titled “Mental Conditioning for Close Combat” and also taught a significant number of personnel involved in close protection, military special operations, law enforcement, and private sector security on how to enhance their own brand of situational awareness.
Over the last twenty years, I’ve received hundreds of phone calls, e-mails and letters attesting to the effectiveness of the situational awareness and performance enhancement training program from former students operating in America and many other countries.
Anecdotal evidence, yes, but then, I never claim to be a scientist, and those calls and letters are all I ever needed to be assured that what I was doing was not only working in the training environment but translating directly into usefulness on the street and on the battlefield.
I shared that information with the popular tactical/gun press in an article about situational awareness published in SWAT Magazine in 2007.
In August 2010, 15 years after my initial consultation with NASA, the project managers I worked with in 1995 now are in charge of the entire unit, and were good enough to take my nine year old son on the VIP tour of the training facility. Over lunch they told me, “Remember back in 95 when we were talking about situational awareness and human performance indicators? Situational awareness? We did a study you might find interesting.”
They sent me two documents detailing a study: “Human Behavior Performance Competencies” generated by NASA, and the ESA (European Space Agency). What this study did was focus on specific aspects of human behavior and performance essential to survival in the space environment, with particular emphasis on long duration space travel. One of the unprecedented products of the study is an easy to use matrix that identifies the human performance competency, the behavior, the behavioral markers, details and examples.
Situational awareness is one of the major human performance competencies identified. This is the first time that the top scientists and researchers from the world-wide psychological research community have come to a consensus definition of situational awareness.
In order to include it, they had to break down the components of situational awareness as they defined it, as shown in the graphics posted above.
What NASA is doing with this is using these behaviors and traits as tools in the selection and assessment of astronauts and crew selection for long-duration missions; they continue to add rigorously reviewed scientific studies on these traits. They also work in conjunction with their Training Division to enhance training to develop these attributes, and completed a peer-reviewed study and presentation on the effectiveness and implications of training situational awareness.
This can be an extremely useful model with extraordinary implications for law enforcement and tactical training.
There are two major competencies identified by NASA as principal sub-components of “situational awareness.” They are:
a. Maintenance of an accurate perception of the situation; and
b. Processing of information
Perceiving the situation in an accurate (usable) perception and processing that information adds up to a state of “situational awareness.”
What are some of the implications for situational awareness training?
If a behavior can be identified and deconstructed into components, it can then be reconstructed and woven into a training program.
One of the differences between this extremely useful model and what I’ve been doing is that I combine processing of information with the maintainance of the accurate perception; like the OODA loop, it’s all one flow from my perspective. Without efficient processing of useful information in the moment, it’s not possible to perceive a given situation, especially a dynamic situation like combat, accurately. So the two elements are interwoven.
My model for training and enhancing situational awareness focused on improving perception and enhancing cognition while under stress. These are the principal components of the baseline state of relaxed alertness and situational awareness as I’ve trained it:
- Vision skills (enhanced use of the full range of visual cues, which leads to enhancement of other sensory inputs i.e. hearing, etc., as well as designing training that enhances visual processing in the neurology),
- Sensory cue acuity (enhanced use of all senses in conjunction along with pattern recognition templates fed into the other-than-conscious mind)
- State management (managing the internal representation and physiology in such a manner as to enhance efficient processing of information)
- Cognitive model (drawing critical path pattern-recognition models from high performers and installing directly into other than conscious mind of students)
- Time distortion (how to manage and enhance processing of information and utilize time distortion to maximize personal processing time of incident-essential data).
So over twenty years, I’ve focused on simple exercises to install the skill, and test it immediately under stress and in open-ended scenarios to cement the skill in use under immediate onset threat to life stress. In my last post, I shared a simple exercise that installs one small attribute of the larger skill set.
What I find most exciting about this study is the model NASA’s best researchers came up with; in the same way the OODA loop is a model for decision making and maintaining situational awareness, the Human Behavior and Performance Competency Model is a model for breaking out the components of situational awareness as they define it.
So while some pieces of their definition might not necessarily meet the needs of personal combat, the model of the matrix they’ve created makes a template for us to fill in with the working competencies drawn from personal combat.
So – shall we create one?
Extracts used with permission from NASA. All other content copyright by Marcus Wynne (as is all material on this blog — please respect that…)