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Situational Awareness and Self-Defense in the Real World

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Originally published-7 NOVEMBER, 2019/UPDATED – 3 APRIL, 2022

I used to speak on this subject quite often a few years ago as I taught advanced firearm and self-defense classes, but not so much now other than to reference situations in my novels. But events of the last couple of weeks got me to thinking that it was time to address the subject with readers of my blog and Facebook pages and groups. In truth, situational awareness needs to be discussed often among friends and especially within your family. Your safety and the safety of your family is a personal responsibility. No matter where you live if you are threatened or attacked, law enforcement will not get to you in time to save you or your loved ones from injury or death.

What spurred me to discuss this subject was the recent murders in Texas of the New Hampshire couple living and traveling in their RV, and the ambush massacre of women and children in Mexico that left nine Americans dead. Two separate incidents should awaken everyone to how fleeting life can be in this dangerous world. The truth is ugly, and although I have lectured on this subject for most of my life, I have known many people that quite frankly didn’t wish to acknowledge my message, that no matter where you are, no matter where you live or work…there are no safe places.

After spending over twenty years rescuing kidnap victims from a lot of very bad places, I can honestly tell you that not one person I ever recovered thought they were in danger prior to being abducted. But without a doubt, the signs were there if only the victims had just practiced situational awareness.

For those of you that don’t know, situational awareness is being conscious of your immediate surroundings and the people that are in close proximity to you at all times. No matter how skilled you are at defending yourself, situational awareness is by far the greatest self-defense skill you can acquire. Being aware of threats and danger around you gives you the advantage over the bad guys who want unaware victims that are easy prey. Letting the criminals know you are alert just may be enough for them to let you move on while they look for another target. In any event, it gives you the opportunity to react faster to the threat.

When faced with a threatening situation, an individual will have one of three responses. Depending on the scenario and their level of training they will either FIGHT…FREEZE…. or FLEE. If that person is practicing good situational awareness, they should have time to decide whether it is appropriate to fight or flee. Freezing is NEVER A GOOD OPTION.

It doesn’t matter where you encounter the threat, in or outside of your home, in a parking lot, inside of a store, or your place of work, situational awareness will give you time to develop your options.


Almost everyone has some methods in place to assist in securing your home, and by home, I’m referring to wherever you live, be it a single-family house, apartment, condo, or like myself, in an RV. Doors and windows secured and locked, motion sensors, security lights, or other systems. None are 100% effective in stopping a home invasion, though they may buy you enough time to assess the threat and decide on a response, but when you leave home, how do you ensure your safety?

The first rule is simple. Don’t go into bad places. Trouble is very likely to find you there.

Recently we were in Tampa, Florida, for a day having some work done on our RV, the one we travel around the country in while I write my books. After dropping off the rig we decided to do some shopping and went in search of a Walmart. Not being familiar with the city we enlisted the aid of the Google lady. She directed us north, and within a short time, the buildings lining the streets became more rundown and decrepit. A couple of blocks later we were stopped at a traffic light, and beside us was a guy sitting inside of a covered bus stop with a needle in his arm, shooting up. That was enough for me to turn around and head away from that area. It was a bad news place.

Now understand that in my previous occupation as a kidnap resolution specialist, I was sent into some of the most dangerous places in the world. Medellin, and Bogota, Colombia, Port-au-Prince, Haiti, Guatemala City, Guatemala, San Salvador, El Salvador, and every barrio in and around Mexico City. I was never sent into the places that tourists frequent, but into dingy, nasty, slums. So, the north side of Tampa wasn’t nearly as bad as any of those places, but for the fact, that I was traveling with my partner, and there was no reason to put her life in danger being in a bad place. We left and found a nicer side of town with a Walmart.

This brings me to the recent events I mentioned earlier. The beach that the couple from NH were camping on near Corpus Christi, Texas, is a well-known hangout for drug dealers, and male and female prostitutes. The camping is free there, but it attracts a bad element and predators that are looking for easy prey. This beach is just eleven miles from where we are heading in a couple of weeks to spend two months at Mustang Island State Park. The difference is that the free camping area is not regularly patrolled by security or law enforcement. It is a place where bad things happen, and trouble can find you fast.

Why were they there? Don’t know. Total speculation leads me to believe they were earnestly trying to get by on the cheap. Certainly nothing wrong with that, but as I said before, there are some places you just shouldn’t go into, and for that couple, the free beach was one of them. Maybe they chose the spot for another reason. Experience and my writer’s innate imagination brings to mind several different scenarios. It doesn’t matter. Dead is dead. Wrong place, poor timing.

As for the family that was massacred in Mexico, they chose to live in what is now the most dangerous country in the world. A totally lawless nation where the drug cartels control the government and every city and village. If you read my book, Call Sign Stiletto, I detail many of the threats that can be encountered in Mexico. The story itself is fictional, but the dangers I wrote about are real. I worked there in those same places and faced the same criminal elements. Even tourist spots like Cancún, Playa del Carmen, Cabo San Lucas, and Acapulco regularly suffer atrocities dealt by the cartels. Yet this family chose to live there, so, unfortunately, they ended up in the wrong place at the wrong time and paid the price. So, my best advice is if you find yourself in a bad place, trust your instincts and leave. Get out and go someplace else.

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Now, for the times, and they are many, when you find yourself out of your home, away from your vehicle, how does situational awareness assist you?

You must mentally work with two security zones. The primary zone is what is happening within twenty-one feet of you, and secondarily, what is beyond the twenty-one-foot area.

Why the twenty-one-foot zone? Because any threat inside of twenty-one feet can have their hands or a weapon on or in your body within one and a half seconds. Security professionals, the military, and law enforcement call it the twenty-one-foot rule, and we train extensively for it.

The rule states that a bad guy with a knife that is twenty-one feet away can get within arm’s reach of you in one and a half seconds…… Yes, that fast.

Now the question becomes, how do you defend yourself if a threat appears within that zone? I will tell you, because I trained special military units and law enforcement, that few people without a tremendous amount of extensive training can, under pressure in a threatening situation, draw and shoot a holstered handgun with deadly precision in one and a half seconds. To survive such an encounter, you need to be able to move and shoot, likely at multiple targets while not getting sliced and diced with a blade, or shot by the attacker. And very few civilians, honestly few military or law enforcement professionals train for just such a scenario. To make my point, if you have ever been to a gun range, you will find the shooters standing behind the lines, shooting at a static target, generally twenty or more feet away. In a real gunfight, the threat will be closer, ten feet or less. You will smell their sweat and bad breath, and they won’t be standing still.

Your best bet is to try and identify a threat or threats within that twenty-one-foot zone, and move away, putting distance between you and the threat.

What do you look for?

Always look at their hands and eyes. The eyes will tell you where the bad guy’s attention is focused, and the hands will give away their intent to harm you. Every time!

If you identify a threat, look at them. Don’t betray your fears. Stare them down, so they know you are aware. As I said before, they may look for an easier target.

As you are scanning for threats in the primary zone, you need to also be aware of the secondary zone that you are moving into, looking for potential danger or escape routes should you need to flee from a threat.

Situational awareness is an acquired skill. While our distant ancestors living a nomadic life on the open plains acquired this self-preservation skill at an early age or died, we in this so-called modern era, sleeping with four strong walls around us have long forgotten what it was like to be under threat from predators, two and four-legged ones, day and night. So, if we are to take personal responsibility for our security it is important that we develop the skills and practice them daily. Not only that, but we must teach the skills to our children as well.

We can’t be with our children all hours of the day, so they need to be taught how to monitor their surroundings for threats and learn how to avoid them. I was often told by parents in my self-defense classes that they disliked having to explain to their children what a dangerous world they are living in, that they didn’t want to ruin their childhood or scare them. Reality dictates the opposite. There is no running and hiding from the fact that there are people that do bad things to good people every day. You either expect the worse and plan for it, or face the possibility of becoming a victim.

Many women don’t realize that they face danger nearly every day when they do the most mundane of things. Entering and leaving their vehicle.

Sounds unbelievable, but it’s true. Women, think about this; when you leave for work in the morning, hands full of a purse, keys, and whatever else your taking, do you survey the area around you, the street, side of the garage, under the car? These are places criminals would be, looking for an unaware woman to rob, or abduct.

When you go shopping; in the parking lot, before you exit the vehicle, do you look to see if there are any men or women lurking nearby or possibly sitting in a car near you? When you come out of the store, shopping bags in tow, children to put in car seats, are you aware of what is happening around you?

Over a million women and children are abducted every year in the U.S., and many disappear from parking lots. Read my latest novel, The Caldera Abduction, and you will get an idea of how easy it is for kidnappers to make someone disappear, forever.

So, I’m often asked, how does someone protect themselves in the event of an attack, home invasion, or robbery? What weapon should I use?

My answer is, use any weapon that is available and can be accessed quickly. A gun is good if you have trained with it, are familiar with it, know how to clear malfunctions quickly, and have it with you. It does you no good if you are attacked outside your home, while the weapon is by your bed. If you aren’t proficient with it, seek training. No one drives a car for the first time without being trained. A gun is no different. And just because you can hit a target on the range at thirty feet standing still, doesn’t mean you can hit a man running at you while under stress. Fighting with a firearm is a totally different ballgame, and it’s not like anything you see on television or in a movie. Unlike a military engagement that may take place with combatants hundreds of yards apart, most civilian self-defense confrontations happen within ten feet. The bad guy may actually have his hands on you while you are trying to shoot him. It is truly up close and personal.

If you don’t have a gun or don’t have it with you, use whatever is at hand. A pencil or ballpoint pen in the eye may not kill an attacker, but it will take their mind off you long enough for you to getaway.

How about a knife? While you may have a kitchen full of knives, and a pocket knife is easy to carry, and in a pinch, any weapon you can put your hands on is better than nothing, the truth about a knife fight that few edged weapons instructors will tell you, other than me, is that in a knife fight, EVERYONE GETS CUT….and it’s not a pretty sight. My call-sign in the private military organization I spent over two decades with was Stiletto. That might just clue you in that I know a fair bit about sharp blades. So, if the situation will allow it, run away from the attacker as fast as you can. Unfortunately, age, physical condition, and other factors may prohibit your ability to escape an attacker.

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Mace, pepper spray, or bear spray are all good non-lethal options, but they must be carried at all times, and like any other weapon, you need to practice regularly with them. The ability to use any weapon under stress requires developed muscle memory. You will have little or no time to think in an attack, so you must train so that you can react. Otherwise, you will freeze instead of fighting or fleeing.

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Martial arts like karate, judo, and jiu-jitsu are all effective forms of self-defense, but they require years of training along with extreme physical fitness. Many students will never stay the course long enough to become proficient enough to survive a street fight, but Krav Maga can be taught to anyone, no matter your physical strength or conditioning. If you are interested in learning a self-defense skill, look up a local Krav Maga class, and you will do no wrong. I was trained in Krav decades ago, and over the years working in an extremely dangerous business found it very useful.

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But the most important self-defense skill set is not a weapon. It is a developed mindset that no matter what bad situation you are confronted with, that you will never give up! If you think that to acquiesce to a rapist, robber, home invader, or kidnapper will save your life, you are wrong. Fight with whatever you have, run away if you can, but NEVER GIVE UP!

One last tip I will offer you, is to have everyone in your family program their cell phones to call 911 by just hitting the number 1. (Speed dial 1) Under extreme stress, many of the bodies normal functions shut down. You develop tunnel vision, and many of the cognitive functions of the brain are affected. Studies have shown that even the simple task of dialing three numbers, 9-1-1 can become impossible. By programming your phone to just one number, you can override most cerebral dysfunctions.

Take your personal security seriously. You have little control over when you will encounter a life-threatening situation. The bad guys dictate that. Hope for the best, but preparing for the worst is not a bad way to stay alive.

Be aware and stay safe.

Click on the menu in the top right-hand corner or go here for information on my novels or links to my short stories.

My novel, Crossroads Texas, details the human trafficking of children in America. Get it here.

For more detailed information on this subject, see my latest book, Not a Victim—Lessons in Survival.

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