In recent times, I have heard people discuss Situational Awareness – and its evil twin: distractions.  Oh so often, the object of current distractions are borne from some new techno-gizmo and someone doing something really stupid with it.

SITUATIONAL AWARENESS:   What is it?   Is it new? Has it changed?   Am I putting lives at risk?  What can I do to be more safe?  It is important to assess your own situation and develop an operating plan.  Know when it’s time to DISCONNECT and say NO.

What is situational awareness (SA)?  Technically defined, SA is the perception of environmental elements within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future.  Simply stated, it is what you are paying attention to and more importantly what you are ignoring.

EXAMPLE  (This would NEVER happen where I work)

The officer was waiting at a traffic light when his LT, (who was out for a casual bike ride), pulled up and grabbed onto the door handle of the squad car.  The LT looked into the car as the officer was working on his Mobile Computer (MDC).

After about 30 seconds the LT banged on the window of the squad and the officer almost jumped out of his pants when he saw his LT sitting next to him.  The moral of the story is the MDC had more mental suction power than a super charged Binford 2000 shop vac, consuming all of the officer’s situational awareness.

In this situation the officer’s attention was strictly limited to the MDC. Everything else around him was being ignored.  As officers, we see motorists talking on their cell phones and even texting.  It is easy to see how others are distracted using these devices.  But what about  cops?  Aren’t we are expected to be using all this ‘great’ technology and do our jobs at the same time?


 In the not so distant past, the only electronics a police officer had to be concerned with was a two-way radio and a couple of switches to turn on the siren and overhead lights.

Today’s squad car comes close to looking like the cockpit of a Boeing 747: containing an on board computer, dash cam, radar unit, multiple radios, sophisticated lighting and siren controls,  car radio, plus the cell phone, tablet, and other electronics the officer carries on his or her person.


It’s been a gradual change.  Let’s talk a walk down memory lane.

  • My bride and I took a week-long cruise on our honeymoon.  One of the most memorable aspects: no TV, no radio, no telephones, no newspaper, absolutely no contact with any of the outside world.  AWESOME!
  • Back in the 1980’s, I remember suggesting that we might want to get one of those new FAX machines for our office.  “Just a passing fad,” the boss said, “they’ll be forgotten in a few months.”
  • My first CELL PHONE was permanently mounted in my car – to the transmission hump.   It was as big as a brick.  It required a corkscrew antenna on the rear window.  I never had to worry about the battery running low.   I could actually call people when I was driving.  WOW!
  • Remember PAGERS/BEEPERS?  You’d hear ‘em go off in the silence of a church service or some other inappropriate spot.  But, having one meant you must really be important – or a drug dealer.  Right?
  • In a recent conversation, my wife and I figured out that we got our first high-speed internet connection at our home around the year 2000.  How could we have ever lived without it?
  • A client police department announced that GPS would be installed in all the patrol cars.   The union threw a fit.  The cops wanted me to show them how to disable it.   “They’re not gonna watch my every move!” grumbled the old guys.  Today, a lot of young coppers today don’t even carry a map with them.   Without the GPS mapping in the car, they wouldn’t have a clue on to get to a whole bunch of calls.
  • The stroll through memory lane wouldn’t be complete without mentioning that seemingly innocuous little gadget that is so addictive as to require treatment at the Betty Ford Clinic:  their smart phone!
  • AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and others extol the virtues and absolute necessity of wireless internet (4G, no less) so that your pocket computer/phone/thingy can connect you to anyone, anywhere at the speed of light.  And don’t forget that you can watch reruns of Rocky & Bullwinkle on demand, too!   Hogwash.


  • To complete the circle, I actually received an email from a buddy who was on a week-long cruise alone with his new bride.  I refused to reply and just deleted it.    HARRUMPH!

You didn’t even notice the change happening, right?

The evolution has been so gradual that it slipped by.  Then one day, you realized something was askew.  Like when you go to the store for a new pair of uniform pants and discover that you now have a 40” waist.   Ouch!

The difference with situational awareness is that you may not realize you’ve lost your awareness until your life or the life of another is in grave danger.

Many of the technological devices being used today have the power to suck your mind into them leaving you situationally unaware.  Think of this acronym:  S.U.C.K   (Situational Unawareness Can Kill) when you use them.


You’ve heard it a hundred times:   Train the way you fight because you will fight the way you’ve trained.   Right on.

The personal technology is part of our lives.  It is not going away.  However, I want to be in control.  Example:  I would much rather call someone than be on the receiving end of an incoming call.  Incoming calls too often arrive at the most in-opportune times.


Most people today have already developed certain habits.

  • When I’m walking into church, I automatically set my phone to vibrate.
  • When I go to the gym, the workout gear goes on.  The cell phone goes in the locker.  (I know, most young folks use their phone to listen to music on their headphones.)  I refuse to surrender my gym time to an unexpected phone call.
  • On the occasions when my wife responds positively to my amorous advances, you can bet your backside that the rest of the world can standby.

While at work, if I find that the natives are being quiet, then texting, talking, or checking out Facebook can be a great diversion.    However, when you have a vehicle refusing to stop, that is not the time to dabble with the gadgetry.

Plan ahead.  I suggest rote habits regarding technology.  You already put the windows up at high speeds – or put them down when patrolling in residential areas at night.   Why not a similar plan for your cell, the computer, texting, etc. when driving gets stressful?

Put the phone away; no optional messaging on the MDC, move all traffic possible to the radio.  Keep your eyes and attention on your driving.  It’s a simple plan to keep you alive.  Failing to plan is planning to fail.   In our business, failure can result in the sounds of Amazing Grace, graveside.


University research has conclusively proven in repeated tests:    The human mind is inevitably more drawn into a computer screen that it is into the identical information on a piece of paper.

Do I know the theory behind it?  Nope.   But, just watch anyone play a video game and you will quickly see what I’m talking about.  The computer can somehow suck the brain right out of your head.

It can happen to you.   Unless you decide otherwise.

When using this technical gear, plan on manual reminders from the outset.   I train cops how to use a computer to record traffic crashes.   A crash report (on paper) is about the most intricate document we create on the street.   On a computer, it is even more mentally consuming.

I tell my students:   “From the first time that you use this new program, identify specific points where you will LOOK UP.”   No one will be there to remind you.  Practice it and demand it of yourself.   If you start the first report with bad habits, you will continue with them.  Sooner or later, it will get you hurt.


This gear is changing at an incredibly high speed.

In my former home state, an officer was recently killed in the line of duty while assisting a stalled motorist on the side of a busy freeway.   The cop’s wife was out of town.  His agency had trouble reaching her.   The wife learned that she had become a widow when she read it on Facebook.  It had been posted by an officer from a neighboring agency.  UNACCEPTABLE.

Stay tuned in.  This stuff changes fast.  Your life depends on you keeping pace with it.


I remember when making a long distance phone call REQUIRED an operator to complete it.  People could only dial calls in their own local communities.

Back then, my dad’s folks lived across the country.  We called them once a month.  On the appointed day and time, my dad would call the long distance operator to set up the call about an hour in advance.   At the appointed time, our phone would ring and the operator would connect us.


Of late, AT&T announced their terrestrial cell phone network will be backed up by satellite.  So, if you are somewhere that there is no ground cell coverage, the phone will automatically switch to satellite service.   We are never more than a few seconds away from anyone on the planet.

Constant interruptions are OK if you’re the one causing them.  Not so much if you are on the receiving end.

The distractions of technology are stealing our situational awareness.   Seven cops are dead already and one civilian is gone.  I don’t want you to be next.

When it’s all said and done, it’s comes down to saving just ONE life.


From the CopBlue vault

Credits:  thanks to John Demand for his contribution


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