Situational Awareness - The Environmental Aspect

(Gershon Ben Keren - Sun 31st May)

When people talk about situational awareness (SA), they normally focus on individuals and people e.g. certain movements, behaviors and actions that identify someone in the environment may have harmful intent, and/or be engaged in a criminal activity. What often gets overlooked when considering what situational awareness is, and how it can be developed, is the physical landscape of the environment, and how this needs to be considered and taken into account, as well as the ways in which it can affect our awareness.

One way that an environment can affect our situational awareness is in regard to sound. If you are in an urban setting, comprising of tall brick and glass buildings, it may be difficult to identify where a sound such as a gunshot, or explosion is coming from. This is due to the fact that the sound bounces/echoes off the buildings, meaning it can be difficult to discern where the original noise originated from. Not taking this effect into consideration, could see you moving towards an active shooter rather than away. This is why in such situations it is better to find cover first, and assess the situation from there, than blindly running away from a sound. Part of your situational awareness, should also understand the difference between cover and concealment. Hiding behind a car door, may offer you concealment in an active shooter situation, but it is unlikely to offer you much cover i.e. most car doors won’t stop a bullet. On the other hand getting behind the engine block of the car will afford you good cover.

Whilst it is important to know what can afford you cover and concealment in an environment for your own protection, it is also important to understand what objects and places could conceal an attacker; where could somebody be hiding out of sight. If you do have to pass by such places, it is always good to put as much distance between you and them as possible, and be ready to act, if anything in your environment changes. You should also have an understanding of the entry and exit points in your environment e.g. where could you disengage to, and where could other assailants come from etc.

As well as points of concealment and entrance/exit points, you should also understand natural bottlenecks, and places where your normal movement could be slowed down, reduced or be restricted. I rarely stand on escalators, and choose to walk up them instead; if you stand on an escalator, it is very easy for somebody to come up behind you, put a knife to your back, and demand your wallet etc. If you think you are adept at dealing with armed assailants in a studio/dojo setting, consider how well you would fare on a moving platform, that isn’t large enough for you to turn on, and is at a different level to the one your assailant is on. This is what real-life violence looks like; situations where an assailant will try and put you at every disadvantage they can. The tops and bottoms of escalators are also prime locations for pickpockets, as when people are getting on and off, they are momentarily distracted – if these criminals are working as a team, they may put two people ahead of you to slow down your movement, so that the one who is behind has a little more time to relieve you of your items.

Just as being on an escalator, will restrict your movement, being on a train or a bus will do the same, but with the added benefit of seriously compromising your balance. If you consider that one of the advantages a trained person has over an untrained one, effective movement and power generation are two of the most important; both of which are severely compromised when on a moving platform. You must acknowledge to yourself that a large part of the skillset, which makes you effective as a fighter, have been taken away, or reduced.

You should also have an awareness for what objects could be used as barriers to prevent your assailant, or others from getting to you, along with how such objects could be used to inflict pain and injury on your attacker(s). A parked car can be used to put an obstacle between you and your assailant, as well as making a solid surface to strike your attacker with e.g. smashing their head off the hood, roof or windscreen. Along with such objects, you should be able to identify what could be used as an improvised weapon. I have written extensively about improvised weapons before, so I am not going to go into the classification system that I was taught, however I will say, that for any weapon to be truly effective it must be ready to hand, and require little or no processes in order to form it into a weapon e.g. if you think you have time to take your belt off and use it as a weapon, you’re probably working from a very strange idea of what real life violence looks like.

Whilst it is important to be able to identify individuals in your environment who possess criminal/harmful intent towards you, you should also be able to calculate how your physical landscape could be used either to your advantage or disadvantage. This too is part of situational awareness.

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Returning To The Scene Of The Crime

(Gershon Ben Keren - Sun 24th May)

I personally believe there are a lot of dangers and pitfalls that come about from knife disarming. One being that in reality it is a lot harder than it looks, or may have been experienced in training. Many Krav Maga instructors will tell you that once you have softened your attacker up with punches etc. disarming becomes quite straightforward. Unfortunately this is a common Krav Maga misconception; once you stop striking, unless you have battered the person into unconsciousness – which is also hard to do - their focus quickly returns to the knife, especially when they feel your other hand move to theirs. Attackers will do everything they can to hold on to their weapon, because they know that once they give it up, in all likelihood it will be used against them; and in all likelihood it will, as the fight doesn’t simply stop because you are now holding the knife. If your assailant comes towards you when you are holding it, you will use it and you would be foolish not to. Because of this I generally advocate, using an assailant’s knife against them whilst they are still holding it – in such a way that your finger prints are not on the knife. This raised some questions in a class at my school, and they were good ones, and worth looking at.

I believe that being successful when dealing with violence, is largely down to being decisive. It doesn’t matter what you know, and how good you are, if you are hesitant. Because of this I put a lot of stock in having pre-planned decision trees, and heuristics (simple rules of thumb), that can be applied when dealing with aggressors, so that decisions can be reached quickly, and acted upon immediately. One of my simple decision trees, is that, “if somebody wants something from me they can have it, if somebody wants me I fight.” So if a mugger wants my wallet, they can have it, if an abductor wants me to move then I fight. However in saying that if a mugger doesn’t exit the situation after I have acquiesced to their demand, then I need to fight. The question raised was in relation to this: if after you have handed over your wallet your aggressor stays, and you end up stabbing them with their own knife (not leaving your fingerprints on the knife), should you retrieve your wallet? One of the thoughts behind the question was that since your fingerprints aren’t on the knife (due to the control position you were in), if you retrieve the wallet, with your bank cards and ID in it, there is nothing to tie you to the scene. The other thought was that now you have stabbed your assailant, because they have your driving license or similar, they will be able to find your house, and seek their revenge.

The first thing to note about avoiding getting your fingerprints on the knife, is that you are not trying to avoid detection, but rather clearly illustrate who the aggressor in the situation was. It would be naïve to think that in the days of CCTV Cameras (Closed Circuit TV Cameras), and passers-by with cell phones that you would always be able to avoid being spotted or identified. Not having your fingerprints on the blade is more about clearly identifying who the aggressor in the situation was; if you disarm somebody and then stab them, it might be harder to make the case that you didn’t have serious harmful or lethal intent towards your attacker. In reality not having your fingerprints on the knife is a “benefit” of the technique, not the focal point of it.

It is also important to be able to tell the story (in reality have your attorney tell the story) of what happened. If you can demonstrate that you acquiesced to the mugger’s demand for your wallet, and only then tried to control the knife, when they didn’t disengage, you have a reasonable reason for using force against them. If after cutting them you try and take your wallet back, your actions look much more malicious, and could always be interpreted in a different way e.g. you handed your wallet over, were overtaken with rage, and decided to teach them a lesson before taking it back. If the wallet stays with them, it is much more believable that any actions you took were only in regard to your personal safety, and were in no way related to your wallet.

From a personal safety perspective it is far better to exit a dangerous situation quickly, rather than take the time to find your wallet. In those moments you waste, a third party who was working with your assailant, may have managed to get to you, and/or your assailant may have recovered enough to continue the fight. If you were prepared to hand your wallet over in the first place, don’t risk your safety by trying to retrieve it.

Many people have a fear that if they hand over their wallet to a mugger, and it contains their driving license, the mugger will now know where they live. In reality, muggers have chosen their particular crime to get instant cash, they are not by default burglars (who will target a house based on the ease with which they can break in, get the items they want and get away), and there is nothing about the address on your license per se, which gives them this information. By the same token a mugger is not by default a rapist, who will want to gain access to you at your address. Most muggers will discard everything but the cash, as driving licenses and credit cards, implicate them in any crimes they have committed. It is true that a mugger may try and seek revenge for whatever pain and injury you have caused them but most likely they will take out their vengeance on their next victim, rather than take the effort to track you down at your house. That would take a fair degree of time and effort, for somebody who has chosen one of the laziest types of crime, and is more interested in supporting their drug habit.

A simple solution though is to separate the cards etc. that are in your wallet. Take your driving license and a credit card out wrap, two $20 bills round them with an elastic band, and keep this slim profile object in another pocket. This way when you hand your wallet over you keep hold of your ID, and have a credit card you can use, whilst your stolen ones are being replaced. Plus, if you need $40 for taxi fare or public transport in order to get home, you have cash to do that.  

By handing over your wallet, you are giving your assailant a choice: leave and you won’t harm them, stay and you will. This is not a passive act, it is one of taking control. If they stay then you will use their weapon against them, rather than disarming, and if you cause them serious injury, so be it – you had every reason to believe that they were going to harm you, because they didn’t leave after you acquiesced to their demand. Don’t return for your wallet, but inform the authorities of what happened, and let your attorney, not you construct/tell the story.

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The Value & danger of Experience

(Gershon Ben Keren - Sun 17th May)

Experience can be a valuable thing however it can also limit and restrict our understanding, and prevent us from being open to the experiences of others along with new ideas etc. It may seem that the most battle-hardened and experienced instructor, is best qualified to talk about violence however this may not in fact be the case. In this blog article, I’m going to try and examine the pros and cons of firsthand experiences of violence, and why and how they need to be combined with others things in order for them to be relevant and applicable to others.

There are basically two ways you can end up witnessing and experiencing a lot of violence. One is to grow up or live in a violent community, the other is to perform some form of law enforcement or security role. If violence is experienced when performing as a security professional, some of the relevance for others may be taken away, because of the role that you were fulfilling. There is a big difference between experiencing a confrontation, when you are possibly armed and have backup, than engaging in a conflict where you are unarmed, and alone, with the knowledge that nobody will be coming to assist you. There are of course similarities between the two situations, but the experiences are not directly interchangeable. There may be moments in such confrontations when the individuals involved experience many of the same things e.g. if a security professional has to perform a gun disarm against an aggressive individual, they will be experiencing the same emotions, doubts and concerns as the non-professional. Therefore when we are trying to find ways to make our experiences relevant to others, we must understand what parts of the experience are relevant/applicable and what parts aren’t.

Our actual memories of violence may be flawed. When we remember the incidents when we found ourselves in dangerous situations, we’re probably not recalling all the details correctly. In a dynamic, fast paced assault, our brain will not be able to process all the relevant information, it will simply process the seemingly essential information. When we recall these events, our mind will fill in the blanks for us, creating details that seem relevant for the situation. It seems that our brains want to make these experiences as vivid and colorful as possible (this could be so that we take more notice of them, learn from then, and thus increase our chances of surviving further assaults etc. or it could be some form of stress coping mechanism to avoid trauma).

One thing many people will report during an assault, is that time slowed down for them. This was for a long time a generally accepted phenomena, however recent research has called this into question, suggesting this is a trick of the mind that occurs when we recall highly stressful and dangerous events. A study by the Baylor College of Medicine, involved subjecting participants to a 150 feet drop into a net – something that would quickly induce an adrenalized and stressful state. As the participants fell they were required to read two numbers off a chronometer that was displaying them at a rate that was impossible to normally read. It was postulated that if time did slow down, which in fact involved the brain’s processing power speeding up, it would be possible for those participating to read the numbers. No one was able to. They were also asked to estimate the number of seconds it talk them to fall. This was then compared to the actual fall rate. It was found that the estimate was on average 36% greater than the actual rate. So whilst our memories of such events have us experiencing time slowing down, this doesn’t seem to occur at the actual time.

Perhaps the greatest danger of relying on experience, is that although it is a valuable asset to have it is limited to a sample size of one e.g. how directly relevant are the experiences of a 250 lb muscled man to those of a 120 lb woman? If such an individual only taught according to his experiences, many of his students would not get a realistic picture of what violence would look like for them. It is important for every instructor to try and broaden their understanding of violence, by not solely relying on experience. This involves talking to others, and learning from their experiences and understanding, and looking at what academic research has found to be the case in its studies etc. All of this needs to be combined together if a true picture of what violence looks like for each individual is to be presented.    


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Preemptive Striking

(Gershon Ben Keren - Sun 10th May)

I’m a big believer in preemptive strikes and attacks; if violence is inevitable, it is better to be the one who acts first, rather than being the one who responds. In most altercations I’ve been in, witnessed, or been told about, I would guess that in 8 out of 10 cases, it was the person who attacked first who was successful. In this blog article, I want to talk about why preemptive striking is so effective, and why most people are reluctant to engage in it.

An important thing to remember about the majority of violent situations, is that they are normally preceded by some form of verbal exchange (often referred to as an “interview”). This is something that should be introduced into all types of reality based self-defense training. Whilst it is important to train ambush and sneak attacks etc. such as rear strangle and other such attacks, we must acknowledge in the majority of cases, these either happen in the midst of a fight by a third party or when you are talking/dealing with a friend/accomplice in front of you – there are also other specific situations when surprise attacks occur, however most assaults are launched after an aggressive verbal barrage, or after a predatory individual has used some form of grooming process to get their victim to comply with their demands. To train realistically, and for reality, we need to practice dealing with individuals in front of us, who are either engaging us in conversation, or shouting, screaming at us etc.  

We tend to think that other people are like us; that they can be reasoned with, don’t want to hurt others, and see violence as a last resort. Whilst I wish was the case, there are many people out there who don’t think like that, who believe they are entitled to act aggressively/violently, that violence is often a more effective way to get what they want than trying to reason with somebody etc. This is especially true of somebody who is highly emotional and adrenalized – reason left the building a long time ago. Accepting that the person who we are dealing with has decided that acting violently towards us is justified and acceptable, we must get ourselves to that same mental space immediately. Too many people hesitate to do this hoping that there is still a chance of de-escalating the situation, or that they’ve judged the person incorrectly, and they aren’t actually getting ready to assault them etc. Denial is a very strong emotional/mental state that prevents us from being decisive. Denial, tells us that we’re not experiencing pain “now”, and that we shouldn’t do anything to jeopardize that. If you believe you are dealing with someone who is intent on causing you harm, there really is only one direction, in which you should head: attack first.

Many people worry about the legal consequences of being the one who throws the first strike. I’m not a lawyer or an attorney, however one thing I do know about the legalities of a violent confrontation is that the aggressor who is planning to attack you, isn’t thinking too much about the legal consequences of what they’re planning to do – because if they were they wouldn’t do it. To get caught up in all the reasons why you shouldn’t do something e.g. is it legally acceptable, morally acceptable is to fill your mind with peripheral doubts that will cripple you into a state where you are too scared and confused to do anything. One thing that all aggressors have is decisiveness, they are prepared and ready to act. If you are not, it is likely that you will be found wanting when the assault starts. Most legal systems allow you to make preemptive strikes, as long as you can justify why you felt it was necessary to do so; this comes down to your ability, or rather your lawyer/attorney’s ability to tell the story of what actually lead you to take the decision to strike/attack first. Understanding some of the warning signals, that people give off will not only help you tell that story but indicate when you should strike preemptively.

There are many, many cues that indicate when somebody is about to attack, however many of them are so subtle that it is almost impossible to pick up on them e.g. when a person becomes adrenalized and ready for conflict, blood will be drawn away from the skin, and the internal organs, in order to oxygenate the larger muscles that will be used in fight/flight, this means that a person’s complexion will lighten. Recognizing this change is almost impossible, especially if you are in dimly lit place, such as a bar or club etc. The easiest way I have found to judge a person’s readiness to attack, is from their speech. There are three things that I have found people usually do in conversation before they attack. The first is going silent. If a person is screaming and shouting and then stops and goes quiet for a few seconds I would be looking to act in that silence. If they jumble up their words as they speak, I know it is time to either back completely away, or make a preemptive assault. The last of the three is something I refer to as repetitive looping. This is where an aggressor simply keeps repeating whatever injustice they believe they have experienced, increasing both the volume and the rate at which they are speaking. This is one of the reasons I ask questions when I am dealing with aggressive individuals as it gives me a chance to understand from the way(s) they respond whether they are getting ready to fight, which will prompt me to act preemptively (or disengage – fight or flight)

We may have been conditioned through childhood to not be the kid who threw the first punch. However that was by our parents and teachers who were trying to teach us to resolve our petty disputes and squabbles with words, rather than by physical force. As adults we need to recognize that there are certain situation where the only resolution open to us is violence, and where words and reason aren’t appropriate. If violence is inevitable, we should be the ones striking first, rather than presenting our aggressor with the opportunity to make an assault.  



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Civil Unrest Part 2

(Gershon Ben Keren - Sun 3rd May)

In my last blog, I talked about how to survive when you were caught in a situation involving civil unrest e.g. protests, demonstrations, riots etc. This blog article will expand on some of the ideas that were introduced, as well as looking at such incidents from a different perspective, such as what to do if you are in a vehicle, or trapped in a building etc.

Most people feel safe when they are in a car or similar vehicle, however if you are caught in a traffic pile up, during a protest or demonstration, your car may end up being more of a trap, than a protective coating/layer between you and those around you. An important thing to bear in mind is that because you are in your car, you are not part of the demonstration, which means by default you are not part of the group; and if you aren’t part of the group, you represent opposition to it, and its goals. It doesn’t matter whether you are a sympathizer or an activist, if you are not marching, demonstrating or protesting etc. you are adopting a position of opposition. At the lowest end of the spectrum, protestors may slap or hit your car, because of part of the group moving around you they are empowered to do so, and at the higher end they may decide to tip your car over in order to construct a barrier/obstacle between them, and the police/security forces. It is important to be able to judge, where on the spectrum, the protestors are. As annoying as it may be, to have members of a protest hit and slam your car, your bodywork will take it, and reacting to these low level acts of aggression, will mean that you draw the attention of the entire crowd/group towards you. If things have moved on and the crowd is acting as a group, defending/protecting its members it is probably time to leave the vehicle, as it will be used to protect/advance the group/crowd’s goal regardless of the state of the individuals in the car or van.

If your car is not trapped by other vehicles and can move, in most scenarios you should attempt to do so – when stationary try to keep the rear tires of the car in front of you in sight, along with a bit of the road, this should allow you to move around this car if necessary. Try to find out, via social media etc. if there is a possible route that will allow you to exit the situation. If your car is surrounded by people who are starting to act violently towards you, start driving off very slowly, at first simply redirecting them out of the way, and then moving/pushing them out of the way. Your first instinct may be to drive/force your way through as quickly as possible, however this is likely to create casualties, possibly including peaceful protestors who were not trying to cause you harm, as well as uniting the crowd against you. It doesn’t take much to cause a crowd to swarm over a vehicle, and bring it to a stop. If you haven’t enough knowledge and “intelligence” to ensure your full escape/exit, it may be better to stay still with your car, or if things seem to be changing for the worse, exit your vehicle before it becomes a metal trap for you.

It goes without saying that if you know that the city you are in is going through a period of civil unrest, driving with a full tank of gas, the central locking on, and having a can of OC/CS Spray at hand (if you need to leave your vehicle and disperse into the crowd, pepper spray is a good way to deal with any protestors who may try to harm you as you are exiting/debussing your vehicle, and you don’t need as much room to spray someone as you would to clear a path with a baton or stick), are all good safety precautions to take – in fact, they are worth following as a personal safety routine e.g. never drive your car, with less than half a tank of gas/petrol. Keep a phone charger in your car. If your phone dies, you will have lost a valuable source of information that would allow you to keep updated with what’s going on.

It may be that rather than being in a car, you are in a building, either residential or business. As a general rule of thumb it is usually safer to stay inside, than try and escape through an angry mob and police lines. It is easy to panic and feel the need to simply get away, as fast and as far as you can, however the reality of navigating through an angry mob, and getting past a police line, is a fairly tough proposition, and not one to be taken lightly – if your building is being fire bombed and set alight, obviously evacuation is necessary, however it is often safer to sit tight, than exit into the fray. If you find yourself in a building in a location where a riot or protest is occurring, resist the temptation to look out of the windows. If protestors are smashing windows, and throwing bricks, you don’t want to put yourself in the line of fire. Also you don’t want to become a target of interest for protestor’s missiles.

If you are in an office block, it may be safer to move from the ground or first floors, to those of the third or fourth – many looters are both lazy, and want to be in and out of a building in the shortest possible time grabbing whatever they can find/lay their hands on. Few will want to risk becoming “trapped” in the building by security forces, by venturing higher. It is always worth staying on a floor within reach of a fire truck ladder, in case your building gets set ablaze – it is also as a general safety precaution worth knowing where the fire exits are, in case you need to evacuate.

If you are trapped in your home, and you are able to move to an upper floor, then defending a staircase from protestors who want to get up to you is an easier proposition than trying to block all ground floor doors, windows and other entry/access points. As a matter of course you should have a shotgun for home defense, and in this instance it can be used to prevent people coming up the stairs to you and your family – it should be loaded first with non-lethal, and then lethal ammunition, so that you can fire shots that will disrupt and deter an assailant before having to potentially kill them; you don’t want the area around your stair well to resemble a martyr’s graveyard unless absolutely necessary, as this could end up turning the attention of the protestors towards you. However If necessary it is worth showing protestors the line that they have crossed, when dealing with you – in the LA Riots of 1992, Korean shopkeepers effectively prevented looting of their premises, and the danger to their lives (after the police and security forces gave up protecting their locations), by demonstrating their willingness to use lethal force.      

There comes a time when neither your car, and the building you are in offer you any protection, and may end up becoming a trap, and at this point you must be prepared to evacuate, however until this moment arises, it is usually better to stay put than attempt to navigate and deal with the crowd. At the end of the day, the situation determines the solution you should choose, and the information provided in this article is aimed at helping you decide upon a course of action rather than prescribing one.  

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