Situational Awareness: Put the Phone Down!

We humans are natural multitaskers. Or we believe we are. Evidence is all around us. Young people texting and driving. Coworkers taking a business call while playing “Angry Birds” on the computer. We walk and chew gum and talk on the phone.

The term “multitasking” originates in computer software development and its integration into the hardware. In the simplest of applications, we open Facebook.com and YouTube.com and they appear to open simultaneously in separate windows (on a fast, new computer, that is).

IT guys tell us there is only an appearance of immediacy, because not even super computers execute multiple tasks at exactly the same instant. A computer may be a higher order processor than the brain—able to manage information faster, though not necessarily “smarter”—but tasks run in parallel, partially completed, and advancing in a herky-jerky motion over some given period of time.

Think of multitasking through this simple assignment. Place two blocks on the floor and separate them by three feet of space. Now, move them simultaneously forward to the end of the room. To do this we must move one block, take our hand away to send a text, and then move the other. Back and forth until we reach a wall. A computer works in the same manner only infinitely faster.

We who carry in public, we who are legally permitted and trained, have a special responsibility to focus on the task at hand, but also to remain vigilant, aware of the world around us: comings and goings through the door of the restaurant, the briefcase by the door with no owner, the man sitting in a parked car for hours.

It is like bowhunting from a treestand. The archer must be infinitely cautious about sound, smell, and silhouette. He or she must remain as still as possible, especially late in the season when the leaf, brush, and vine canopy begin to wither and fall, and yet must also remain alert to any sound or movement in the immediate vicinity: the flicker of an ear or a white tail, the sudden chatter of a squirrel or a faint grunting noise, any of which may precede the appearance of a mature deer—or may only be a squirrel or a wild turkey rustling through leaves or even a group of feral hogs.

This is called “situational awareness” and it is much different than multitasking. Situational awareness involves being attentive to what’s happening around us in order to understand how “things” in the immediate environment—information, events, and one’s own actions—will or might impact us. Inadequate situational awareness is a primary factor in accidents attributed to human error: automobile or airplane crashes and surgical mistakes, for example.

Situational awareness is especially important when information flow is unusually high, such as a loud movie theatre or outdoor concert. Remember cleaning and reassembling an M16 while a drill sergeant screamed and pounded on the table? It was exceedingly hard because the brain said multitask: pay attention to a scary authority figure and rebuild the rifle. Of course the sergeant was performing a service, in a way, teaching what combat might be like when fear combines with a thousand extraneous inputs, any one of which might lead to dismemberment and/or death. What we learned, eventually, was that only through extreme concentration could we assemble an M16. We learned, in other words, to drop the drill sergeant into the background, to be aware but only to focus on reassembling the rifle. We learned situational awareness and we got the job done in accord with Army Field Manual “FM 3-22.9 Rifle Marksmanship.”

Now, long past my Army days, if I’m following a GPS map to a new location, I turn off the radio when I get close and ignore the beep of the phone. I need to watch for street signs and stray children’s bicycles and drive the car in a safe and responsible manner. I eliminate distractions and tune up my vigilance for my immediate surroundings.

Only one thing can truly occupy your mind at any given time. In a fast food restaurant you try to eat the burger without letting the tomato squeeze out and onto our shirt and pants, all while fetching extra ketchup for the kids and talking to the spouse. Do you sit with your back to the primary entrance? Would it be best to give the panhandler $10 or tell him to scram? Someone barges in pointing a pistol and screaming for your money; do you give it to them?

Rick_Author

The author can sometimes be faulted for preaching one thing…and occasionally doing another. Mister “do as I say not as I do” carried his cell phone to the range clipped to his belt in January 2007. Mea culpa. (Yes, he still uses the old flip phone, but he has otherwise repented and redeemed himself. Rick Sapp photo)

Different questions, perhaps, but if you remain situationally aware you have a chance to respond effectively. One who is multitasking—talking to the spouse, fetching the ketchup, and fiddling with a cell phone—not a chance in hell.

  • Have you seen people talking on their phone, sending a text, or checking their email walk into traffic? [Yes]
  • Have you seen bicycle riders operate the bike with one hand while talking on the phone and swerving in and out of traffic? [Yes]
  • Have you seen anyone at the shooting range with a cell phone in one hand and their revolver in the other? [No]

When you carry, you have a responsibility to focus, to stop believing that you can multitask and to remain situationally aware. Put the cell phone away!

Now, about those blocks that have to be moved across the floor…

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