The Back Story

In September 2013, a 30-year-old man named Nikhom Thephakaysone boarded a crowded commuter train in San Francisco. The man drew a large-frame pistol and pointed the weapon across the
train’s aisle directly at the man. At one point, he even wiped his nose
with his weapon hand while holding the pistol.

Even though there were dozens of people in the train car, no one saw him with the gun. As a result, the gunman was able to randomly shoot innocent people.

How did this happen?

It is arguably an extreme example of why so many crimes are successfully perpetrated every minute of every day. The people in the train car were so wrapped in their bubble that they were unaware of what was going in around them.

In some cases, this was a conscious decision. The ‘if I don’t see it, I don’t have to get involved’ syndrome.

In other cases, they were so focused on their own activity that they were blind to what was happening around them.

Sheep, Sheepdogs, and Wolves

The first and often the most challenging step to take to keep yourself and/or those around you safe is to learn the art of situational awareness. In other words, being aware of your surroundings.

Many in the self-defense community use the terms sheep, sheepdogs, and wolves.

Sheep are situationally unaware. They have blinded themselves to what is happening around them. This decision may be either conscious or subconscious. Colonel Jeff Cooper’s color-coded awareness scale called it being in condition “white.” Either way, they are easy prey.

In a world of constant conflict between sheepdogs and wolves, both have situational awareness. The sheepdog maintains awareness to prepare to protect themselves and their loved ones. The wolves maintain awareness to prepare to attack their prey.

What is your category?

Hopefully, you don’t identify as a wolf.

I consider myself a sheepdog. I strive to maintain an awareness of my environment. I prepare to protect my loved ones and friend. If you identify as a sheepdog, read on. There is information that can help you hone your skills.

Some in the self-defense community expand the definition of a sheepdog as a person responsible for defending sheep. While I consider myself a sheepdog, I limit my defense.  If I am presented with an active shooter, I would engage if I can do so safely. I would not track down the shooter. I would leave that to the professionals.

Are you a sheep? Hopefully, the information in this post will help up your skills. You don’t have to commit to protecting the world. Your first step is to protect yourself.

Those unaware of their surroundings cannot participate actively in their survival. They have not fallen prey to some vicious sociopath because that sociopath has not chosen them … yet.

Awareness Formula

So how do you stay aware of your surroundings? The first step is to look around you with some positive degree of regularity.

But is not enough to just look. You also have to see what is around you and learn to recognize behavior that could represent a potential threat.

To help accomplish this, Personal Defense Network has established a very simple formula to commit to memory; Baseline + Anomaly = Decision.

Establishing a baseline and then detecting an anomaly are things most of us began doing in preschool with games like the one made popular by the Sesame Street song:

“One of these things is not like the others,
One of these things just doesn’t belong.
Can you tell which thing is not like the others
By the time I finish my song?”


The first part of our formula is to establishing a baseline.

As you scan your surroundings in any given environment, you establish a baseline. The baseline, simply put, is what would be considered normal for a particular place, time, group, and/or general situation. That baseline includes, but is not limited to, personal behaviors and mannerisms, clothing, sounds, and objects.


Anomalies are things that are out of place in your baseline.

The overall context of the environment is crucial to establishing the baseline.

For example, someone who appears focused, quiet, and still might be appropriate in the context of a church service. But at a rowdy sporting event, they would be the anomaly.

A man bundled up and walking briskly in a heavy trench coat would be appropriate on a cold winter, but in the summertime would be an obvious anomaly.

When a panicked crowd is screaming and running in a single direction, the person calmly walking in a different direction is another obvious anomaly for anyone bothering to look.


Before you can begin to notice the things listed above, you must actively look for them. Once an anomaly has been identified, then you have to make a decision.

Some typical decisions might be:

  • Watch the anomaly more closely and gather more information before making a final decision.
  • Run away.
  • Call 911.
  • Draw your legally carried firearm and take immediate action.

Only you can make that decision, but you will be surprised if you don’t know that a decision needs to be made.

Using our wolves and sheep analogy, the wolves are always out there. They lurk in the shadows surrounding the sheep, waiting for the appropriate time to pounce. They tend to favor the weak, the small, the seemingly unprepared, or the one who has strayed from the herd. The sheepdogs are there to defend the sheep and themselves. The wolves favor the surprise attack.

Becoming situationally aware makes you difficult to surprise, which means you are difficult to harm.

Body Language

For sake of time and space in this post, I will limit our baseline evaluations to human behavior.

We will evaluate human behavior in an effort to detect the anomaly that indicates
a potential threat. To do this, we start by considering a person’s body language.

Body language is controlled both consciously and subconsciously. We will focus on the conscious mind. This is where most dishonest behaviors originate.

How often have you come face-to-face with someone you don’t like and know does not like you. You both smile for the sake of civility?

Most adults have become skilled at lying with their facial expressions. We have learned to override the subconscious urge to wince, squint, or grimace. We replace those urges with conscious smiles, raised eyebrows, or other deceptive expressions.

Thus, facial expressions are the least trustworthy cue in a
person’s body language. When evaluating body language, we must look at a place other than the face.

There are several places we can look to ensure that s/he is not an immediate threat. Evaluation checklist:

  • hands
    • fidgeting
    • wringing
    • hidden
  •  feet
    • positioned to attack
    • shifting
  •  legs
    • positioned to attack
    • flexed
  • arms
    • crossed over the chest.
    • hidden behind the back
  • hands (again)
  • shoulders
  • finally the face.

The face is last because that is where most deceptive body language occurs. However, it can offer us some cues.

Many of the more honest, subconscious cues originate (at least in part) in the limbic system. We can use these to eliminate a possible threat.

The limbic system is the center for strong emotions like rage, fear, hunger, and sexual drive. Limbic system responses are typically reflexive and instantaneous and do not involve the conscious brain.

Therefore, cues originating in this part of the brain are more genuine and reliable as a threat assessment tool.

Subconscious Cues

There are some subconscious behaviors that can help use identify a threat. What are some of those subconscious behaviors that we should be looking for?

Smuggling Behavior

One of the most common is what we call a “smuggling behavior.”

A people trying to hide something, whether on their person or elsewhere, have a subconscious tendency to want to check on it to be sure it is still there and still concealed. The can result in some tell-tell behaviors. One behavior could be patting or touching the area of the body where the item is concealed. Other behaviors could be walking with a stiff arm in an effort to hold on to the smuggled item.

What if the the smuggled item is out of reach? The person’s eyes will often dart to and from the area where the item is concealed.

These behaviors are also common in people who carry concealed weapons legally. Becoming comfortable with your concealed weapon and aware of these subconscious indicators can prevent you from being picked out of the crowd by someone else who has good situational awareness.

Why do you care? That person with good situation awareness could be a wolf. When you carry concealed, you do not want anyone to know until you decide that they need to know.


People who are hyper-aware are, whether they should be or not, an anomaly. Someone who is always looking around is likely either a sheepdog or a wolf. Both have the same goal in mind when they are scanning their environment: survival. But the reasoning for that awareness is starkly different between the two.

Hyper-focus is on the opposite side of the awareness spectrum.

Hyper-focus is a behavior directly related to the predator-prey instinct. When a predator has committed the predator to attack its prey, the predator will often become hyper-focused on the target or mission, becoming oblivious to anything else in the environment. This is the classic tunnel vision.

That is one reason we would look at a person’s face for cues.

Strangers rarely make definitive, long-term eye contact. It is usually a quick glance with or without acknowledgment.

Assuming the person isn’t an acquaintance, eye contact of more than a second or two usually means the person has targeted you. They are likely a predator and you are the prey.

Does that mean that the person is a threat? They could be anything from a harmless but annoying salesman all the way up to a violent criminal or anything in between.

Whatever the reason, you must detect the anomaly and make a decision.

Perceive. Process. Plan. Perform

To wrap things up, let introduce the concept of the Four P’s of Situational Dynamics. They are:
Perceive. Process. Plan. Perform.

The first step is to perceive. You must not only look around you but also see what is around you.

What does the information you perceive tell you about the context of your environment? Process the information and establish the baseline and determine if there is an anomaly.

The plan is the decision to act based on the processing. On a deeper level, the plan is also the pre-event training and practice that anyone who carries a concealed weapon should be doing regularly.

The last step is to perform the plan. Whether you decide to run, fight, or call the cavalry, you can do nothing until you know that you need to do something.


I wish I could claim to be the ultimate source of situation awareness. However, I must confess that I learned much of the knowledge in this post by completing Personal Defense Network’s  Dynamic Threat Assessment: Situational Awareness course.