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Situational awareness: Your primary weapon in violence prevention

Watch: Strategies to enhance your situational awareness and spot a threat


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As an EMT/paramedic, your role is to provide critical medical care in challenging and often unpredictable situations. Beyond your medical expertise, one of the most powerful tools at your disposal for ensuring your safety and the safety of those around you is situational awareness.

In the context of violence prevention, situational awareness serves as your primary weapon, allowing you to anticipate, assess and respond to potentially volatile or dangerous situations effectively.

Understanding situational awareness

Situational awareness is the ability to comprehend what is happening around you, assess the potential implications, and make informed decisions accordingly. For EMTs and paramedics, this means being attuned not only to medical needs but also to the environment in which you operate.

Situational awareness involves continuously scanning your surroundings, identifying potential threats or risks, and maintaining a high level of alertness without becoming overwhelmed.

The role of situational awareness in violence prevention

In high-stress environments such as emergency scenes, maintaining situational awareness is crucial. It enables you to identify early warning signs of potential violence; de-escalate situations; and take preventive measures to protect yourself, your colleagues and patients.

It is important to, of course, be aware of your patient’s behavior, but you should also be aware of others on the scene. For patients suffering from ailments related to drugs or alcohol, there may be others on scene suffering from intoxication or erratic behavior.

Recognizing changes in body language, verbal cues or environmental factors can provide vital insights into escalating tensions, allowing you to intervene before a situation turns violent.

Key strategies for enhanced situational awareness

  • Constant vigilance. Remain alert and observant, scanning your surroundings for any unusual or suspicious behavior. Pay attention to changes in the demeanor of individuals you encounter.
  • Risk assessment. Continuously evaluate the level of risk in your environment. Consider factors such as location, time of day, the nature of the emergency and the behavior of those around you.
  • Effective communication. Develop strong communication skills to engage with patients and bystanders. Use verbal techniques to de-escalate tense situations and build rapport.
  • Maintain safe distances. Whenever possible, position yourself in a way that allows for quick exit routes and maintains a safe distance from potential threats.
  • Training and preparedness. Regularly undergo training in conflict resolution, de-escalation techniques and personal safety to enhance your ability to handle challenging situations effectively.

Using situational awareness effectively involves staying vigilant and perceptive of your surroundings without becoming overwhelmed by the information or stimuli present.

How to spot a threat: Pre-attack indicators

Pre-attack indicators are the subtle cues that an attacker may give off before launching an assault. These can include changes in body language, tone of voice and behavior. In the context of a threat predator in the street, some pre-attack indicators to be aware of are:

  • Staring or intense eye contact. The predator may be sizing you up and trying to intimidate you.
  • Sudden changes in body language. The predator may become more aggressive or tense, such as clenching their fists or squaring their shoulders.
  • Verbal threats or insults. The predator may try to provoke you with aggressive language or threats. A phrase like “Keep playing!” could actually mean, “If you continue doing what you are doing, something is going to happen.”
  • Closing distance. The predator may try to get closer to you, invading your personal space.
  • Pacing or fidgeting. The predator may be getting more agitated or anxious, which could indicate an impending attack.

If you notice any of these pre-attack indicators, it’s important to take steps to protect yourself. This could include creating distance, calling for help or being prepared to defend yourself if necessary.

You have identified a potential threat, now what?

If you feel that the conditions on the scene have deteriorated to the point where your physical safety may be in danger, request law enforcement to respond to the scene and stand by. If you are in immediate danger, withdraw to a safe location and contact law enforcement.

It is also a good idea to consult with your supervisor and organization regarding any internal policies that may govern your response in situations like these.

Techniques to use to prevent being overwhelmed

  • Focus on key indicators. Identify and focus on the most critical indicators relevant to your situation. Instead of trying to absorb everything, prioritize cues that directly impact your safety or objectives.
  • Practice controlled observation. Practice scanning your environment methodically. Divide your attention into sectors or zones, observing each area briefly and then moving to the next. This structured approach prevents sensory overload.
  • Stay calm and grounded. Maintain a composed demeanor. Avoid panicking or fixating on minor details. Take deep breaths and remain grounded in the present moment to manage stress or anxiety.
  • Use peripheral awareness. While focusing on crucial elements, maintain peripheral awareness of your surroundings. Peripheral vision and hearing can provide additional information without needing your full attention.
  • Trust your instincts. Acknowledge your gut feelings or intuition. If something feels off or suspicious, pay attention to it. Trusting your instincts often guides you toward potential threats or dangers.
  • Prioritize information. Filter and prioritize incoming information based on relevance and urgency. Assess what requires immediate attention and what can be processed later.
  • Take breaks if needed. If you start feeling overwhelmed, take a short break. Step away from the situation if possible, breathe deeply and refocus. Sometimes, a brief pause helps regain clarity.
  • Practice regularly. Familiarize yourself with maintaining situational awareness through practice. The more you exercise this skill, the more natural it becomes to process information without feeling overwhelmed.
  • Continuous assessment. Maintain a continuous but not obsessive assessment of your surroundings. Periodically reassess the situation to update your awareness without fixating on any particular detail for too long.
  • Develop resilience. Building mental resilience helps manage stressors associated with situational awareness. Techniques like mindfulness, meditation or stress-management practices can strengthen your ability to handle intense situations.
  • Training and preparation. Undergo training and scenario-based exercises regularly. Preparedness builds confidence and reduces the likelihood of being overwhelmed in real-life situations.

Incorporating these strategies into your daily routine and practicing them regularly, you can effectively maintain situational awareness without feeling overwhelmed. Over time, this skill becomes more intuitive, enabling you to navigate various situations with heightened awareness while managing the information load effectively.
As an EMT, your commitment to patient care extends beyond medical treatment – it involves ensuring your own safety and the safety of those around you. Situational awareness serves as your primary tool in preventing violence and managing potentially risky scenarios.

Remaining vigilant, assessing risks and utilizing effective communication and de-escalation skills, you not only enhance your personal safety but also contribute to a safer environment for everyone in your care. Incorporating situational awareness into your daily practice is a powerful way to protect yourself and provide the best possible care in challenging situations.

About the Center for Violence Prevention and Self Defense

The goal of the Center for Violence Prevention and Self Defense is to stop violence by educating at-risk people and empower them with the skills needed to protect themselves both online and live training. CVPSD’s live training is available to people of all ages. CVPSD offers a free online Situational Awareness And Conflict De Escalation Series on its website.

Through workshops and seminars, we educate participants about violence prevention and guide them on assessing risk factors while establishing boundaries in relationships. Additionally, practical self-defense classes equip people with hands-on skills and effective strategies to prevent and intervene in cases of assault. Visit the Center at

With over three decades of dedicated research in conflict management and personal safety enhancement, Will DeMuth’s approach encompasses a integrated strategy that includes conflict de-escalation, effective conflict resolution and heightened situational awareness. Will believes that prevention is the first line of defense, and emphasizes the importance of combining these preventive strategies with practical, evidence based self-defense techniques in training.

Will is a strong advocate for prevention, believing that it is the best defense against potential threats. He integrates preventive strategies with practical, evidence-based self-defense techniques in his training programs, ensuring that his clients are well-equipped to handle a variety of situations.