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Personal Safety: Self-Defense begins with Tactical Thinking.

Updated on May 22, 2013

Tactical thinking is relevant wherever you are.

“Self defense is recovery from stupidity or bad luck” - Sgt Rory Miller

What could a guy qualified to sit at a desk possibly have to say about self-defense?

Well before I took up pushing paper, I was involved in the private security industry. In fact, I have the benefit of about a decade of operational experience. During my time in security, I regularly performed VIP protection (close personal protection), infrastructure protection and event protection (being mainly focused on anti-terror screening via an active perimeter). During my career, I trained in Australia, Israel and South Africa with some of the best in the field. I have also worked in different countries, each of which presented their own unique operational concerns. My training over this period included unarmed self-defense (using a self-defense system called Krav Maga), tactical firearms use (using handguns and long arms in active threat simulations), emergency response (including mass casualty events) and information planning (involving assessing different operational environments for likely threats, attack scenarios and defensive planning). During my time in the industry, I served in both operational roles and management. This afforded me the opportunity to gain valuable perspectives of both ‘on-the-ground’ duty and ‘top-down’ decision making. Without going into the confidential specifics, the above represents my qualification for this commentary.

If you were to ask the next person you meet about the best way to learn to defend yourself, you will most likely receive a recommendation that you learn to kick like Bruce Lee or fire a gun like Rambo. It is not surprising then that is what most people concerned with self-defense do. They join a class, throw some punches, send some rounds down range and then go home with bruises and smelling like cordite with increased confidence in their ability to defend themselves. I won’t argue that these skills are irrelevant. They do have their place and in a threat situation they may make the difference between becoming a victim or maintaining your personal safety. However, these skills will not in themselves provide you with comprehensive personal safety.

Self-defense skills are only useful if you have the chance to use them.
Self-defense skills are only useful if you have the chance to use them. | Source

Martial arts and weapon training alone are insufficient to maintain personal safety because the legal use of these skills in a real-world environment means that you are already involved in a dangerous event. At the point you need to resort to these skills, you have either been unavoidably drawn into a threat situation (which is an unlikely occurrence either involving bad luck or the excellent operational planning of an aggressor) or you have simply failed to anticipate a threat that was foreseeable (a more likely possibility). Once initiated, this threat situation has then required you to respond with your defensive skills to resist the aggressor, who has the advantage of first action. This means that you are in an environment set by the aggressor. As you are not the architect of these events, you are most likely already at a disadvantage and the outcome is not assured to be in your favour. In fact, if your response to the unseen attack is not immediate and effective, you may not even have the chance to use your self-defense skills at all. It only takes one correctly placed strike to end your chances of response. By being in this reactionary position, there is every chance that this can happen.

For this reason, the most effective practitioners of self-defense do not begin with the fist, but with the mind. Tactical thinking gives you the ability to identify threat indicators before aggressors have the ability to implement attacks on their terms. This knowledge can give you the edge you need to either avoid the threat entirely (the best case scenario) or to respond to it in the most advantageous manner. As security professionals can spend a lifetime training in tactical thinking, my goal here is not to provide you with a comprehensive breakdown of the subject. Rather, I will provide you with several key suggestions that I have found valuable throughout my security career.

Tactical Thinking – key elements to consider:

For the purpose of this example, I will use the coffee shop I am sitting in right now. It may be a mundane example, but it is one that is relevant to metropolitan life. It is on a main road, with a glass shop-front. I’m sitting next to the window, on a high chair, drinking a cappuccino.

Lets begin.

Know your environment:

Most people go through life without paying adequate attention to their environment. Knowing your environment gives you an important advantage when reacting to a threatening situation. Your environment includes all details of the area you are situated in. If you know your environment, you substantially reduce the likelihood of being taken by surprise in a threat event.

In the context of this coffee shop, I know the following facts from my information gathering upon entering the premises:

  1. The shop is located on a main road. The nearest parked car is about 25 meters from the doorway on the same side of the street. The vehicle appears secure and is evenly weighted (an unevenly weighted car is a security concern). The footpath is lightly trafficked by pedestrians, but there is no one loitering near the vicinity of the shop. There is also no cause for anyone to congregate outside the coffee shop, as there are no points of interest nearby (ie: window displays, public benches, etc). The traffic lights outside the coffee store allow vehicles to stop momentarily in front of the coffee store with reason. Otherwise, there is no reason for a vehicle to stop directly outside the coffee store. Near the doorway is an a-frame sign, a pushbike chained to a pole and a garbage bin mounted to the traffic light pole. The latter is full of refuse (and could conceal a threat – for example an improvised explosive device).
  2. The entry to the coffee store is open and securable via 2 metal-framed glass doors with a deadbolt. The deadbolt can be activated without a key from the inside.
  3. The counter is located on the left side of the store, extending the full length of the store. The counter is waist height, wooden and solid (possibly providing a means of concealment). The counter features a coffee machine, blenders, a glass showcase and a cutlery holder (which holds knives). Two employees are working behind the counter, being a middle aged man and a young woman. To the rear of the counter, there is a door marked “employees”, possibly granting access to a sealed room or an alternative exit.
  4. The main room has 10 tables with 4 chairs each, plus the counter. In the center of the room are two supporting columns. These will probably be made of reinforced concrete and are wide enough to provide effective cover against projectiles. Approximately half of the tables in the cafe are occupied. The people in the store appear to ‘belong’ to this environment and appear ordinary. Some of these people have bags with them, but no bag appears unattended, oversized or out of place. There is only one unaccompanied person (other than myself), who appears to be studying a textbook. He is located in the rear of the café.
  5. The only other exit is located towards the rear of the store, adjacent to the toilets. The exit is an ‘emergency’ type exit with a crossbar lock that will set off an alarm if released. The exit likely leads onto a service alley at the rear of the building (but I have not checked this). The toilet is a single room without a window.

This information forms my ‘base-line’. The base line is the normalized state of your environment when you first encounter it. By checking my environment when I walked in, I first established that there were no obvious threats and I gained information about the layout. Knowing these things means I only need to observe what changes in the environment from now on to detect threats – and if a threat eventuates, knowing the layout gives me the ability to gauge my options and react in the shortest possible time.

Control your place within the environment:

I am sitting at a counter, next to the shop-front window. My back is towards the remainder of the coffee store and while I see the street through the window, I do not see the entry to the coffee store or what is happening within it. This is a poor position because I cannot observe or react to changes in my environment. For this reason, I will relocate now to a more advantageous position.

I am now seated towards the rear of the coffee store. I have a clear view to the front door, the counter and the back door. All of the occupants of the coffee store are also within my field of vision. As my back is to the wall, it also means that I do not need to monitor my rear for threats. There are numerous furniture items between the front door and me that are possibly useful to slow or stop a threat. The access to the back door is unobstructed. The two supporting columns are also within sprinting distance within 2 seconds. This position therefore clearly enables me to effectively observe my environment and utilise its features, affording me with the ability to control it to my advantage if required.

Jeff Bauman - Victim of the Boston Marathon bombing.
Jeff Bauman - Victim of the Boston Marathon bombing. | Source

Notice changes to the environment:

A man has just entered the coffee shop. Looking around at the guests already in the coffee shop, it is clear that no one has noticed his entrance. Not even the employees. This is a liability. Changes can reveal clues to impending threat situations. In the recent Boston Marathon terror attacks, there were numerous environmental changes that would have indicated a potential threat event – if anyone had actually noticed them in time. Police had swept the area for explosive devices one hour before the marathon, which indicates that the perpetrators of the bombings planted multiple devices in the presence of spectators within this timeframe. In fact, one bomb was planted at the finish line after the race had begun, just two and a half minutes before it exploded. It was placed directly in front of witness Jeff Bauman, being concealed in plain sight within a black backpack. By failing to observe this environmental change, an opportunity to prevent the bombing was missed. Jeff Bauman lost both of his legs in this attack; he was one of 264 people injured. Three people died.


Assess possible threats:

Any change to the ‘base line’ of an environment should be assessed for a threat. The man who just entered the coffee shop provides a good example. This is the mental checklist I go through when observing him for red flags:

  1. His movement: Is he moving normally, or is there something unnatural in his movement? Someone concealing something will subconsciously focus that area of his or her body when moving.
  2. His demeanor: Does he appear at ease and in harmony with his environment, or is his behavior unusual? For example: nervousness, perspiration, aggression, fidgeting, excessively extroverted or introverted behavior – all of these things may be red flags.
  3. His attire: Does his clothing suit the environment and the weather? For example, if he was wearing a jacket in the height of summer, this would raise a red flag.
  4. His performance: What is he doing? Is his performance within the bounds of normal behavior?

The man who has entered the café passes all of these checks and I consider him acceptable. I also use my intuition when it comes to this process, so even if all of the above criteria are met, if I feel uneasy about something or someone I will always err on the side of caution. Security personnel call this ‘going with their gut’ or ‘a hunch’. There have been occasions where I have detected a threat based solely on my intuition. So, if something does not ‘feel’ right, listen to that feeling. It is always better to be safe than sorry. Jeff Bauman, the victim who identified the perpetrators of the Boston Marathon bombing, recalled his feeling when he first saw the bomber that day: "Just that one guy, he didn't look like he was having a good time. He was standing right next to me. … He was just an odd guy . . . The next thing you know, I hear fireworks and I'm on the ground". His intuition told him something was amiss, but he failed to act on that clue.

Plan your next steps:

If you have the luxury of time, try to foresee the possible threats and your response to them. In security circles, the responses to many of the possible threats are structured into standard operating procedures. These operating procedures are made possible by advanced knowledge of the environment and planning against possible threats. However, even if you do not have this advanced knowledge, you can still make spontaneous plans to give you an advantage in countering a threat.

Let us assume that the man who has entered the café is a threat. Let us assume he has a knife and is intending to attack someone in the café. An example plan would be:

  1. Decide to evade or engage. I will engage for the purposes of this example, so I can explain my thought process. However, it may make sense simply to avoid the threat and exit the premises. Sometimes, engaging an aggressor can increase the risk of harm to everyone in the vicinity.
  2. Decide your path to the aggressor. As the man is currently at the counter with his attention on the staff, I will make my way through the interior of the café to approach him from behind.
  3. Decide upon your timing: I will move immediately as his attention is focused away from me, giving me a tactical advantage that may not last long.
  4. Use your environment to your advantage: As the aggressor is armed, I will collect a chair on the way to the counter to use as an ‘equaliser’. It will allow me to pin the attacker to the counter and reduce the effectiveness of his weapon. There is also a long handled umbrella nearby which belongs to another guest. I will take this item too.
  5. Visualise what you will do when you engage: If I am able to reach him without him turning, I will endeavour to take him down by stealth from behind using the chair in a manner which does not allow him the opportunity to use the weapon. If he notices me, I will immediately charge him with the chair as a ramming instrument to close the distance before he clears the counter. Having the counter behind him is a tactical advantage for me, as it limits his freedom of movement and gives me an additional surface to work with to immobilise him. Once I have him pinned, I will then use the umbrella’s tip as a weapon to close the distance between the chair and the attacker and neutralise the threat.
  6. Decide on a retreat if you fail: My egress point will be the front door, as it is closest to my position. It is also the most public exit point, which allows me to raise an alarm. My information gathering also gives me options to barricade the attacker to resist an assault - firstly using the shop doors and then using the A-frame board.

Take necessary action:

Do not hesitate to take action. Investigate a possible risk yourself, raise an alarm or avoid the situation entirely. Taking such action may be critical to maintaining your personal safety.

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