angry bald man with hands in stop gesture, communicating self-defense.

Whether you practice as a mobile massage therapist or see clients at your clinic, being able to spot danger and define threats is your first line of self-defense.

The following article is an excerpt from the book, “Spotting Danger Before It Spots You—Build awareness to stay safe,” by Gary Quesenberry, Federal Air Marshal and safety expert.

Take Responsibility for Your Self-Defense

Reality is based on the cold hard facts that surround us, and unless you can sort fact from fiction, you may be putting yourself at a disadvantage. My point here is that there is no specific template for danger.

It can come from anywhere at any time and be perpetrated by someone who before an actual attack was never even on your radar. Make no mistake; in a world filled with crime and violence, you are your own last line of defense.

With all of these unknown variables, it would seem that just staying locked up inside your own home would be the safest option, but that isn’t necessarily the case. The variables that affect your safety can be minimized by putting aside your preconceived notions and focusing specifically on actions.

The Levels of Awareness

A critical element in your personal safety is learning about the various levels of situational awareness and how those levels affect your capacity to react. These levels of awareness are most commonly referred to as “Cooper’s Colors,” and they serve as the basis for the system of awareness. These five levels give us an overview of situational awareness and the psychological states associated with each level.

When it comes to maintaining proper situational awareness, condition yellow is where you want to be. You want to be in that casual, yet observant state that allows you to take in as much information as possible without completely stressing yourself out.

Comprehend the Situation: The Initial Scan

Whether we admit it or not, we are creatures of habit; we tend to live our lives within a specific set of patterns. We have a morning routine as we get ready for work, on the way to work we follow pre-existing traffic patterns, and at work we know and understand the various moods of our coworkers and how we should best interact with them

Our entire universe moves based on predictable patterns. These patterns give us a sense of security, and when something changes and our patterns get modified, it affects us on an emotional and physical level; it tells us something is wrong. Think of these patterns that surround us as a baseline.

These baselines can be applied to individual people, places, or situations. Every person has a different baseline of behavior. They can be talkative or shy, loud or animated; whatever set of behaviors is considered normal for that person is their baseline. They are both observable and predictable.

Places have baselines as well; an airport, for instance, is expected to be busy and chaotic, full of travelers all moving to or from their respective gates with various amounts of luggage. Situations also have baselines; if you walked into a funeral, you’d expect to see a room full of somber, grieving people.

RELATED: Watch a video to help identify predatory behavior here.

One of the most critical factors in good situational awareness is understanding these standard behaviors and being able to spot the things that fall outside of the established baseline. Being able to detect circumstances or actions outside of the baseline quickly is a process that starts with the initial scan.

Any time you walk into a space, be it a room, a parking lot, or a public park, you need to begin an analysis of the situation you’re getting yourself into. You’re not going to be sizing up potential opponents or memorizing license plates here; all you’re doing at this point is asking yourself one question: “Does this place have a positive feeling or a negative feeling?” The only way to know the difference between the two is to understand what the baseline behaviors are.

Identify What’s Important: The Detailed Scan

If the general feeling you get after your initial scan is a negative one, you have two options: leave the area immediately or start taking a closer look at your surroundings to gather more detailed information.

What exactly aroused your suspicion and shifted you from condition yellow to condition orange? Was it a specific person, or an event within your environment that seemed outside the norm? Or was there a general shift in mood or attitude among a particular group? This is where the detailed scan comes into play.

During the detailed scan, you’re recognizing and collecting behavioral cues that help you to identify people within your area who may be up to no good. For instance, imagine you’re at an outdoor beach concert in Southern California. Your initial scan revealed that all is as it should be—the mood is upbeat, the music is loud, and people are wearing the appropriate beach attire.

You feel comfortable in these surroundings and everything seems to be well within the baseline. You are maintaining a condition-yellow state of awareness, so you’re casually alert to changes in your environment when suddenly a guy walks into the crowd wearing a heavy winter jacket. This individual’s behavior is obviously way outside the established baseline and could pose a serious threat to everyone’s safety.

But is the act of wearing a winter coat to a beach concert enough to warrant you tackling the guy to the ground or screaming “BOMB!” into the crowd? Absolutely not.

So at this point there needs to be some corroborating information that justifies your suspicions before you can act. You need to quickly gather as much information as possible to make an informed decision as to an appropriate response. This process is called identifying baseline anomalies.

Being aware of your environmental baseline and recognizing a potential threat early can save your life, but keep in mind that not all predators are large or overly aggressive, and not all are nervous or agitated; some are quite comfortable with committing acts of violence. They may not always be easy to spot or be overtly out of place.

But predators do stick to particular types of actions that when identified early can alert you to danger before an actual attack can manifest itself. These behaviors are known as pre-incident indicators and commonly include the following:

  • Hidden hands: The hands are what can kill you. Someone who is hiding their hands may also be concealing their intent to harm you.
  • Inexplicable presence: Does the person who caught your attention have a reason for being where they are? Is their presence justified and their actions in alignment with the baseline behaviors of that area?
  • Target glancing: Predators like to keep an eye on their prey, but in an attempt to avoid eye contact, they will continually glance at and away from their intended victim.
  • Sudden change of movement: If you feel you are being followed and suddenly change your direction of travel, keep an eye on the people around you. If someone inexplicably changes their direction of travel to match yours, you could be their target.
  • Inappropriate clothing: Like the man on the beach wearing a jacket, someone who is wearing more clothing than is appropriate may be trying to hide something.
  • Seeking a position of advantage: Predators like to keep the upper hand. In an attempt to gain dominance, they will try to maneuver themselves into positions where they know they will have the tactical advantage.
  • Impeding your movement: If someone inexplicably blocks your movement in a particular direction, there’s a pretty good chance they’re trying to funnel you into a position of disadvantage.
  • Unsolicited attempts at conversation: If someone you are unfamiliar with approaches you and makes an attempt at unsolicited small talk, take a very close look at your situation. Are you in a position of disadvantage? Are there other people in the area? Attempts at small talk are often the predator’s last move before the attack.

Rule of Three

These are just a handful of known pre-incident indicators, but regardless of cultural differences, they’re the common denominator when it comes to predatory behavior.

One of these behaviors can be easily overlooked, and two may be coincidental, but once someone rises above the established baseline and has exhibited at least three abnormal behaviors, it’s safe to assume action is warranted.  In law enforcement this is known as the “Rule of Three” because it rises above the level of coincidence and into the realm of suspicious behavior.

The action you choose to take may range from taking evasive maneuvers, alerting the crowd to the presence of a threat, or preparing for confrontation.

If you see something that makes you uncomfortable, your best bet is to remove yourself from the situation and alert the police. If you choose to take action because there is no other option, the potential threat must display the means, intent, and opportunity to harm you before defensive action is justified.

It’s important to understand that the observed behaviors are just there to help you identify possible threats and articulate your actions to the proper authorities after the encounter.

About the Author:

Gary Quesenberry

The above is an edited excerpt from the book, “Spotting Danger Before It Spots You—Build awareness to stay safe,” by Gary Quesenberry, Federal Air Marshal and Safety Expert, YMAA Publication Center, Pub Date June 2020, ISBN: 9781594397370. Quesenberry is also the founder and CEO of Q-Series LLC, an army veteran and father of three.