Real Words or Buzzwords?: Situational Awareness – Part 2

This is the 22nd article in the “Real Words or Buzzwords?” series about how real words become empty words and stifle technology progress, also published on SecurityInfoWatch.com.

By Ray Bernard, PSP, CHS-III


Information technology is evolving at an ever-accelerating pace, and consequently the technical capabilities that are available for integrated security system design are continually advancing as well. If we don’t understand the important role of situational awareness, our system designs will be incomplete.

Originally, I wanted to address situational awareness (SA) in just two articles; however, it appears several articles may be required to do the topic justice from a physical security industry perspective. Situational awareness has been an active area of theoretical and applied research for over three decades. The basic principles of SA apply to physical security. However, the security industry has not had three decades of academic and commercial research into SA for security operations and security/life-safety emergency management. Furthermore, there are critical differences between the SA requirements for physical security, and the SA requirements that have been researched for aircraft piloting, nuclear facility monitoring, military combat, human surgery, soccer playing, autonomous driving, and so on.

Even more importantly, situational awareness refers specifically to the human perception and understanding of what’s going on. How to deal with what needs to be done is outside the scope of SA. Thus, a “situational awareness platform” per se needs to have command, control, computing, communications and collaboration (C5) functionality added to it in order for security operations tasks and actions to be carried out. The military adds an “I” to include Intelligence (information collection, analysis and distribution), making the abbreviation C5I.

For this article, I’m replacing the military’s term “Intelligence” with “Situational Awareness”, and using the abbreviation C5SA to mean, “command, control, computing, communications, collaboration and situational awareness” – the full spectrum of capabilities. I’m intentionally avoiding references to PSIM, which is a product category, because this discussion focused on the capabilities and requirements needed to operationalize situational awareness once it’s established and maintained. That requires an integration of many products, one of which may or may not be a PSIM as we currently think of it.

Information technology is evolving at an ever-accelerating pace, and consequently the technical capabilities that are available for integrated security system design are continually advancing as well. If we don’t understand the important role of situational awareness, our system designs will be incomplete. We won’t include the system elements that support situational awareness at the strategic, operational, tactical and technical levels.

What Does Situational Mean?

In the 1980’s and 1990’s, “situation awareness” (not “situational”) was the term used in research. For purposes of this article, and even though some researchers would argue the point, we’ll consider both terms to mean the same thing, and the initialism SA to refer to both. The focus of that early research dealt with the challenges that a single individual faced in a complex and fast-moving situation, and how to improve the SA of the person in that situation. Often the situation was that of a complex system, such as an airport traffic control system or a nuclear reactor. The emphasis was on taking a complex set of data and turning them into a visual picture or information display that was quickly comprehensible by a human, and could be used to perceive any trends or patterns that meant preventive or corrective actions were needed.

Dr. Mica Endsley is founder and current president of SA Technologies (1997-2013, and 2015 to present), and a former Chief Scientist of the U.S. Air Force (2013-2015). In 1988, in an article titled, “Design and evaluation for situation awareness enhancement”, Endsley formally defined situation awareness as: “the perception of the elements in the environment within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning and the projection of their status in the near future.” This definition has stood the test of time, and is the basis for domain-specific SA models such as aircraft piloting, humans surgery, drilling rig operations, performance of aircraft maintenance, and many more.

Endsley breaks down situation awareness into three separate levels:

  • Level 1—perception of the elements in the environment
  • Level 2—comprehension of the current situation
  • Level 3—projection of future status

In her 1995 article in the Human Factors journal titled, Toward a Theory of Situation Awareness in Dynamic Systems, Endsley provided a model of situation awareness that you can view here, which includes the development and utilization of the three levels of situation awareness. It is a good model to work from to ensure that all the situational awareness factors are accounted for and maximally utilized in any system deployment.

The diagram of situation awareness depicts a dynamic aspect of SA that isn’t included in the definition. It’s a cyclical flow that looks like this, with “Perception” referring to perception of the state of the environment, and awareness referring to situation awareness.

Perception => Awareness => Decision => Performance of Actions => Environment Changes => (go back to Perception)

Security situations aren’t a static picture. They unfold over some period of time, and part of the task of situational awareness is to stay updated on the changes and act accordingly. If the awareness of the situation is faulty or incomplete, wrong decisions can be made and the wrong actions can be taken, making the situation worse.

The two charts linked below illustrate the difference between partial and full situational awareness. Chart 1, the partial awareness chart, presents two scenarios likely to happen (given this situation) with the current capabilities of most security systems, depending upon the experience of the officer. Chart 2 presents how events could unfold with full situational awareness.

Chart 1. Typical Security System – Partial Situational Awareness – Night Shift Scenarios

Chart 2. C5SA Security System – Full Situational Awareness – Night Shift Scenario

Technology Capabilities

Chart 2 reflects a security system deployed with C5SA capabilities and valuable systems integrations, all of which require a system designed to take potential risk scenarios into account, provide situational awareness for them, and to give the responding officer an array of options to use in responding. The security system capabilities depicted are all achievable using today’s technologies.

Establishing C5SA capabilities – as appropriate per the nature of the facility – can be a factor in the cost of insurance, the organization’s ability to recruit good people, and employee morale, just to name a few of the positive impacts.

The night shift scenario used in both charts presents a simple situation. The next article will present a more complex situation where there are multiple individuals requiring shared situational awareness to coordinate actions and act effectively, according to an emergency response plan based upon the security system C5SA capabilities.

Having a good understanding of the role of situational awareness in security system design can open the door to valuable security system improvements using current technology. Improving SA doesn’t necessarily require a special SA platform. Improvements to the situational awareness capabilities of a security system act as value multipliers, as the total operational capabilities of the combined deployed technologies are enhanced to give significantly better results. That increases the ROI of the existing security technology investments.

Developing a security technology strategy and roadmap that accounts for situational awareness can do more than justify immediate improvements. It can also establish a basis for long term funding for a plan that embraces emerging technology trends for progressively improved security risk reduction.

Ray Bernard, PSP CHS-III, is the principal consultant for Ray Bernard Consulting Services (RBCS), a firm that provides security consulting services for public and private facilities (www.go-rbcs.com). He is the author of the Elsevier book Security Technology Convergence Insights available on Amazon. Mr. Bernard is a Subject Matter Expert Faculty of the Security Executive Council (SEC) and an active member of the ASIS International member councils for Physical Security and IT Security.