Focus on Training

Developing Situational Awareness as a Community-Engagement Initiative

By Jonathan Anderson

A stock image of police vehicles in front of an office building.

Safety, security, and violence in the workplace challenge today’s society. Many persons in public and private organizations are keenly aware of their vulnerabilities and have focused increasing interest and attention on confronting them. However, law enforcement seems best suited to engage and empower communities to address such concerns.

Due to the inherent nature of the profession, police officers face an increased possibility of exposure to violence. Thus, they tend to have more experience, training, and equipment to respond to threats. “Situational awareness” helps them recognize and react so risk factors become minimized. Understandably, it is a fundamental theme for law enforcement in-service training.

The Onondaga County, New York, Sheriff’s Office has developed and adapted situational awareness training to meet the needs of a variety of audiences. First responders constituted the initial focus, but interest and demand increased, leading the agency to include more diverse groups. This initiative serves as a practical, dynamic community-engagement strategy for improving rapport and addressing relevant concerns.


Valuing Training and Practice

Law enforcement officers recognize that people respond to stressful situations based on their knowledge and experience. This topic centers on valuing formal and informal instruction and application; developing a sense of preparedness; and reinforcing workplace violence, safety, and security policy and procedures. It serves as a catalyst for encouraging best practices in the field.

Dispelling Occupational Myths

This objective concentrates on occupational misconceptions that can lead to complacency. Dismissing such falsehoods helps develop emotional and mental preparedness for threats.

One such belief—the customer always comes first—refers to a common courtesy in business; however, when a threat occurs, employee protection is most important. Staff members’ ability to provide service diminishes if they become victims themselves.

Rejecting this error helps personnel prioritize safety measures for themselves, their coworkers, and other innocent parties. Understandably, the sequence regarding threat response varies based on the group.

Discarding such a myth also provides an opportunity to educate the public on what to expect from law enforcement personnel regarding threat response. This awareness prepares individuals to better understand and assist police officers.

Another misconception—this is just another routine encounter—must be rejected. Numerous unpredictable factors exist that can affect threat potential. A relaxed or dismissive attitude may cloak such dangers. Subsequently, the ability to perceive and respond to impending risks diminishes, and consequences become more likely.

One other mistaken belief—this will not happen to me—often arises. It must be rebuffed because, in reality, whatever it is actually might occur.

Sample Training Agenda

I. Introduction

a. Present instructors

b. Describe occupational prevalence toward violence, threats, and situational awareness

c. Explain the significance of workplace violence and threat potential in contemporary organizations

d. Identify the relevance of situational awareness regarding the target audience

II. Dispelling occupational myths

III. Identifying threat risk factors

IV. Determining human responses to threats

V. Recognizing aggression levels

VI. Relating subject material to the attendees’ policies, procedures, and practices

VII. Audience feedback through follow-up discussions, written evaluations, or online surveys

“This initiative serves as a practical, dynamic community-engagement strategy for improving rapport and addressing relevant concerns.”

Identifying Risk Factors

Three factors—human, environmental, and situational—influence the threat level throughout various stages of an encounter. All are assessable, flexible, and able to be manipulated in preparation for or response to a threat. Training, experience, and practice addressing these issues help minimize the risk.


The human dynamic involves the mental, physical, and emotional status of the primary and secondary persons involved in the situation. Each individual’s level of intoxication, maturity, and stress tolerance, as well as situational attitude, require consideration. This includes everyone—witnesses, bystanders, and others called upon to respond—immediately involved.


This aspect includes familiarity with and condition of the immediate physical environment, including materials and equipment, as well as scope of jurisdiction and control of the surroundings. Spatial and positional dynamics that can affect stress levels also require attention.


Stress levels associated with circumstances, such as time, an event’s life-threatening potential, and availability and accuracy of information, must be regarded. Human and environmental issues directly affect this factor.

Understanding Human Responses

This theme highlights emotional and mental conditioning in regard to risk. It emphasizes training, practice, and preparedness for recognizing and responding to threats. There are three areas of focus.

1) Emotional reaction describes the immediate, unplanned response to threat stimuli, typified by a fight, flight, or surrender defense.

2) Cognizant response refers to a planned (trained or practiced) action, characterized by assertiveness, decisiveness, and composure.

3) Unintentional blindness is the phenomenon that spotlights a person’s attention on prioritized tasks, putting the unexpected into one's peripheral vision. If focus becomes diverted from present situational awareness factors and the individual does not expect a threat, the person’s ability to recognize and respond to the situation becomes compromised.

Identifying Levels of Aggression

Various aggression levels can be quantified to assess the threat. While law enforcement becomes trained and equipped for measured responses to risk, the public typically does not. An understanding of aggression can help citizens determine the threat level and assist with an appropriate reaction. Both verbal and nonverbal indicators demonstrating intimidation, verbal hostility, passive aggression, active antagonism, and potential violence are subject focal points.

Reinforcing Policy and Procedure

Policy and procedure reviews serve as a concluding topic or theme for subsequent training. Audiences can provide feedback relevant to the specific work environment. Additionally, the subject matter can be modified to address particular interests. Depending on the attendees, presentations are adaptable to specific on-site offices or field locations and supervisory or frontline employee groups. The topic material also has been presented at large conferences.


This situational awareness training initiative proves dynamic, practical, and malleable to various audiences. In Onondaga County, it has been enthusiastically received by first responders; volunteer organizations; businesses; public service groups; and municipal bodies, such as social service, health, and adult protective departments. Program diversity fosters a reciprocated benefit by establishing rapport with the public and encouraging community engagement. Such connections support the notion that what matters to everyone—safety and security—is a shared responsibility.

“…what matters to everyone—safety and security—is a shared responsibility.”

Lieutenant Anderson serves with the Onondaga County, New York, Sheriff’s Office in Syracuse and can be contacted at