This post is going to deal with a facet of situational awareness that I’m going to refer to as intuition for lack of a better term. If you prefer, think if it as your sixth sense or a gut feeling. I’m going to look at this aspect of situational awareness through the lens of my own experience. I’m going to recount two different stories from my past. Both are true, and I hope they will be illustrative of the importance of heeding one’s gut feelings. The first probably had a profound effect on my outlook growing up, and the second highlights a tragic failure to correctly orient to a situation (think OODA loop) that had significant and irrevocable consequences.
I decided to write about this after beginning to read Dave Spaulding’s “Handgun Combatives”. Indeed, Spaulding addresses listening to your intuition in the first chapter of his book. For that matter, entire books have been written about the subject. Two prime examples that come to mind are Gavin De Becker’s “The Gift of Fear” and “Left of Bang” by Patrick Van Horne and Jason A. Riley, both of which have been highlighted on the Recommended Books page on this blog.
Your intuition is largely fueled by your experience of what is normal. When your subconscious picks up on subtle abnormalities in situations, this is what causes you to feel uneasy or wary. (I prefer the latter term, as it connotes a readiness to act rather than passive apprehension.) Indeed, when you have that gut instinct that something is wrong, you should listen to it with heightened awareness of the situation around you, coupled with a willingness to act immediately. Whether you associate your options with Mike Pannone’s advice of “Avoid, Evade, Defend”, or Spaulding’s “Avoid, Evade, Counter”, this is the time to preemptively avoid a nascent threat, evade an apparent threat, or counter and defend against a realized threat. Being ahead of the curve is the game here. Or if you prefer, left of bang.
Now, let me put this in real, tangible terms. For my first example, we need to go back a few decades to a time when I was a small child. Probably school aged, but I honestly don’t remember exactly how old I was. I was returning home with in the car with my mother and as we turned onto our street we noticed a dirty light blue hatchback car sitting in our driveway. A young male wearing jeans and a dark coat was walking from our gate to the car. My mother pulled in behind the car in our driveway and got out to ask what he was doing. He replied that he was looking for his lost dog. My mother responded that it wouldn’t be in our yard since we had a fence and the gate. The guy got into his car and my mother backed out to allow him to back out and drive away. We then pulled into the attached garage at the back of our house. For some reason that I still don’t really understand today, I did something that I normally never would have. Instead of going directly inside, I walked around the back of the house to the other side where our screened porch was. That is when I saw and heard the burglar break the window in the porch door to break into our house. I don’t know whether he saw me then, but I don’t think he did. I ran back around to the garage and yelled to my mother about the burglar as she was unlocking the back door. We both stayed outside and did not enter, instead retreating around to the front of the house.
The burglar came out the front door of our suburban home and upon seeing us, tossed my mother’s silver tray to the lawn and took off running down the street. Even as a child, (and this is a telling clue about my personality), I took off after him. Obviously, I was too small and too slow to catch him, and he made his escape when his accomplice (in the blue hatchback) picked him up down the street.
Although I don’t really know what made me go around the back of the house that day, I can speculate that I wanted to check the perimeter of the home. Or, more likely, my intuition told me that the miscreant in our driveway was lying and up to no good. Either way, I suspected something was wrong and potentially averted us walking in on a home intruder. Perhaps I was too young to fall victim to the negative effects of normalcy bias?
No doubt that episode had a lasting impression on my attitudes towards personal safety and evil in the world. In short, I learned at an early age that there are bad people in the world and that I should listen to my gut instincts.
Now let’s fast forward to a few years ago, to a tragic incident that I witnessed as a paramedic. My partner and I were working the overnight shift when early in the morning, we were dispatched for a fall with a head injury and were told that the caller had hung up the phone. This was my first clue (1st red flag) that something was wrong. Again, I find it difficult to even describe how I knew something was off, but the sum totality of the initial dispatch suggested that this was not going to be a routine call.
When we arrived at the residence, a police officer had already arrived and was inside. (In the town in question, police first respond to all medical calls.) My partner and I entered the residence. Inside, there was a significant amount of clutter, and evidence of a significant amount of shredding of documents in the living room (2nd red flag). The front door opened directly into a living room, and a woman was sitting on the couch holding a large aggressively barking dog by the collar. The police officer was standing in the doorway of the bedroom at the end of a short hallway connected to the kitchen in back. Since my partner was in paramedic school, I usually let him lead the patient interview with me watching and listening to allow him to gain experience. Immediately upon his approach to the bedroom doorway, he was met with a loud “Get the fuck out of my house!” (3rd red flag). From my position behind him, I was able to quickly visualize through the bedroom door what appeared to be an empty holster on the bureau in the bedroom (4th red flag).
At this point, both my partner and I backed away from the bedroom door. I knelt down to talk to the woman holding the dog.
I want to interject here that I’m a gun guy. I have dogs. These things don’t scare me. Again, the sum totality of the situation is the relevant observation here.
The woman told me that the man in the bedroom had fallen in the shower and hit his head and had been able to return to the bed. She had called 911 when he fell. She also stated that he had threatened to kill himself and her (5th red flag). I asked if she had communicated that to the officer, to which she said she had, and then I pointedly asked, “Where are the guns in the home?” Not IF there were guns, but WHERE they were. Her reply was, “All over.” (6th red flag). About this time, I noticed a holstered handgun lying on top of the refrigerator in the kitchen.
My partner and I were quite uneasy by this point and became even more so when the bedroom door slammed shut with the officer inside the room. In my mind, it was a preconceived notion that the man was going to the hospital on a psychiatric hold, probably against his will. I was also wondering where the officer’s backup was, and my partner and I were debating asking our dispatch for another unit in case we had to wrestle him onto the stretcher.
The bedroom door opened and the man stormed out of the room loudly asking what he needed to sign to refuse care. In an attempt to defuse the situation and deescalate, I simply replied that we needed a few moments and needed to speak with the officer. He angrily exchanged words with the woman on the couch and went back into the bedroom, slamming the door behind him.
This entire time, my partner and I had been staying near the front door, ready to get out if necessary. There was still only one officer on scene and we were obviously not armed. At this point, with a hostile man in a closed room with the officer and obvious evidence of guns in the residence, we elected to retreat outside, contemplating just how much cover was provided by our ambulance sitting out front. I was torn by a sense of duty to aid the officer inside the residence, tempered by the knowledge that I was not armed and didn’t have body armor. We were still anticipating more police units would arrive on scene, but none did (7th red flag).
As we were waiting outside, the front door was slammed shut, and we became even more apprehensive and truly began to consider what constituted cover, in case shots were fired.
After several minutes, the door opened and the man carried a duffel bag out to his vehicle sitting in the driveway and started the engine. He then went back inside the home. As our ambulance was blocking the driveway, we elected to move it to clear the driveway. Truly, at this point, we feared he might be irate enough to try to back into our ambulance if it was in his way. The man came outside again with the dog on a leash and got in the vehicle with the dog. He backed out of the driveway and drove off.
Baffled by this turn of events, we got out to speak with the officer as he was leaving the residence. I asked the officer if he had been told about the man’s alleged suicidal and homicidal intentions, and the officer indicated that the man had not seemed suicidal. Without the benefit of being privy to whatever transpired behind the closed door of the bedroom, I accepted this at face value. Despite our misgivings, we were cleared from the scene and were soon dispatched on another call. As we were driving away through the neighborhood, we observed the man driving back towards his home (8th red flag).
Within the hour, he lay dead just inside his front door with a self-inflicted gunshot to the head. Listening to the dispatch for that was a sickening adrenaline dump. Suffice it to say, the police officer that was initially there with us is now no longer an officer, his career effectively over. I pray for his conscience, for certainly that is a heavy burden to bear.
What could I have done to prevent this outcome? I don’t know. From day one in EMS, the mandate is scene safety above all else. We upheld that mandate, backing out of a volatile scene that we deemed unsafe. When I’m on duty, I don’t have a gun or a badge. I also don’t have the legal authority to detain people against their will unless they directly express suicidal thoughts or plans.
What’s the moral of these stories? Use your intuition. Listen to your gut. If something SEEMS off, something probably IS off. Identify what it is (my first example), or remove yourself from the situation (my second example). Remain alert, aware, and prepared to act. Don’t let denial or normalcy bias cause you to second guess your subconscious or conscious observations.