Situational Awareness Skill or Instinct?

Many of us in the security and protection industry have heard the term ‘’situational awareness’’, however, few understand its full meaning or the complexities of its components. This may help.

First, to explain the definition of the term situational awareness we will use Endsley’s definition established in 1999:

Situational Awareness is “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” and is divided into three levels:

Level 1- Perception of the elements in the environment.

Level 2- Comprehension of the current situation.

Level 3- Projection of future status.

Regardless of your profession, it is vital to consider situational awareness as your most valuable instinct. It is an instinct because you are born with it. When the hair on the back of your neck stands up when you hear a dog growling behind you, or you suddenly find yourself surrounded by rain clouds… Instinct. When you turn and throw a stone at the dog to avoid being bitten or run inside the house to keep from getting wet…Skill

How effectively you use your instinct to protect yourself is a skill you must develop to survive in any environment.

I have routinely been asked if I can teach ‘’situational awareness’’. I usually answer this question with a question;

Are you aware of your own ability to apply your knowledge and skill to your surroundings, adapt to changes in the conditions affecting your environment, or recognize when you are not capable of these?

More simply, I can teach the theory of “Situational Awareness” but are you capable of combining and applying what you learn with your own existing natural instinct?

Some people can orient themselves easily to their environment and remain aware of activity affecting it while remaining ready to adapt to changes in it. Others cannot pay attention to the most obvious things around them due to distractions or even denial, or an inability to recognize environmental characteristics which could threaten their security or safety. Cellphones, intense conversation with others, overly noisy environments, darkness, heavy crowds, high crime areas, unstable governments… the list is endless, but all add to an inability to focus your senses on conditions which could mask specific threats.

After many years in the business I am conditioned to think as a security professional, even when not working. Taking my niece to school, jogging, shopping, or traveling on vacation or to work, I study my routes, weather, social and political activity, and even laws or rules which could affect my movement. There is no difference between when I am working and when I am not. There are few times when I completely ‘’shut down’’ or relax. I notice people who might be watching me, those lingering or loitering with no purpose, animal activity or behavior (because they react to things humans can’t hear or see), and I look for changes in weather, know what time it will be getting dark in July versus December and know what time the highway will be jammed with traffic. In addition to these, I always know what time it is. I study which way a door opens, closest exits, whether tables are bolted to the floor in a restaurant, and if I can sit and see the door without being directly in front of it. I look for people’s reactions when the Police walk in and if the girl jogging by my apartment has made more than one pass in the last 20 minutes.

Factors that can negatively affect your situational awareness: 

Focusing too much on one source of information

Such as environmental factors or technology and gadgets.


There is a reason some in our line of work consider routine activities to be as deadly as a bullet. Habits form complacency which can lead to a numbing of the senses.  You must remain alert at all times.

“Burn Out”

Experienced supervisors and team leaders know well that overworking your operatives can be very dangerous for your operation and your clients. An operative who is required to work 16 hours or more will lose focus and energy and attention to details will suffer. Awareness of environmental factors affecting situational awareness as well as reaction times and cognitive thinking will suffer. Personally, I do not allow any of my operatives to work more than 10 hours in a day and insist that they be given the appropriate time to rest.

Psychological factors/Stress/Personal Problems

Any of these can affect your ability to gather and process information. You must know how to identify things which can negatively influence your ability to properly manage stress and emotional challenges.

Physical illness/medication

Being physically ill or in pain, or on medication will affect operational ability and your situational awareness.

Preconceptions and misinterpreting

People tend to try matching information to specific ideas rather than having all the parameters and the whole idea of what is going on. This happens with new practitioners as well as overworked veterans. Misconceptions of the protection industry by Hollywood and inaccurate reporting by the news media are also to blame for preconceptions. Misinterpreting information from your environment will give you false situational awareness, which will lead you to taking incorrect or harmful actions that will put your and your principal’s safety in jeopardy.

Lack of proper training

Basic training is not enough. being repetitively trained in different scenarios will enable you to take the correct actions when a situation/threat occurs in real life. When you are trained in different scenarios, you will be more likely to know what a situation looks like and have an appropriate response to deal with it.

A Situational Awareness checklist

  • Ambiguous information

Do you have information from two or more sources that do not agree?

  • Confusion

Are you uncertain or uneasy about a situation?

  • Primary duties

Are all team members in their respective places and performing their assigned functions?

  • See and avoid

Is there too much heads-down time without looking around? is your vision/hearing occupied by other distractions?

  • Fixation

Are you focused on any one task? Do you know what time it is?

  • Communication

Have you heard or made any vague or incomplete statements?

  • Contradictions

Have you failed to resolve any discrepancies or contradictory information?

  • Orientation

Have you lost your orientation of your current position to exits, safe spaces?

In your effort to bring back the level of your situational awareness you can practice the following:

  • Train yourself with different scenarios in different environments. Use the ‘’what if’’ method so you avoid any surprises.
  • Gather as much information you can. Use all available resources, contacts, tools.
  • Scan your environment always. Don’t focus only on small details but also stay focused on the bigger picture. Each must be considered and evaluated equally.
  • Plan ahead. Study the environment adapt to changes.
  • Do not assume. This leads to misinterpreting information and the situation resulting in incorrect actions.
  • Watch movies or television shows and look for fallacies in the script, make-up, wardrobe, scenery, technical subject matter accuracy and other things to test your attention to detail.

Situational Awareness involves a constant study of all things in your environment that can have an effect on it, including you.


Denida Zinxhiria

Founder & CEO

Athena Worldwide LLC

Athena Academy


The contribution of Body Language in dealing with Terrorism and Crime

By Andreas Venetis

Founder & CEO

Venetis Consulting & Training Services


In 1989, the FBI had arrested a person for espionage against the USA. After a large number of interrogations, the investigators could not get any information about his possible partners. “They tried several times to persuade, by citing his patriotic and humanistic feelings – that he could save many human lives – but they didn’t get any extra information about his partners. At the end of the interrogations, they decided to make a last attempt through the use of body language. “They put names of possible partners on 13-centimetre tabs. In each tab that showed him (total 32 to 33), they asked him to tell them in general what he knows about each individual.

They knew for sure that in the past he had been associated with them professionally and they assumed one of them might have also been his partner in this case of espionage. During the interrogation process, they weren’t paying any significant attention to his verbal answers, since they had not been able to get any information from his words. But, they focused observing his facial expressions.

They observed that while they showed him two specific names, on the tabs, his eyes first opened wide, then through the contractions of the eyelids they diminished, and finally his pupils looked elsewhere as if he felt a threat from these two names. This could be interpreted maybe because they had threatened to kill him if he ever spoke about them. In a subsequent investigation of these two individuals, they admitted their participation in the espionage case. «From the unconscious contractions of the suspect’s eyelids and eyes, which happened as a reflex, independently of his will (through the limbic system, especially the tonsil), led to the elucidation of a national security case for the USA (Navarro, 2007, p. 173)

Οn the contrary, the cerebral cortex plays the basic role in all brain functions, such as memory, attention, perception, thoughts, language, and consciousness helps us consciously check and decide what to say. Eyelid contractions, which cover part of the eyeball, are automatically controlled by the amygdala.

When we see something that interests us, the eyelids extend upward and the eyes open wide; when we do not want to see something or we do not like what we see, the eyelids twist and the eyes “diminish”. When we do not want to see something, our pupils turn elsewhere (sometimes the whole head) or even close our eyes – for example, in the incident of a terrible accident or during a horrible spectacle. All of those become “reflex”, spontaneous and unconscious, coming from the amygdala. An example of amygdala-function, from which someone can get important information, is a case of espionage reported by writer Joe Navarro during his service with the FBI (Navarro, 2007, p. 22)

During the incidents, I faced while I was working as the security director at a Casino, the aversion of gaze was the first thing someone did when I showed him the item he had stolen. There was a series of soothing moves that followed and, at the end, the most obvious movement was the excessive look in the eyes with the palms open, a move that states “I have nothing to hide”, as the suspect was trying to convince me that he had not steal it.

In a case where an object of high value was stolen by a member of the staff (and while there were indications, but not cameras evidence), during my conversation with the suspect, I noticed that she constantly had her fingers braided with each other, which is a classic stress indication, as it will be discussed in the following chapters. She quite often covered her neck area with her hand – a characteristic women’s move when they feel insecure, threatened or stressed, and at the same time she had a great difficulty in breathing, while she was saying: “I didn’t steal it” (all the above-described moves are typical stress indications).

However, her verbal denial was not accompanied at the same time by the negative movement of the head, as it is customary. Instead, she first said “no”, without beckoning at the same time, as it is normally expected; and then, at the end of her verbal denial, she made the negative head move. In short, what she was saying verbally in relation to what her body was saying was asynchronous. To me, this was a strong indication that something wasn’t right. After fifteen (15) minutes of conversation, she admitted that she had stolen it. Stress, whether you are a spy, a thief, or an aspiring assassin, is expressed in a similar way by all people. And this is because we are biological human beings with the same internal organs and biological functions. The only thing that changes is the frequency of the movements, depending on the stress degree someone has, but also on the sex (if one is male or female).

***The article is a small part of my Thesis on ”The contribution of body language in dealing with terrorism and crime: A comparative analysis of international cases” and the picture used for the article is from the incident taken one min before the assassination of the Russian Ambassador Andrei Karlov***

Andreas Venetis


Venetis Consulting & Training Services

Security Awareness for Household Personnel

How many times throughout history has an entire army successfully protected their ruler from repeated assassinations, attacks from foreign armies and attempted coups, only to allow their leader to be killed by a close and trusted aide?

When a decision is made to provide security for a principal, (regardless of who makes the decision), the process eventually involves a professional security “expert” providing an assessment of risk and liability exposure and offering some discussion using impressive terms and references to “concentric rings of security”, (Which by the way is not an effective way to separate risk exposures). After a couple of weeks of planning, interviews, route studies, communications enhancements and team coordination exercises, the new team is ready.

Every contingency in place and every family and household staff member investigated and interviewed, the Principal is safe… Except for the giant hole in the plan that didn’t address the maid’s addiction to gossip or the butler’s gambling habits or the House Manager’s jealousy of anyone who is closer to the Principal that he is. Additionally, the Principal’s wife was never been coached on carrying a smaller handbag, or dressing down when shopping or wearing shoes she could run in and the nanny didn’t have a clue about how to avoid exposure to risks in public or how to identify and use improvised weapons to defend her charge.

Nobody considered the more reasonable expectation of teaching the family and staff to read the environment, recognize potential risks to the Principal or household, avoid the risk and properly communicate the conditions to the security team. The Athena Academy created and hosts the NannyGuards program to address the training needs of the domestic staff. The program is so effective that even Principals and their spouses are attending the classes with members of their staffs.

Think this is too much? Try asking yourself if you are aware of how much of your principal’s information is available to family members, staff and friends, employees, clients, service people and social event attendees.

Valuable and sensitive information about the Principal’s personal life, movement, business related details, finances, health, and various other exposures are all at risk of disclosure by anyone who might benefit from doing so. Even the best security team can’t control all the exposures, but recognizing that a well-trained staff and supportive family can lessen the risk of exposure by recognizing the signs of someone with the means and willingness to take advantage of their knowledge of the Principal.

Another important consideration is that in many cases, the protective team or individual Close Protection Operative is not part of the family and therefore required to live outside the Principal’s home resulting in not only being out of reach but out of earshot of domestic conversation.

Lastly, a maid, butler, cook, nanny, or driver can inadvertently sabotage an otherwise perfect security plan with the click of a mouse or the tap of a cellphone. Social media enables the most innocent or mundane photograph or statement to compromise the Principal’s safety or security.

Photographs can show not only addresses, clothing styles, identifying tattoos, license plates, and trends or habits but through analysis of the image, can identify geo-tag locations and times and dates of photographs. Proper vetting of the staff is only part of the security equation.

There must be training of the staff and even family members specific to risk exposure and risk mitigation. And when setting up your “concentric rings” of security, don’t forget to look in the center of the smallest ring for the first exposure; the Principals themselves.

Denida Zinxhiria

Founder & CEO

John R. Lehman

Vice President

Athena Worldwide LLC

Athena Academy


Hiring Character

As always, I use the material or ‘’fuel’’ for these articles from personal experience in the business or from exposure to others whose experiences add validity to my own views.

In today’s material world, we are judged by three standards:

  • How we look
  • How we act
  • What we say

Because we all judge each other from a distance first, let’s agree that your wardrobe, posture, skin tone and overall physique all play a part in first impressions at a distance. Because we all first distrust before we trust, let’s agree that our actions are noticed first at a distance and as people feel comfortable with our actions, they allow us to move closer. We will revisit this later.

Let’s spend a minute on what we say.

Recently on a security detail I was attached to, a security “professional” on the team was referring to homosexuals using derogatory names. Regardless of your understanding or acceptance of different cultures, let’s revert to our preschool days and remember that “insults hurt”. Because we don’t know who is listening or who might overhear, it is always best to simply keep your non-work related comments to yourself. Negative comments damage more than just feelings.

We are told as we grow up and spend time in society that we should avoid discussing three topics: religion, politics, and sex. Now, we can add to the list, sports, culture, traffic, weather, health, and what time it is. Due to the over-sensitivity to everything by everybody, it is just easier to avoid professional conflict by sticking to communications critical to the task at hand.

We teach these lessons in our academy but not everyone retains the lesson. It is amazing how far you can get with a smile and a nod but people’s nature is to speak. Many people can’t stand silence. What could have been answered with a “yes” or “no” gets answered with a “well…” followed by a lengthy opinion. “He talks to much” is the number one reason a CPO gets fired.

Many times, over the years, I and my colleagues have been asked to take over an operation as damage control. One company had a 7-figure contract in an Arab country. Two of their operatives were put in the spotlight for making inappropriate and insulting comments in the presence of the client’s staff members. This was not reported and was a continued and unchecked behavior until the Principal’s Son overheard the behavior and found out what had been going on for months. The contract was immediately in jeopardy. Luckily, the client/principal was open to resolving the issue by terminating the offenders instead of terminating the contract. We were brought in to address the issue. When auditing the company as part of the resolution process, the HR Director was questioned. The answers he offered as to why the two operators were not fired long ago left me disappointed…’’well they are very good operatives with solid backgrounds both in military and hostile environments’’, ‘’we never had any issues with them before’’… I discovered that the only thing HR ever paid attention to was their resumes, professional experience, and their tactical training background.

After a couple of hours doing my research, I discovered inappropriate posts about the Muslim religion and the Arab culture on their social networking profiles going back two and three years. I presented these to the HR Director. He realized that had he done a thorough background investigation, he would have never placed these two operators with this particular client.

Now back to how you look and how you act. If someone works for you then they represent you. Anything said or done by you, your associates or employees is a direct reflection on your company. And yes, They and you are held accountable for past performance too, on every level.

What qualities are most important to your company’s brand? What performance or personal characteristics are important to you? To your client? To your company’s reputation?

Tactical skillsets, ethics, morals, judgement, performance history, stamina, social skills, the ability to combine all into a single polished operator?

Just because someone has been in the military or worked in “the government” doesn’t mean that they have education and social polish. Remember that in the military, soldiers cannot act or speak as they wish without consequences. In a hostile environment, when seconds count and the wrong move or decision could cause loss of life, good manners and being well-spoken won’t help you. A military officer is disciplined and polished and well-spoken and well-mannered but is not traditionally used to working as a lone operative. A police officer or government agent is used to having an entire agency behind them and a structured environment around them. A Private Military Contractor used to working Personnel Security Details in Iraq may lack the social polish to survive in a suit and tie world, simply because they can’t properly tie a necktie or shop for one.

The corporate security position is no different than any other corporate position. How you talk, behave, and perform your work is extremely important for your profession. Knowledge skill and ability is measured from the interview through retirement. Any failure along the way can result in a hasty termination and a new career. I know people I would trust with my life but would never work with them in an environment where social etiquette was a part of that equation. They can tie a tie, never drink or smoke, they are polite and polished and trustworthy, and they curse like a sailor look a little too long at the opposite sex and are passive-aggressive behind the wheel.

There are people who enter the Protection Industry because it was a natural progression from their previous profession of soldier, Police Officer, or Private Investigator and then there are those who seek the profession from the depths of the fast food industry for the benefits of carrying a weapon, access to celebrities, ability to flex a pretend authority and brag about their Jason Bourne experiences. They post every shirtless gun carrying pose on-line and “Facebook” their every activity. One seeks professionalism as a goal and the other just pollutes the river we drink from.

Whether you are the one hiring or you are being hired to work with others, it is extremely important to know everything about everyone around you. What you see in someone may not be as important as what others have seen in them. An in-depth background check means exactly that. If you are the one looking, look everywhere for everything. And if someone is looking at you, be assured, they are looking everywhere for everything. If it exists, it can be found. My rules: Use a Mentor, Use a Mirror, Use your Mind. Avoid conflict. Avoid being on anyone’s radar. Be forgettable. Don’t try to make friends on the job and don’t discuss work with your friends. Take an oath to yourself and live it for your legacy. Train to perfection and let your paycheck be your judge.

“Bad reputations only take an instant, good ones take a lifetime… Live long”.

Denida Zinxhiria

Founder & CEO

Athena Worldwide LLC

Athena Academy


Covert Protective Details ”The Invisible shield”

For new Close Protection professionals entering this industry or those considering it, a protection detail can be overt, covert or both. How the appropriate protection plan and team is chosen relies on the information known or gathered from interviews with the client as well as conditions affected by culture, political or business climate, the client’s mood, planned activity, local laws, and codes, and even weather.

Many clients feel uncomfortable with highly visible or “overt” protective details. Some may even ask you to be so invisible that they don’t know you are there. Male clients may feel uneasy about a male CPO guarding their female companion or spouse and ask that the big guys maintain their distance and not interact with them. Large-framed protectors may not blend in well at the golf course or mall. A female protector may work better at a corporate function or business luncheon. Once the person is picked as a protector, the client’s wishes must be considered as part of their protection plan.

Another challenge is communications with the client or even your own teammates. Remember that earpieces and cute little coily-cords and bulky radios may not work in some environments. Think about Bourbon Street in New Orleans Louisiana during Mardi-Gras or in Rio Brazil during Carnival or Christmas Eve in Vatican City, Rome Italy. A noisy kids’ birthday party could be just as bad when coupled with nosy 8-year-olds asking who you are so be ready.

How do you blend in with the environment, (and culture), and remain capable of protecting your client?

How do you provide full coverage around your client without the obvious “Diamond” or “Box” formations?

“Blending in” requires knowing your client, environment, surrounding cultural challenges, traffic patterns, local laws, and rules, and yourself. You also need to master smooth calm movements, relax the military posture and bearing and learn how to speak like a normal tourist and less like a Special Forces operator, all while remaining ready to react to a threat with “explosive ability”.

Your appearance can also give you away. Plaid shirts, goatees and plastic sunglasses may make you feel cool and get you noticed by the editor of any popular military supply catalog, but it will also get you noticed by everyone who has ever seen one of those catalogs. Try to avoid tactical clothing, military or police style haircuts, tactical sunglasses and wristwatches and try to wear clothing and accessories that the community you are in would wear. Wear what your client would wear. Cover tattoos, avoid excessive jewelry and bright colors, and black. Boring is best.

What is your reason for being near the client? If you are not a “bodyguard, who are you? What is your back-up story? You can be a reporter doing a human-interest story, an event planner, the client’s “associate”, a personal assistant, a personal trainer, or a personal shopper…. You can even have business cards that back up your story, but have one, and stay in character.

Now that you have your backup story, let’s address some movement issues. As mentioned before, movements must be smooth and calm. A person who acts like they are stressed or hurried will draw attention and just as serious, can telegraph this uneasiness to the client. Don’t mirror your client’s movements and unless you know or feel that their risk exposure is increasing at the present rate or direction of movement, don’t interfere with the client. Unless you must hover over your client, don’t. If you can sit, do it. If you must sit or stand, don’t do it like you are a normal alert and aware security professional. Stay in character. You can pretend to stare at your cellphone screen while focusing on your peripheral vision. You can use earbuds but have the volume down to hear surrounding noises or conversations that otherwise would be missed. You can still wear your sunglasses if everyone else would normally wear them and mask your eye movement, but your goal is to blend into your environment.

Avoiding ‘’mirroring’’ your principal’s movements. You don’t have to sit or stand up as soon as they do. Waiting a few seconds to move is fine when no threat is present. If working on a team, coordinate with others to cover your client’s movement. Team communications here will be critical. Hand, eye, or verbal signals are valuable and must be learned. Knowing your client’s mannerisms will also give you an advantage in reacting to them. Also pay attention to the waiter or others who interact with your client. They will give you clues to what your client may do next. If you see the check coming, be ready to move. If the client gets up to go to the bathroom, be ahead of them.

Finally, and maybe as critical, your attitude must blend in too, so forget about being the “authority” or the “security specialist’’, STAY IN CHARACTER. Be polite and don’t annoy others with your presence. Many people enter this industry to do something meaningful or significant and in their own way may even consciously or unconsciously seek recognition or notoriety. They purposely blow their own cover or even send photos to social media of them working so they can brag about their work. This is more common in the newer and unpolished CPO’s but exists in all areas of the profession. Trying to convince someone with this mindset to remain “invisible” in the crowd is not always easy. Picking the right person for covert protection details is a rare skillset and should be left to an experienced mission planner. If you need to switch out with another CPO to maintain a low-key presence, bury your pride and trust your replacement choice. If choices you make relative to your client’s safety are ever about what is best for you, you are the wrong person for the assignment and the wrong ego for this industry.

Denida Zinxhiria

Founder & CEO

Athena Worldwide LLC

Athena Academy