Quote of the moment

"I have to tell it again and again: I have no doctrine. I only point out something. I point out reality, I point out something in reality which has not or too little been seen. I take him who listens to me at his hand and lead him to the window. I push open the window and point outside. I have no doctrine, I carry on a dialogue." Martin Buber

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Chile springs forward into daylight savings time

Image from Microsoft Images

Did you wake up in time today?

Einstein said time is relative, but here in Chile it's whatever the president deems it to be. And he has declared today to be the first day of Daylight Savings Time (DST). In case you are not sure of time right now click here. Ideally everyone should have remembered to "spring forward" with their clocks; that is moved their clocks ahead one hour for today. The change in time is in response to the current Energy Crisis that is impacting the country. The Chilean government has announced a new end date for the DST period of 2010-2011 and a new start date for the DST period of 2011-2012. The new government announcement of DST information is found here: http://www.gob.cl/informa/2011/03/28/ministro-hinzpeter-anuncio-extension-de-horario-de-verano-en-el-pais.htm, with the official decree changing the DST dates in Chile was published by the government on the following site: http://www.horaoficial.cl/cambio.htm.

While this may save on cost of keeping the lights on a little longer, it will also cause a bit of confusion and trouble for awhile until we adjust to that which does not change and find fixes for the bugs this has created for our computers and phones. Here in Chile most everyone uses their cell phone's alarm application as their alarm clocks. However, cell phones do not automatically reset to the DST. This means anyone who set their phone to wake up on time today had to set their wake up call one hour earlier than they actually wanted to get up. They will have to continue to set their alarm application to wake them an hour earlier than their desired actual hour in order to wake up on time until there is a fix available for the various phone companies. Blackberry fixes can be found on this website, however it is in Spanish. If your iPhone is like mine, it also isn’t on the proper time after DST. Here’s a manual fix:

Manual Fix for iPhone Daylight Savings Time Bug
  1. Tap on “Settings”
  2. Tap to “General”
  3. Select “Date & Time”
  4. Switch “Set Automatically” to “OFF”
  5. Now Reboot the iPhone
  6. Go back through these settings and switch “Set Automatically” to ‘ON’
Following those instructions your iPhone should correct the time itself, but you may want to set a backup alarm tonight just in case the bug persists.

The clock on our TV cable box moved forward automatically, yet the cable TV shows remain scheduled for standard time. This means if you turn on the TV to find your favorite show at its usual time you will quickly discover you missed it by an hour.

The time change challenges Microsoft users as well. Teams at Microsoft have taken several steps to alert customers and partners about the changes in Chile. From Microsft's TechNet Blog:
Since the new date published by the government is different from what was defined in the previous years, Windows-based computers that are not updated with one of the recently released DST updates (2543367 or 2570791) will not correctly interpret the time that is related to the transition to daylight saving time.
In addition to Microsoft products, other software, OS releases and hardware (phones, routers, switches and managed devices) may require updates and/or changes.
The most recent cumulative time zone update is available for download now. The KB2570791 was published on August 9th of 2011. The KB will be available on Windows Update on August 23rd of 2011.
General recommendations
  • Install the cumulative update KB2570791 as soon as possible. This hotfix supersedes DST updates KB2543367, KB2443685 and KB2519231
  • This update DOES INCLUDE an update for the “UTC-04:00 Santiago” and it contains recent changes on several time zones around the world.
  • Please note that if you adjust the machine’s clock manually, you may have adverse effects on your environment. This procedure is not supported by Microsoft.
  • Contact Microsoft Support prior to any modification if you are unsure about the steps to follow in order to be prepared for the Daylight Saving Time change in Chile.
  • Microsoft product teams follow a semi-annual DST and TZ update schedule, which follows the Windows regular schedule for publishing newly legislated DST rules and time zone updates. These annual Windows "Cumulative Daylight Saving Time and Time Zone Updates" are released in December for each calendar year; a semi-annual update will be released in August/September, as needed. Microsoft products that are affected may also schedule updates to accommodate some of these changes. Some times “out-of-band” hotfixes are released to address important issues. The Microsoft Policy in Response to DST/TZ Requests can be found on the following article: http://support.microsoft.com/gp/dst_ms_response
Watching and recording your favorite TV shows will also be a challenge. While the clock in the Cable Box shows the correct time, the programming has not changed to reflect any time changes. That means in order to watch your favorite show you will have to turn the TV on an hour earlier than before.
If you will be moving about the globe and need to know if the country you are visiting also has DST be sure to visit http://www.worldtimezone.org/. This website includes a world map of all the time changes scheduled to date. Interestingly enough, a look at Chile indicates while DST has started today, there is NO indication as to when it will end. I guess we just need to see what the President will have to say about this.
If you are interested in learning  more about Daylight Savings Time click here.

What challenges have you faced with today's time change?

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Wild and wonderful winter in Santiago

The weather in Santiago this winter has included a little of everything.  From chilly days of rain and cold to warm and sunny days that have totally confused my camilia tree and caused great health risks due to smog. Today, just before we are set to turn the clocks forward to welcome spring, it's even more outrageous. Not only is it snowing, it's STICKING!
Enjoy a recap of this year's winter season:

Early winter means smoggy days

Early morning unveiling of the first snowfall in the Andes ringing Santiago, June 6, 2011.

Full moon heralding winter solstice in Chile, June 13, 2011

Winter arrives early June 16, 2011

Beautiful and warm three day holiday with temperatures in the 70's to celebrate the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul, June 25-27, 2011

And flowers bloom as though it's spring

 After many warm days snow falls again in the mountains, this time much lower and in El Cerro Manquehue. July 25, 2011

And then today, August 18, Santiago is surprised in the morning with a snowfall the likes of which hasn't been seen since 2007.

At first it seemed a fluke but the flakes remained large, fluffy and continued to fall- Could it be it would actually stick?

Yes! Yes it sticks! Snow at noon,  August 18, 2011

It's nearing 2 PM, the snow has reverted to rain. Yet there is evidence lingering of the winter fantasy we enjoyed this morning on the first day of El Dieciocho (the month of celebration leading to Chile's independence from Spain celebrated on September 18)  .

Monday, August 15, 2011

For U.S. expats few exceptions for not paying taxes while abroad

Matthew Apodaca, CPA observes sometimes American expats are under the impressions that they do not need to file a US Tax Return, listing common excuses for failure or avoiding the inevitable.   Your excuses or lack of knowledge unfortunately won't get you off the hook with the IRS for not filing your taxes. The IRS is very clear: Whether you are a U.S. citizen or resident alien, the rules for filing income, estate, and gift tax returns and paying estimated tax are generally the same  regardless of where you reside whether in the United States or abroad. Simply put  U.S. citizens are taxed on WORLDWIDE income – regardless of the foreign jurisdictionWithout filing your taxes you loose many of the benefits available to you for working overseas. You must file a U.S. tax return to:
  • Elect available tax benefits like the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion (FEIE).
  • Start the statute of limitations with respect to IRS audits. 

If you are a U.S. citizen or resident alien, you must report income from all sources within and outside of the U.S. This is true whether or not you receive a Form W-2 Wage and Tax Statement,  a Form 1099 (Information Return) or the foreign equivalents. Consequently,  you must also report your worldwide income in any foreign bank on your U.S. tax return.  The Bank Secrecy Act requires you to file a Form TD F 90-22.1, Report of Foreign Bank and Financial Accounts (FBAR), if:

  • You have financial interest in, signature authority, or other authority over one or more accounts in a foreign country, and 
  • The aggregate value of all foreign financial accounts exceeds $10,000 at any time during the calendar year.

The ONE Exception

Matthew Apodaca, points out the only exception to the filing rule: IF YOU DO NOT EARN ENOUGH INCOME. The income limit is NOT based on the Foreign Earned Income Exclusion ($91,500 for tax year 2010). The breakpoints for this are as follows (From IRS 1040A instructions 2010 page 8):
  • If your filing status is SINGLE and at the end of 2010 you were UNDER 65 then file a return if your gross income was at least 9,350.00
  • If your filing status is SINGLE and at the end of 2010 you were 65 OR OLDER then file a return if your gross income was at least 10,750.00
  • If your filing status is MARRIED FILING JOINT and at the end of 2010 you were UNDER 65 (both spouses) then file a return if your gross income was at least 18,700.00
  • If your filing status is MARRIED FILING JOINT and at the end of 2010 you were OVER 65 (one spouse) then file a return if your gross income was at least 19,800.00
  • If your filing status is MARRIED FILING JOINT and at the end of 2010 you were OVER 65 (both spouses) then file a return if your gross income was at least 20,900.00
  • If your filing status is MARRIED FILING SEPARATELY and at the end of 2010 you were ANY AGE then file a return if your gross income was at least 3,650.00
  • If your filing status is HEAD OF HOUSEHOLD and at the end of 2010 you were UNDER 65 then file a return if your gross income was at least 12,050.00
  • If your filing status is HEAD OF HOUSEHOLD and at the end of 2010 you were 65 OR OLDER then file a return if your gross income was at least 13,450.00
  • If your filing status is QUALIFYING WIDOWER and at the end of 2010 you were UNDER 65 then file a return if your gross income was at least 15,050.00
  • If your filing status is QUALIFYING WIDOWER and at the end of 2010 you were 65 OR OLDER then file a return if your gross income was at least 16,150.00
Note the very low thresholds for married filing separately.

Good News for Procrastinators

If you reside overseas, or are in the military on duty outside the U.S., you are allowed an automatic 2-month extension to file your return until June 15. However, any tax due must be paid by the original return due date (April 15) to avoid interest charges.

If you are unable to file your return by the due date, you can request an additional extension to October 15 by filing Form 4868 before the return due date. However, any payments made after June 15 would be subject to both interest charges and failure to pay penalties.

Learn more from IRS.gov:

U.S. Government Civilian Employees Stationed Abroad

Income from Abroad is Taxable



Thursday, August 11, 2011

Is There a Doctor in the House? Medical Care Experiences in Chile

As posted in I Love Chile:
Now it’s not to say that life in Chile has taken its toll on me, but as I limp closer to my tercer edad (60’s and beyond) I’ve laughingly observed how my warranty seems to be coming due with greater speed. In the eighteen months that I’ve resided in Santiago, Chile, I have had multiple causes to visit the doctor including surgeries on my left knee, followed by my right knee (and on my 59th birthday yet!) and just last week on my shoulder. I have also had an extended hospital stay for a rather tenacious infection. Happily, for now, I’m on the mend and relatively healthy.

Some of my expat friends are surprised I had medical care and surgery here in Chile rather than returning to the USA. I can understand their angst. When you are speaking in a language that is not your own about medical issues it can be rather daunting and frightening. You worry if you have made yourself clear and have completely understood what the doctor has told you. You wonder, are the doctors capable and well practiced with current modern medical techniques, do they have the necessary equipment to assure your safety and return you to good health? Will their approaches to modern medicine measure up to your cultural expectations?

While I needed Medivac emergency care many years ago to fly me from Colombia to Miami because the local hospital was barely able to stabilize me after a serious auto accident, I’m happy to say that scenario has not been repeated here. Of course my experience is that of an expat with great insurance benefits.  I have discovered in Santiago private medical care is outstanding and the hospital extremely modern with all the latest medical services.  In fact, I knew I would be in good hands when I met Michelle Bachelet, past President of Chile now UN Women Executive Director, leaving the lab room as I was called in for my medical tests.

However, I have encountered a few note worthy differences at the clinic or hospital compared to my HMO back home. The most startling one was how my doctor gave me un beso como saludo  (greeted me with a kiss) as I first entered his office. Now, I’m quite accustomed to greeting friends and family with a kiss here in Chile, especially as my husband’s family is Spanish and they kiss on both cheeks.  But I must say, I was not expecting such a greeting from my doctor! I guess it makes for a great doctor-patient relationship!

My doctors have also been very available. I’ve been offered their cell phone numbers and email addresses with directions to call upon the slightest worry over my care or progress. One doctor even admonished me for not calling him when I chose to go to the emergency room rather than bother him late in the evening.

I have been fortunate to have benefit of a private room in my frequent stays at my “Clinica Spa” that resemble (well… nearly) that of a fine hotel. The HD TV with remote control offered a wide selection of entertainment. Beautiful views of the Andes provided spectacular backdrop for the rose gardens framed in my window. Bottled water brought to me with the click of a call button. Designer soft slippers, robes and toiletry filled bags line my bathroom awaiting my arrival. OK, maybe not designer, just nicely imprinted with the hospital logo.

Unfortunately, the one item I have yet to develop an appreciation of is the Chilean hospital gown.  I’m not that great a fan of wrap-around hospital gowns found in the states, but given the options here in Chile, I’d rather take my chances with my backsides free to the fresh air than try to make the strip of cloth they call a hospital gown here into a serviceable clothing item with any modicum of modesty.  Chilean hospital gowns are little –very little– more than a light cotton cloth poncho that barely comes to the shoulders, ties at the sides and exposes pretty much everything without constant vigilance. Wardrobe failures are frequent!

Room service at my hospital has been rather nice as well; even the meals they serve have not been too bad (well it is hospital food after all!). But for those moments when I need a “for real meal” the restaurant located inside the clinic offers up a wonderful menu. In fact, I often join my new found friends in physical therapy for a lunch date after our therapy sessions. Sigh… yes its come down to scheduling my social calendar not only around but also within the hospital appointments.

I have been rather curious, though, why on the trauma orthopedic wards the showers are not accessible. In fact they are rather tight and require the patient to step up into them, a real challenge when you’ve just had knee surgery.  When I asked my nurse about this she seemed to think it was a non-issue. She said, unlike me, most patients prefer the luxury of a bed bath to a shower. In fact I’ve been told by my doctors to let go of my American tendencies for independence, sit back, relax and enjoy the cariño (care / affection).

hosptial shower photo donna martinez Is There a Doctor in the House? Medical Care Experiences in Chile
A shower is a real challenge when you’ve just had knee surgery

I still have some concern about prescription medications. Back home the prescription would be filled and the prescription form retained for pharmacist’s records. It would also prevent anyone from filling it twice. Here the prescriptions that I have received are returned and may be refilled up to a year from the date originally written. I still haven’t figured out how pharmacies manage controlled substances. But it certainly is nice for no-fuss refills.

While my experiences have been pleasant ones, I’m fully aware of the disparities between private and public hospitals.  I have seen the starkly contrasting care and services received at Santiago’s El Salvador Hospital (Hospital del Salvador).  It was there in this institution built in 1872, that a friend of mine was lost among the poor of Chile awaiting a diagnosis that was too long in coming; a bath that would be had only if you remembered to bring your own towel; a cup filled with water from the rusty tap if you had brought a cup from home; a favorite TV show to enjoy if the rabbit ears of your portable black and white captured the local station and the groans of the other nine men in the same room were muffled in their rumpled bed sheets. Thankfully he was hospitalized during the warming spring weather so that the breezes streaming through the gaping holes in the battered doors and walls would be cold only in the early morning dawn.

hosptial elsalvador photo by donna martinez Is There a Doctor in the House? Medical Care Experiences in Chile
A door in the hallway of Hospital del Salvador

I’m hoping now that like a newly strung doll I’ll be good to go for a while longer. I do appreciate my great fortune of receiving good care at the private hospital and recognize that it may not be the same for everyone. 

Have you been ill or in an accident here in Chile? Let us know how your medical care experiences were compared to mine or to my friend’s? If given an option, would you have stayed in Chile for surgery or would you prefer to return to your homeland?

Monday, August 1, 2011

Situtational Alertness- Keeping Safe Secure and Alive Around the World

We have certainly enjoyed our time so far in Santiago, Chile - a site that Jorge's company has classified as a hardship location. Well, I suppose it may have something to do with the need to brace yourself for the occasional 8.8-9.0 earthquake, or to make your way around the annual hosing down of the striking  the penquinos (students) by carbinero water tanks, the difficulties during winter to breathe due to smog and pollution, or possibly having to make do with make-it-yourself Nescafé at the restaurant especially while Starbucks employees are on hunger strike until the company adds lunch to their benefits package.  Yet as I look outside the window the hairs on the back of my neck lay comfortably flat and the prospect of a great day opens up before me with, as my friends from OZ are accustomed to saying- no worries.

There have been times however, while living outside the USA borders that was not the case. While living in La Guajira, Colombia 25  years ago we were always on the alert. It was the era of the narco-trafficers and we lived in the midst of them. And if it wasn't the drug runners, then it was the disgruntled Guajiran willing to hold us hostage and our water in the desert camp for labor issues; or toss rocks at us in passing to get payment and revenge for a dead goat. I also remember how grateful we were that Jorge was only a lowly mid-level employee, not that worthy of kidnapping, a frequent occurrence in our neck of the world.

Since then we have experienced living in the Washington, DC area on September 11 and the changes it has brought while traveling on airliners or in the DC metro. We have also watched the Arab Spring on cable TV.  Sitting here in Santiago, that all seems so far away from us. But as the people in Norway these last few weeks have discovered,  trouble is not necessarily that far away from ones tranquil home.

How do we remain safe, whether at home or abroad? Simply become aware of your surroundings.  I have posted below  A Primer on Situational Awareness that is republished with permission of STRATFOR, that suggests we need to be aware of our surroundings. The article provides information on how we can practice situational awareness, often spotting a potentially dangerous situation before it unfolds and then take appropriate steps to avoid the dangerous situation or prevent it from happening altogether.

A Primer on Situational Awareness

By Scott Stewart
The world is a wonderful place, but it can also be a dangerous one. In almost every corner of the globe militants of some political persuasion are plotting terror attacks — and these attacks can happen in London or New York, not just in Peshawar or Baghdad. Meanwhile, criminals operate wherever there are people, seeking to steal, rape, kidnap or kill.

Regardless of the threat, it is very important to recognize that criminal and terrorist attacks do not materialize out of thin air. In fact, quite the opposite is true. Criminals and terrorists follow a process when planning their actions, and this process has several distinct steps. This process has traditionally been referred to as the “terrorist attack cycle,” but if one looks at the issue thoughtfully, it becomes apparent that the same steps apply to nearly all crimes. Of course, there will be more time between steps in a complex crime like a kidnapping or car bombing than there will be between steps in a simple crime such as purse-snatching or shoplifting, where the steps can be completed quite rapidly. Nevertheless, the same steps are usually followed.

People who practice situational awareness can often spot this planning process as it unfolds and then take appropriate steps to avoid the dangerous situation or prevent it from happening altogether. Because of this, situational awareness is one of the key building blocks of effective personal security — and when exercised by large numbers of people, it can also be an important facet of national security. Since situational awareness is so important, and because we discuss situational awareness so frequently in our analyses, we thought it would be helpful to discuss the subject in detail and provide a primer that can be used by people in all sorts of situations.


First and foremost, it needs to be noted that being aware of one’s surroundings and identifying potential threats and dangerous situations is more of a mindset than a hard skill. Because of this, situational awareness is not something that can be practiced only by highly trained government agents or specialized corporate security countersurveillance teams. Indeed, it can be exercised by anyone with the will and the discipline to do so.

An important element of the proper mindset is to first recognize that threats exist. Ignorance or denial of a threat — or completely tuning out one’s surroundings while in a public place — makes a person’s chances of quickly recognizing the threat and avoiding it slim to none. This is why apathy, denial and complacency can be (and often are) deadly. A second important element is understanding the need to take responsibility for one’s own security. The resources of any government are finite and the authorities simply cannot be everywhere and cannot stop every criminal action. The same principle applies to private security at businesses or other institutions, like places of worship. Therefore, people need to look out for themselves and their neighbors.

Another important facet of this mindset is learning to trust your “gut” or intuition. Many times a person’s subconscious can notice subtle signs of danger that the conscious mind has difficulty quantifying or articulating. Many people who are victimized frequently experience such feelings of danger prior to an incident, but choose to ignore them. Even a potentially threatening person not making an immediate move — or even if the person wanders off quickly after a moment of eye contact — does not mean there was no threat.

Levels of Awareness

A Primer on Situational Awareness

People typically operate on five distinct levels of awareness. There are many ways to describe these levels (“Cooper’s colors,” for example, which is a system frequently used in law enforcement and military training), but perhaps the most effective way to illustrate the differences between the levels is to compare them to the different degrees of attention we practice while driving. For our purposes here we will refer to the five levels as “tuned out;” “relaxed awareness;” “focused awareness;” “high alert” and “comatose.”

The first level, tuned out, is like when you are driving in a very familiar environment or are engrossed in thought, a daydream, a song on the radio or even by the kids fighting in the backseat. Increasingly, cell phone calls and texting are also causing people to tune out while they drive. Have you ever gotten into the car and arrived somewhere without even really thinking about your drive there? If so, then you’ve experienced being tuned out.

The second level of awareness, relaxed awareness, is like defensive driving. This is a state in which you are relaxed but you are also watching the other cars on the road and are looking well ahead for potential road hazards. If another driver looks like he may not stop at the intersection ahead, you tap your brakes to slow your car in case he does not. Defensive driving does not make you weary, and you can drive this way for a long time if you have the discipline to keep yourself at this level, but it is very easy to slip into tuned-out mode. If you are practicing defensive driving you can still enjoy the trip, look at the scenery and listen to the radio, but you cannot allow yourself to get so engrossed in those distractions that they exclude everything else. You are relaxed and enjoying your drive, but you are still watching for road hazards, maintaining a safe following distance and keeping an eye on the behavior of the drivers around you.

The next level of awareness, focused awareness, is like driving in hazardous road conditions. You need to practice this level of awareness when you are driving on icy or slushy roads — or the roads infested with potholes and erratic drivers that exist in many third-world countries. When you are driving in such an environment, you need to keep two hands on the wheel at all times and have your attention totally focused on the road and the other drivers. You don’t dare take your eyes off the road or let your attention wander. There is no time for cell phone calls or other distractions. The level of concentration required for this type of driving makes it extremely tiring and stressful. A drive that you normally would not think twice about will totally exhaust you under these conditions because it demands your prolonged and total concentration.

The fourth level of awareness is high alert. This is the level that induces an adrenaline rush, a prayer and a gasp for air all at the same time — “Watch out! There’s a deer in the road! Hit the brakes!” This also happens when that car you are watching doesn’t stop at the stop sign and pulls out right in front of you. High alert can be scary, but at this level you are still able to function. You can hit your brakes and keep your car under control. In fact, the adrenalin rush you get at this stage can sometimes even aid your reflexes. But, the human body can tolerate only short periods of high alert before becoming physically and mentally exhausted.

The last level of awareness, comatose, is what happens when you literally freeze at the wheel and cannot respond to stimuli, either because you have fallen asleep, or, at the other end of the spectrum, because you are petrified from panic. It is this panic-induced paralysis that concerns us most in relation to situational awareness. The comatose level of awareness (or perhaps more accurately, lack of awareness) is where you go into shock, your brain ceases to process information and you simply cannot react to the reality of the situation. Many times when this happens, a person can go into denial, believing that “this can’t be happening to me,” or the person can feel as though he or she is observing, rather than actually participating in, the event. Often, the passage of time will seem to grind to a halt. Crime victims frequently report experiencing this sensation and being unable to act during an unfolding crime.

Finding the Right Level

Now that we’ve discussed the different levels of awareness, let’s focus on identifying what level is ideal at a given time. The body and mind both require rest, so we have to spend several hours each day at the comatose level while asleep. When we are sitting at our homes watching a movie or reading a book, it is perfectly fine to operate in the tuned-out mode. However, some people will attempt to maintain the tuned-out mode in decidedly inappropriate environments (e.g., when they are out on the street at night in a third-world barrio), or they will maintain a mindset wherein they deny that they can be victimized by criminals. “That couldn’t happen to me, so there’s no need to watch for it.” They are tuned out.

Some people are so tuned out as they go through life that they miss even blatant signs of pending criminal activity directed specifically at them. In 1992, an American executive living in the Philippines was kidnapped by a Marxist kidnapping gang in Manila known as the “Red Scorpion Group.” When the man was debriefed following his rescue, he described in detail how the kidnappers had blocked off his car in traffic and abducted him. Then, to the surprise of the debriefing team, he said that on the day before he was abducted, the same group of guys had attempted to kidnap him at the exact same location, at the very same time of day and driving the same vehicle. The attackers had failed to adequately box his car in, however, and his driver was able to pull around the blocking vehicle and proceed to the office.

Since the executive did not consider himself to be a kidnapping target, he had just assumed that the incident the day before his abduction was “just another close call in crazy Manila traffic.” The executive and his driver had both been tuned out. Unfortunately, the executive paid for this lack of situational awareness by having to withstand an extremely traumatic kidnapping, which included almost being killed in the dramatic Philippine National Police operation that rescued him.

If you are tuned out while you are driving and something happens — say, a child runs out into the road or a car stops quickly in front of you — you will not see the problem coming. This usually means that you either do not see the hazard in time to avoid it and you hit it, or you totally panic and cannot react to it — neither is good. These reactions (or lack of reaction) occur because it is very difficult to change mental states quickly, especially when the adjustment requires moving several steps, say, from tuned out to high alert. It is like trying to shift your car directly from first gear into fifth and it shudders and stalls. Many times, when people are forced to make this mental jump and they panic (and stall), they go into shock and will actually freeze and be unable to take any action — they go comatose. This happens not only when driving but also when a criminal catches someone totally unaware and unprepared. While training does help people move up and down the alertness continuum, it is difficult for even highly trained individuals to transition from tuned out to high alert. This is why police officers, federal agents and military personnel receive so much training on situational awareness.

It is critical to stress here that situational awareness does not mean being paranoid or obsessively concerned about your security. It does not mean living with the irrational expectation that there is a dangerous criminal lurking behind every bush. In fact, people simply cannot operate in a state of focused awareness for extended periods, and high alert can be maintained only for very brief periods before exhaustion sets in. The “flight or fight” response can be very helpful if it can be controlled. When it gets out of control, however, a constant stream of adrenaline and stress is simply not healthy for the body or the mind. When people are constantly paranoid, they become mentally and physically burned out. Not only is this dangerous to physical and mental health, but security also suffers because it is very hard to be aware of your surroundings when you are a complete basket case. Therefore, operating constantly in a state of high alert is not the answer, nor is operating for prolonged periods in a state of focused alert, which can also be overly demanding and completely enervating. This is the process that results in alert fatigue. The human body was simply not designed to operate under constant stress. People (even highly skilled operators) require time to rest and recover.

Because of this, the basic level of situational awareness that should be practiced most of the time is relaxed awareness, a state of mind that can be maintained indefinitely without all the stress and fatigue associated with focused awareness or high alert. Relaxed awareness is not tiring, and it allows you to enjoy life while rewarding you with an effective level of personal security. When you are in an area where there is potential danger (which, by definition, is almost anywhere), you should go through most of your day in a state of relaxed awareness. Then if you spot something out of the ordinary that could be a potential threat, you can “dial yourself up” to a state of focused awareness and take a careful look at that potential threat (and also look for others in the area).

If the potential threat proves innocuous, or is simply a false alarm, you can dial yourself back down into relaxed awareness and continue on your merry way. If, on the other hand, you look and determine that the potential threat is a probable threat, seeing it in advance allows you to take actions to avoid it. You may never need to elevate to high alert, since you have avoided the problem at an early stage. However, once you are in a state of focused awareness you are far better prepared to handle the jump to high alert if the threat does change from potential to actual — if the three guys lurking on the corner do start coming toward you and look as if they are reaching for weapons. The chances of you going comatose are far less if you jump from focused awareness to high alert than if you are caught by surprise and “forced” to go into high alert from tuned out. An illustration of this would be the difference between a car making a sudden stop in front of a person when the driver is practicing defensive driving, compared to a car that makes a sudden stop in front of a person when the driver is sending a text message.

Of course, if you know that you must go into an area that is very dangerous, you should dial yourself up to focused awareness when you are in that area. For example, if there is a specific section of highway where a lot of improvised explosive devices detonate and ambushes occur, or if there is a part of a city that is controlled (and patrolled) by criminal gangs — and you cannot avoid these danger areas for whatever reason — it would be prudent to heighten your level of awareness when you are in those areas. An increased level of awareness is also prudent when engaging in common or everyday tasks, such as visiting an ATM or walking to the car in a dark parking lot. The seemingly trivial nature of these common tasks can make it all too easy to go on “autopilot” and thus expose yourself to threats. When the time of potential danger has passed, you can then go back to a state of relaxed awareness.

This process also demonstrates the importance of being familiar with your environment and the dangers that are present there. Such awareness allows you to avoid many threats and to be on the alert when you must venture into a dangerous area.

Clearly, few of us are living in the type of intense threat environment currently found in places like Mogadishu, Juarez or Kandahar. Nonetheless, average citizens all over the world face many different kinds of threats on a daily basis — from common thieves and assailants to criminals and mentally disturbed individuals aiming to conduct violent acts to militants wanting to carry out large-scale attacks against subways and aircraft.

Many of the steps required to conduct these attacks must be accomplished in a manner that makes the actions visible to the potential victim and outside observers. It is at these junctures that people practicing situational awareness can detect these attack steps, avoid the danger and alert the authorities. When people practice situational awareness they not only can keep themselves safer but they can also help keep others safe. And when groups of people practice situational awareness together they can help keep their schools, houses of worship, workplaces and cities safe from danger.

And as we’ve discussed many times before, as the terrorist threat continues to devolve into one almost as diffuse as the criminal threat, ordinary citizens are also becoming an increasingly important national security resource.
A Primer on Situational Awareness is republished with permission of STRATFOR.