Those of you that have been reading this website for a while know that alertness - as in how to achieve it - is a popular topic here. I wrote an article on the subject a few years ago, I which I polled several experts on the subject, and the consensus was essentially that some people got it and some don't.
That's hardly satisfying, and I have been thinking hard about the question since then. I mean, every trainer tells his or her students to be alert - to go about the world in condition yellow. But none of them, as far as I can tell, instruct them in how to do it. When was the last time you went to a course and received a block of useful instruction in the actual practice and/or techniques of staying alert?
Never, I'll bet. Me either.
This is frustrating, because everyone agrees that being alert - seeing trouble brewing - is the key to survival, and in the big picture, far more important than the tactical shooting skills that we spend so much time on.
I was in my local Home Depot recently - in anti-gun Massachusetts, which is relevant -when I noticed a fellow browsing the door section with a gun holstered on his hip. It wasn't concealed (the law doesn't require that here), and the silver Smith & Wesson auto in his holster was clearly a gun. He wasn't acting suspiciously, wasn't displaying a badge, and seemed to simply be a contractor who went about armed. Good for him.
It occurred to me that I could conduct an interesting experiment. I discretely followed him around the store from a distance, watching not him, but the people around him. I was curious to see how many people recognized the gun, and how many of those seemed alarmed. I followed him for a full 15 minutes through his check-out. The results? Zero on both counts. No one - no one - had even noticed the gun.
Most people do simply go about their worldly business in condition white - unaware of their surroundings. This is a mis-understood state. In it, one's mind is not blank; rather it is actually full, but preoccupied with the details of one's life. And in fact, if we are not under threat this is an efficient way to live. We can get a lot of mental work done if we think about our job or whatever as we do the physically mundane things like driving, shopping, etc. that we need to do every day. The United States is a safe country on average, so most people slip into the habit - this is important; it's a habit - of going about in condition white because there are generally no ill consequences of so doing.
But if you've made the decision to be armed, which is made after all because you are in the profession of law enforcement, then being in condition white is counter-productive to your original purpose of being armed. You might as well carry a can of soup in that holster under your covering garment.
Now think about some of the other cops you know. It's not hard even for civilians to spot them, even when they are off duty and in plain clothes. They are generally the people who are looking around, looking up, and just generally... well, more aware of what's going on around them than the rest of the people.
Why? What do they know that you don't?
Actually, nothing. It's not what they know that makes a difference. It's what they've practiced.
And in this, I think, I've found the answer to the question that had perplexed me for so long.
Being alert to one's surroundings is simply a skill that one has to practice in order for it to be reflexive. In this it's like any other skill: physical ones like balance and coordination; mental ones like time management; emotional ones like even temperament. The reason that so many otherwise well-prepared people go about in condition white is because they simply do not set aside the time to practice alertness. Cops, of course, at least the good ones, practice it all the time. It's called being on-duty. You don't go to a domestic disturbance, or a shots-fired call, or a fight in progress, a car accident, or even into your local convenience store without consciously ratcheting up your alertness level. And after months and years of this, it becomes a habit. I've noticed even high-speed military operators letting their alertness down more than the cops they were out with on social occasions. I believe that this is because these soldiers are mission-orientated, and have thus learned to turn on when a mission is activated. By contrast, cops, despite the generally lower threat level faced, have learned to be turned on throughout their entire day.