186 Steps. That’s how far it is from the security guarded safety of the rear of my office building to the parking garage where I park my car every day. Sometimes, if I get there late and have to park my car up a level, it’s 200 steps. Of course there’s no security in the garage. There are cameras, but they are too few and far in between to suit my liking. Yes, there’s a guarded gate between the two garages where my building’s occupants park. The guard (and I use this term loosely) is there in the evenings until about 6:00 PM. Sometimes 6:30 PM. Every once in a while he stays until 7:00 and blows everyone’s mind. This ‘guard’ is a twenty-something year-old kid wearing earbuds, who sits in a box for roughly eight hours a day collecting parking fees. He and his counterparts are unarmed. They have neither weapons nor are they armed with a full working knowledge of the English language, or so I am led to believe by the blank stares I get when I attempt communication. I am on my own, whether he’s in there or not.
I leave my building every day at roughly the same time. My office is in the historic district, where the streets are brick and the Spanish moss sways in the breeze. Because of its relative proximity to the heart of downtown and its pleasant shade-tree atmosphere, there’s a lot of foot traffic on the street behind my office building. Professionals on their way to lunch or meetings in nearby buildings, construction workers on their way back and forth from jobsites, and quite a few homeless people meandering along. There are benches and tables near the exit of my building with large ashtrays that constitute a ‘smoking area’. It is not uncommon to walk out and see a homeless person sifting through the ashtrays for the longer butts, what they call ‘lucky butts’, left by hurried professionals heading in to work. The parking garage is a favorite spot for the local homeless population to get out of the Florida sun and the pop-up afternoon thunderstorms. Basically it’s a busy urban area with people traveling to various destinations. Every day, though – it’s a different set of people with a different set of goals in mind. It’s my job to navigate safely through this by paying attention to all of it.
What I also see almost every day are men and women leaving the building with their purses and briefcases in one hand and their cell phones in the other. They are walking out of the building and toward the parking garage, because – that’s where their cars are; but they aren’t really there. They’re in another world. They are laughing at cat videos that their friends posted to their wall and looking at their nieces and nephews in their Easter outfits on their sister’s page. I have, on more than one occasion, actually had to say, “Heads up” to one of these zombies to help them avoid walking out in front of a moving vehicle. I am not the ‘awareness police’, but nobody wants to witness a car vs. pedestrian accident at the end of an already long day.
The more aware you are of what you’re walking into, the more prepared you will be to handle whatever situation may arise. You have probably heard of the term ‘Situation Awareness’. This isn’t just a concept for pilots and racecar drivers. This is for you and me, and every other person who wants to stay a few turns ahead of the next curve in the road. When you are out and about in the world, you really need to be present. You need to be an active participant in your life. You can’t be buried in your cell phone, scrolling through pictures on your favorite social media site. You need to be focused on your surroundings, with the ultimate goal of getting yourself safely from Point A to Point B. Here are some tips to help you on your journey.
Wherever you happen to be going; focus on the task at hand. Whether going in to a building or getting to your car, you need to be aware of your surroundings. Pay attention to the seemingly unimportant things. Why is that man just standing there against that pole? Is he waiting for someone to pick him up, or is he waiting for someone like you to wander by in a daze on a phone call with your hearing compromised by your earpiece, so he can snatch your purse and run? There have been several recent incidents where a woman has been walking into a store after parking her car, and a car in the parking lot approaches slowly. Before the woman even knows what is going on, the passenger reaches out, grabs her bag, and the driver takes off. The woman stands no chance against a moving vehicle. She wasn’t paying attention to her surroundings. We spend a lot of our time disconnected. We’re unplugged and on autopilot. We have a lot going on in our lives, and we are mentally focused on everything else, and not where we are right now. Tune back in. Your safety and the safety of your loved ones depends on it.
Every Girl Scout worth her salt knows this. I’m not speaking of just having some needed items with you in your bag. Safety pins and baby wipes come in handy, and of course I encourage you to have a cache of carefully thought-out items with you at all times, but what I am really speaking of, is preparing yourself for the unexpected situations that might come up. Are you traveling to a place you’ve never been? Have you looked at a map (digital of course!) of the surrounding area? We’ve all grown up hearing that it’s better to be safe than sorry. It may seem cliché, but it’s true. It’s worth the time it takes to prepare for your trip into the unknown. At a minimum, if you intend to visit a new place, or even if you are going somewhere you’ve gone a dozen times, I recommend some basic preparation:
- Take a few minutes to map out the area. Look at the possibility of different routes to get there and back. You never know when road construction might make your plans change on zero notice. If possible, save the address in your phone or program it into navigation. Being lost is one thing, but being lost and not having helpful information to fall back on can be dangerous.
- Do a little research. Going to a new mall? Look up the mall online, and store the mall security number in your phone. This may sound a little paranoid, but if your little one wanders off in unfamiliar territory, you’ll be glad you have that number on hand.
- Take the time to store other numbers in your phone. Local police for the area you are visiting. Poison control. Not every incident warrants calling 911, so you should have non-emergency numbers to contact the authorities where you will be, as well as numbers for your auto insurance agency and roadside assistance if you are covered by such a plan.
Have you ever been sitting in your car in a parking lot and had someone walk up and tap on the window, effectively scaring you so badly you were astonished that you didn’t have a heart attack? That should never happen. There are things that you should be doing that eliminate the chance that you can be taken by surprise. Your head should be on a swivel from the time you enter a parking lot or garage, until you reach your intended destination. Sitting in your parked car isn’t the time to let your guard down either. It offers the bad guy two very tempting targets rolled into one. Not only can he have a car, he gets a free human being and all of her goodies with it! Once the car is turned off and you have scanned the area, get out of it and get moving. Your journey isn’t over until you are safely inside.
We also tend to ‘tune out’ of our surroundings while participating in mundane tasks. Pumping gas is far from exciting. I’ve seen people on their phones or listening to music with earbuds while pumping gas and staring off into the distance. When that panhandler finally approaches, who by the way, has been loitering on the other side of pump long before you got there, you are completely taken by surprise. He may be harmless, simply seeking some spare change, but while you were getting down to your favorite jam, he was observing you. He knows where you took that credit card from. He knows whether or not your car doors are locked, and he knows if you are alone. He also has the layout of the area memorized. He’s been there a lot longer than you. Are you willing to gamble that he’s just a friendly vagrant who needs beer money? I’m not.
If you start by tuning in to the world around you, you are taking the first step in becoming aware and ready to respond to events around you. Take some time to train yourself to treat each encounter with the world outside your safe zones (i.e.: your home, your school, car, etc.) as an exercise in awareness. If you make this part of your everyday routine, you will eventually start to automatically pay closer attention to your surroundings. Sound like basic common sense? Sure, but common sense isn’t so common. The truth is people routinely ignore their surroundings only to be suddenly caught by surprise. Some pay a steep price. Being aware of your surroundings isn’t a talisman against bad things happening, but it can give you an edge when you need it most.