News & Media

Campus Situational Awareness in the Age of Smart Phones

06/27/2017 Campus Safety Magazine By John Baker

Since the 1999 Columbine school shooting , our society has experienced the widespread adoption of personal electronic devices, which has handicapped school and university efforts to increase situational awareness. People are now addicted to their pocket-sized computers that connect them to an exciting new virtual world.  There is a great conflict between virtual reality and real world awareness, and it appears that virtual reality is winning the battle.

As a result, fewer people have any real sense of what is going on around them, so much so that perfectly healthy, intelligent people are walking into street signs, falling into public fountains, crashing into cars and stepping out into moving traffic while consumed by their music, social media, texts, Instagram posts, emails, movies and other virtual distractions. We as a society are literally being run over by a truck that we don’t know is there.

So how does real world awareness begin to gain back some of its lost ground?  It is not a simple answer; if it were, we would have already done it.  To say we simple need to unplug seems as cavalier and naive as Nancy Reagan’s 1980’s appeal to “just say no to drugs.” While the core of the campaign slogan is obviously truthful, these phrases simply fail to call people to action and affect sustainable change.

Here are a few things we can do to hopefully begin to change the tide:

  1. Acknowledge that our love affair with virtual reality is often an addiction, not just a distraction.
  2. Be willing to honestly access our level of situational awareness and our own abilities and limitations to respond when bad things are happening around us.
  3. Develop a new appreciation for extending the “gift of presence” to others and ourselves.
  4. Consider pledging to being unplugged while on the move (walking across campus, driving) and only check our devices once we have “landed” somewhere that situational awareness is not as critical.
  5. Increase the number of empirical studies that create a solid connection between victimization and the lack of situational awareness. Ask the tough questions of victims, and seek truthful answers while not assigning blame to traumatized victims.
  6. Study the negative impact of this addiction to relationships, employments, civic involvement, education and learning, fulfillment and the quality of life.
  7. Encourage generationally-specific, peer-to-peer campaigns to increase situational awareness (this is not just a young person’s problem).
  8. Develop campus-based initiatives to increase situational awareness through programs that are educational, entertaining and make compelling arguments to “look up and see the world around you.”

There is little doubt that if we don’t take personal responsibility for situational awareness we will only grow more  vulnerable as we decide to mentally and emotionally check out from our surroundings.  Clearly technology will only become more intoxicating and our dependence upon it necessary to perform even the most basic functions of life.  So the final question is a personal one. What are you prepared to do to ensure that you and those you care about aren’t run over by the truck before you and they even know it’s there?


John Baker currently serves as the Chief of LLIU13 School Police Department and the Safety and Security Director of the Lancaster Lebanon IU13 in Pennsylvania.  He has more than 32 years of law enforcement and safety and security experience.

Baker will be presenting Situational Awareness and the OODA Loop; the Foundation to Any Effective Response to a Violent Intruder at Campus Safety Conference East in Philadelphia, July 13, and Campus Safety Conference West in Long Beach, Calif., July 31. In the sessions, attendees will develop a better understanding of how many Americans have traded virtual awareness for situational awareness and the adverse effects that has on effective response to violence. Attendees will develop strategies to help those in their community increase their situational awareness and better respond when violence does occur. CSC attendees will also develop a clear understanding of the OODA Loop and the importance it plays not only during crisis but also in our daily lives. To register for Campus Safety Conference East and West, visit

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