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How to Cover Your Bases in Public

Key security features to pay attention to for better situational awareness.

Key points

  • Situational awareness involves becoming familiar with key features in one's surroundings to boost reaction time in a crisis.
  • Some features to note when entering a public space include people's behavior and the location's access points, such as entrances and exits.
  • Other things to pay attention to include security personnel on site, exterior locations, and items or barriers that could be useful.
Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Finding Security
Source: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels

People want to feel safe, and the desire to do so is reflected daily with regular security checks when they're in public. Shoppers pat their pockets for keys, phones, and wallets. The staccato beeps of horns confirm vehicles are locked. Parents instinctively take a child's hand as they proceed to entrances. Handbags stay close to their owner's body.

Such acts often become second nature, but it’s not enough to merely secure vehicles and belongings. Instead, security involves proactive awareness and requires creating new habits alongside the current ones.

Situational awareness is not a new concept. Most public safety and self-defense experts heavily emphasize it in their educational materials.

Reacting quickly in a threatening situation could be the difference between life and death.

Situational awareness is more specific than haphazardly keeping an eye out for anything suspicious. It’s becoming familiar with your surroundings' key features to boost your reaction time in a crisis.

Covering the bases is a great place to start

In baseball, covering the bases is an anticipatory act where infielders reposition themselves close to their respective bases in order to receive the ball. Their strategic movements are a sign of proactive awareness of the current game.

When entering a public place, you can cover your bases by working through the acronym B-A-S-E-S to identify key safety features.

B – Behavior

A – Access points

S – Security personnel

E – Exterior locations

S – Safeguards


Secret Service agents look for abnormal or threatening behaviors within a crowd. Sometimes the behaviors aren't overtly threatening but appear out-of-place, warranting further observation to determine whether action is needed.

If someone in the crowd is wearing a winter coat in the middle of summer, it will catch the eye of a Secret Service agent right away. This is because a large piece of unseasonal clothing might be concealing a weapon or something dangerous.

In the same way, you can practice listening and observing as you make your way through a public place. Do the conversations appear pleasant or aggressive? Do employees or staff members appear on edge? Is anyone behaving abnormally for the location?

The Department of Homeland Security uses the slogan “If you see something, say something” to emphasize the importance of reporting suspicious activity to prevent terror-related tragedies. Yet, as simple and straightforward as this guidance may sound, hesitation can be a fatal form of self-doubt. You may question your intuition or even fear the consequences of false accusations should you be wrong.

Your behavior is just as important as the behaviors of those around you. It's especially true in an emergency or dangerous situation. Reporting what you see and why it seems out of place may be the advance notice needed to avoid a more significant crisis. So don’t hesitate if something feels wrong to you.

The Secret Service agents surrounding the president will always prioritize the president's safety over the threat. Nothing else matters the moment they identify an imminent threat. Of course, they need to address the threat, but their first job is to secure the president.

In the same way, if you find yourself in a threatening situation without warning, your priority or behavioral response needs to be protecting yourself.

As intuitive as prioritizing survival should be, it's common to see people recording an emergency event via a cellular phone before making a 9-1-1 call, escaping, or seeking better shelter. While this footage is undoubtedly helpful to law enforcement and investigators after the fact, it's not your responsibility to collect evidence or media content before addressing how to better your position in order to survive.

Access points

Make a note of the various entrances and exits within an area. For example, when you enter a restaurant, look around as you wait to be seated. Look for other doors and the kitchen entrance as well. Most restaurants have a back door within the kitchen area. Doors marked as emergency exits might be locked on the outside.

In an emergency, already being aware of entrances and exits decreases your reaction time. Furthermore, it increases your response's accuracy because you’ve already been observant.

Your physical positioning to ingress and egress locations also matters. At your booth or table, choose the seat that gives you the best view of the area. In doing so, you've positioned yourself ideally and are less likely to be caught off-guard.

A good rule of thumb is to never sit with your back to the door.

Security personnel

Many sporting events and concerts have private security and police presence. In addition, many schools and even grocery stores have regular police presence as an added security feature.

A security office or dispatch area may also be on site. If you’re with a group of people, consider designating this area as a meeting place if your group becomes separated.

If the location has security, remember their uniform color so you can spot them quickly if needed. You should also not assume someone with a badge always has a firearm. Many private security officers do not carry guns.

It may sound trivial, but it takes little time to note the tools on security belts. Their tools and training determine their response.

For example, many unarmed security officers carry handcuffs and pepper spray. An unarmed security officer's ability to neutralize a threat would be limited and likely reliant on swift police notification and response in an active shooter situation. Their training may vary, and they'll respond as they've trained—all the more reason to speak up so they can activate sooner than later.

Exterior locations

Directional awareness can be challenging to maintain indoors, especially in places with multiple hallways and turns like hotels or shopping malls. It’s easy to become disoriented after climbing escalators while shopping or searching for a room number.

Awareness of exterior locations involves remembering where you’re parked or having a general idea of how to get back to your mode of transportation.

For example, when you arrive at a hotel, you might be in a hurry to check in and get to your room to relax or plan a meal. Instead, it would be best if you took the time to get your bearings. Many hotels provide maps at check-in, and many have maps mounted on the inside of the rooms.

Chances are the hotel has elevators. However, as convenient as an elevator might be, they are not reliable in an emergency. Power outages, emergency shutdowns, or other malfunctions could quickly take an elevator out of commission. As you familiarize yourself with the hotel’s layout, note the stairwell nearest your room.

Secret Service agents walk hotel stairwells when they're preparing security plans to know if the stairwells have roof access as well as street or outdoor access. If the stairs closest to your room have outside access, know your vehicle's direction and general surroundings from this stairwell exit.

By doing so, you'll have an alternate egress option. With this knowledge comes confidence and peace of mind. You've eliminated the likelihood of a panicked response if the elevator is not operational in a crisis.


Safeguards refer to items or barriers that might be useful in a threatening situation. The goal is to create distance between you and an attacker or problem if necessary. Many plain and ordinary items can actually be tools for your safety.

You could push a piece of furniture in front of a door to block entry. You could use a long item like an ironing board or broom to create distance. A decorative piece such as a vase could be thrown or used as a weapon.

When you're in a public place, identify at least one barrier or hiding location and at least one item you could use to create distance. For example, department store hiding spots might be in a dressing room, bathroom, or behind a cosmetics counter. You could roll a clothing rack between you and a threat to create distance.

That doesn't mean you can't enjoy a leisure shopping experience because you should constantly look for places to dive for cover. Instead, it means you briefly note the safeguards and continue living.

It’s impossible to prepare for every conceivable scenario, and not all tragedies have adequate warning to stop them altogether. But covering your bases for situational awareness should not be an act of paranoia or fear but one of self-respect and self-love.

Secret Service agents and baseball players regularly prepare and reposition themselves based on the situation. In the same way, you can make focused observation a habit. Then, should a problem arise, you'll probably already be in a position to respond ideally.