vigilanceI am a watcher. It is innate to me. I look around and note emergency exits. I note the people around me, and any inconsistencies in behavior. I note the oddities of life, straight lines where there should be curves, movement in stillness. I’m often hyper-aware. Perhaps it’s the writer in me. Or the Hero, as Tom says. Whatever the case, I notice things.

pickpocketI’ve actually stopped pickpockets in action twice, once in San Diego’s Sea World, and another time on a train platform in Copenhagen. I saw the inconsistencies in dress and behavior and continued to watch until I understood what was going on. And then, I acted.

I reached out and tugged on the victim, pulling them away from the pickpockets. Then, in answer to their bewildered looks, I explained that “that guy” (pointing him out publicly) was trying to pick their purse or backpack. I didn’t think before I acted; I just acted.

I’ve recently been the victim of pickpockets, when Tom and I were robbed in Argentina. I didn’t see it coming, and didn’t know it was happening. Now I know the drill. It won’t happen again.

That raises a question in my mind here in São Paulo: given that the police tell us to go limp and not resist any robbery attempt, I’m not sure what I will do. I’ve trained myself, formally with self-defense classes and martial arts, to protect myself. And I had this training most of my life informally with four brothers, two of whom delighted in scaring me. I don’t cringe, I strike back.

I don’t know how I’ll react here if I’m robbed. I might freeze, melt in my shoes, or pass out. Or I might strike out. Without thought. I hope to God I never find out.

dont-panic-21602-1366x768BUT, people SHOULD know how to react in an emergency. As this article from the BBC illustrates, lives are needlessly lost in emergencies because people don’t know how to handle the unexpected, and there is no time to be lost in such cases if you wish to save your life. (Text in green is quoted from the article.)

“In emergencies, quite often events are happening faster than you can process them,” explains Leach. The situation outruns our capacity to think our way out of it. Jerome Chertkoff, a social psychologist at Indiana University, puts it another way: “Being in a situation where your life is in danger increases your emotional arousal, and high arousal causes people to limit the number of alternatives they consider. That can be bad when trying to determine a course of action, since you may never consider the option most likely to result in escaping safely.”

This explains why in emergencies people often fail to do things that under normal circumstances would seem obvious. So the only reliable way to shortcut this kind of impaired thinking, most survival experts agree, is by preparing for an emergency in advance. “Practice makes actions automatic, without [the need for] detailed thinking,” says Chertkoff. This means making a mental note of the fire exits when you go to the cinema (and imagining yourself using them), reading the evacuation guidance on the back of the door when you stay in a hotel, and always listening to aircraft safety briefings however frequent a flyer you are. “Every time I go on a boat the first thing I do is find out where my lifeboat station is, because then if there is a problem I just have to respond, I don’t have to start thinking about it,” says Leach. Typically, survivors survive not because they are braver or more heroic than anyone else, but because they are better prepared.

Plan ahead. Even in the moment. Know your surroundings, and who is around you. Watch for any “break” in the normal flow of movements on the sidewalk or in a restaurant or traffic. These “breaks” should immediately grab your attention. If you see a “break,” don’t continue toward it. Pull to the side, or stop and step aside on a sidewalk until you’ve identified the cause. This can save you from walking into a situation. Here in São Paulo, for example, you could turn the corner and find yourself in a street demonstration, which could easily turn violent. If you find yourself in a situation, don’t wait. Act immediately. Get the hell out of there.


If you’re car-jacked and driving, drive into the nearest wall. You’ll end the car-jacking and likely survive. If you are a passenger in a car-jacking, throw yourself out the door. You’ll likely survive, and you’re out of the car-jack situation. My trainers have always said, don’t trust in the kindness of abductors. Get the hell out.

I do think it is wise to give up your money and goods in a robbery. Your life is worth much more than any possession you could lose. But do what you must to preserve your life.

More than anything, listen to that little voice in your head or the pit of your stomach. That is your Survival speaking. Don’t wait to see what the crowd is going to do. Act. Likely, they will follow suit, and you’ll all survive.

The chances are you will never find yourself in a disaster situation. But it’s a good idea to imagine that you will: to be aware that there are threats out there, and that you can prepare for them, without sliding into paranoia. “All you have to do is ask yourself one simple question,” says Leach. “If something happens, what is my first response? Once you can answer that, everything else will fall into place. It’s that simple.”

Be Prepared. May you live not to regret it.