Friday, April 27, 2018

Observation Skills

“With our limited senses and consciousness, we only glimpse a small portion of reality." 
Robert Greene

In the story “The Hounds of the Baskervilles,” Sherlock Holmes states that “The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes." Imagine being able to see what Sherlock Holmes sees. What would it be like to be hyper-observant? Seeing things that few others see. Experiencing events at such a dynamic level that every fiber of your being is engaged. 

There is no doubt that our everyday lives would be improved if we could enhance our observation skills. Most of us would be happy just being generally more aware, but imagine if you developed your observation skills to the level where you could appreciate art, music, and relationships at peak performance levels…so much more completely than you ever thought possible. Is this not the definition of being truly alive?

The question is, “how do we learn observation skills”?

First we must make the distinction between improved general awareness, often called “situational awareness” and specific awareness, referred to as being “hyper-observant” …which is what we are talking about here.

With training and practice we can certainly improve our situational awareness of the events that are happening around us. Being more aware is not really difficult when you consider that most of us are so self-absorbed that we go through our day in a complete mental fog, oblivious to almost everything happening around us. Observation skill training tends to help us cut through this fog… it’s like suddenly awakening from a semi-comatose state. We will explore “situational awareness” in future blogs.   

There is no doubt that improved situational awareness will have a huge impact on the quality of your life, but to really get the full experience from events we must become specifically aware - “hyper-observant”, and to do this we have to focus on a specific event. Psychologist call this having a “frame of reference.” In addition, you must purposely focus on the event with single minded intentionality. In other words, you must be aware that you are aware. Armed with a “frame of reference” and “intentionality”, there is one more ingredient required…you must know specifically what you are going to observe before the event.

To understand how the brain processes information from the five senses, we must realize that it is being constantly bombarded with thousands of sensory inputs every minute. However, as the brain can only process 30 to 40 items at one time, it tends to filter out the rest. Most of the allowed sensory inputs are unconsciously selected for basic self-preservation. Because of this, we simply can't observe everything all the time. However, with training we can alter the brain’s filters to recognize input from our senses other than just those required for basic functioning and safety; but, this requires conscious effort...we must task the brain to be on the lookout for something specific. In other words, we must actively tell our brains what we are looking for...the more accurate we describe this the better the chances that we will be able to observe it.

Using tracker training as an example… the core skill in tracking is the ability to see “disturbances.”  As a result, a lot of tracker training focuses on developing observation skills. In our “Basic Track Aware” course we introduce students to an exercise called “micro-framing.” While on their first line of sign, the instructor will place an 8 x 10-inch frame (think empty picture frame) over a track and have the students assume the prone position to closely study what is inside the frame. The instructor starts by pointing out the most obvious disturbances, then has the students (three students per line of sign) take turns pointing out three disturbances each – until everything that can be seen has been studied. The idea is to continue finding smaller anomalies up to the very edge of visual acuity…which is surprisingly small (micro). This exercise is repeated for two or three consecutive tracks and can take up to an hour.

On completion, the students are able to observe disturbances that they would not have been able to see prior to the “micro-framing” exercise. There is no magic here…everything within the 8 x10-inch frame became the focus, (frame of reference) and the task of finding every disturbance, (intentionality) created an environment that modified the brain’s sensory filters. Once in place, the student can “see” disturbances whether up close and framed or while tracking a line of sign. Like most things, this skill just gets better with practice.     

The exciting part about "hyper-observant" training is that once the skills have been acquired, the outcomes can be life changing. The interesting thing is that there is a distinct carry over from “seeing sign” while tracking to being more aware in everyday life. Keep in mind that the "micro framing" exercise is just one of many ways to improve observation skills. However, it is a relatively quick and easy way to demonstrate how hyper-observation skills can be developed and used. The bottom line is that depending on your aptitude and training, you can make substantial positive changes in your life by improving your observation skills.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Tracking through the contamination

     “Sign” …the observable evidence of a person, animal or machine’s passage

For trackers, seeing “sign” is not usually the problem. Differentiating a disturbance made by the person that you are tracking from the contamination caused by something else is often the challenge.

In tracker training we spend so much time perfecting our observation skills that seeing even infinitesimal disturbances becomes almost commonplace. Where tracking gets difficult is in areas that are contaminated by disturbances caused by something or someone other than our quarry. On a pristine line of sign where the direction of travel and the stride length is known, any disturbance in the area where the next foot fall should probably what we are looking for. However, these “pristine” conditions are rare, and contamination is commonplace.  

At one event, the training area had been mowed a week before by an industrial machine that had chewed its way through the grass; followed by a dry spell making everything brown and crunchy. Adding to this mess, was a resident herd of elk trashing the ground. As a result, literally every square inch was disturbed...yet all the beginner trackers were able to follow a line of sign through the area. How did they do this?

The success of this challenging exercise could not be attributed to any one specific “thing,” but to the numerous techniques and skill sets learned and then practiced during the weekend course.  Let’s explore some of the basics here.

Originally developed by Ab Taylor and his team at the US border patrol, the “Step by Step” method of tracking is the foundation of training for many tracking schools in the Pacific Northwest (and elsewhere). At its most fundamental level, Taylor found that once the first few foot prints of the quarry being tracked are discovered, a simple measuring device made from a ski pole or broom handle could be marked with the measurement of the stride length, making subsequent foot falls easier to find.

The sign cutting stick causes you to look where you want to be looking, instead of everywhere else. The end of the stick becomes a pointer towards where the next sign or track is expected to be found.
“Fundamentals of Mantracking”
Albert “Ab” Taylor

Keep in mind that the disturbance found at the end of the stick rarely shows up as a distinct print but usually as an anomaly, or something that catches the eye as “out of the ordinary” or “out of place.” As well, by marking the approximate heel of each disturbance, (using a small piece of flagging tape), then visually lining up the marks, it only takes a few tracks to get an idea of the direction of travel.   

Once the tracker knows the direction of travel and the stride length, the probable area of the next footfall can be established, and the process of elimination begins.  By close observation, check to see if there is more than one disturbance in the proximity of the next footfall.  Ask yourself, "Can the source of any of the disturbances be identified as being made by anything other than the quarry, i.e. animal tracks, other people, etc.?"  The instructors at Universal Tracking Services (UTS) call this a “make it or break it” moment. By eliminating everything else – you are left with the most probable solution ...which is - “that you have found your next track.” For Sherlock Holmes fans, you will recognize this as his basic philosophy of crime solving.   

What this means to beginning trackers… is that during training, every footfall should be identified in the order that they appear. Identification ranges from observing almost microscopic disturbances to seeing near perfect signature prints. With unidentified anomalies, using a tracking stick to help measure the distance between footfalls and having a confirmed direction of travel helps differentiate disturbances caused by the person you are tracking from some other source. 

While tracking in contaminated areas, there are other techniques and skill sets that also come into play, such as the importance of “drawing prints” and “micro framing” to name a few...but these will be discussed in future posts.

See you on the trail,

Friday, April 6, 2018

Tracking in industrial security - terrorism, espionage, and theft

Resource based corporations, especially potentially contentious businesses such as oil and gas plants, pipelines and open pit mining, are at risk from home grown terrorism, corporate espionage and theft.

Training security teams in man tracking makes a tremendous difference in recognizing observable clues that could indicate potential threats. If tracking skills are applied consistently, many of the operations targeting industrial sites can be recognized and stopped in the beginning stages – often before serious damage or losses can occur.   

One technique is to create a “track trap” area paralleling the perimeter fencing that shows tracks and disturbances (sign). A track trap is simply an area of soft material that takes and holds a footprint. Traps are often naturally occurring with material like sand or soft dirt but may have to be worked up with hand tools or heavier equipment to be able to “take” a track. Regular perimeter checks, followed by brushing out the track traps as required, will enable security teams to be alerted to the presence of potential infiltrators. If foot traffic tracks are found, tracking teams can often “back-track” the line of sign to the insertion point – either a drop off site or staging area where vehicles are parked. Information such as “how many people were involved,” the time of the activity, and the number of vehicles involved, etc. can often be figured out. With this knowledge, a threat assessment can be made, and a plan of action developed...such as setting up surveillance, perimeter hardening, law enforcement involvement, etc.  

While working as a Loss Prevention Officer at an open pit coal mine in south eastern British Columbia, I discovered two uncontrolled entry points providing unauthorized access to the mine property.  With either route, anyone could gain access from a public paved highway to the mines’ service roads. Once inside the perimeter, trespassers could move about largely undetected. Especially if they had inside knowledge on where to go and how to act.

Once the unauthorized access points were identified, it was relatively easy to determine the types of vehicles gaining access to the mine property and the volume of traffic. On every shift I would count tire tracks and photograph the tread patterns in the soft dirt (track trap). By raking the area clean of tracks and disturbances each time, I was assured of fresh details every day. It was truly amazing the amount of unauthorized traffic using these routes. Based on the identified tread patterns, there appeared to be a few regular users and numerous random trespassers. As well, most of the tracks indicated light duty pick up style vehicles - not heavy transport types. This information helped us determine the activities of the infiltrators.

At another mine site in Canada’s Yukon Territory, prior to being trained as a tracker, I was involved in investigating substantial financial losses by what appeared to be systematic looting of mine property. Coincidentally, an observation post (OP) was found just outside the perimeter fence at a natural vantage point. It appeared that the OP was not connected to the theft ring but was part of a separate industrial espionage operation. The investigation team did not find the observation post; it was reported by a hunter with keen observation skills. However, if any of the investigators had tracking skills at the time, we may have been able to learn a lot more about the espionage group from the tracks and disturbances at the observation post. As a post script, this mine site was under siege from more than one group. Continued investigation also uncovered internal sabotage and agitated worker unrest. 

The bottom line is that tracker training provides industrial security personnel a huge advantage. Trackers are trained to establish a “base line” – a visual impression of what is normal, then observe and identify disturbances and anomalies (clues). Once the clues are identified, trained trackers can often follow the line of sign, providing the security teams with the information required to help prevent bad people from causing mayhem or loss to legitimate industry.