Visual Control

Since the term Visual Control can mean different things to different people, let’s start by defining what I mean by it here. I define visual control as the ability of an operator to visually keep track of an area of interest – usually an Outer Circle to a property of interest. It’s not that you’re physically controlling the area, it’s that you maintain cognitive awareness of what’s going on in it; noticing people and keeping track of things as they change over time.

Now, as simple as this may sound, it’s far from easy: For starters, the area of interest might be quite large (a few city blocks is pretty standard). I’m not talking about working a crowd of spectators, but about keeping track of the streets and areas around the property or venue. Secondly, the operator will probably have other duties to perform as he/she maintains this control (Inner Circle protection, access control, etc). And lastly, the operator will likely need to maintain this visual control for an extended period of time – usually measured in hours (an entire shift or the duration of a special event or operation).

With this in mind, it becomes very important to find sustainable ways to maintain a good level of visual control. What I mean by sustainable, is to avoid a situation where you have to keep constantly moving, with your head on a swivel, staring at every single thing you see out there for hours on end. Not only will this type of hyper awareness not allow you to perform other security functions very well, you’re probably going to burn yourself out before you even get close to the end of the shift or operation you’re on.

What follows are the ways I’ve found to make high-level visual control more manageable and sustainable over time. This comes from my years of grinding it out in the field, trying out different things and figuring out what works best. I’m not claiming any of these ideas and techniques as originally mine, they’ve actually been around for quite some time, and many of you will be very familiar with them. I know for a fact that many of those with military experience will be very familiar with these techniques – especially snipers (or former tank commanders, as in my case). But this isn’t just a military thing. I’ve done the hard work of testing and converting these ideas into the private sector, and figuring out what is or isn’t useful.
Not only have I experienced first hand how effective these techniques can be, I’ve also trained hundreds of operators on them for over a decade, and then seen how well these operators performed in day-to-day operations, during incidents and in Red-Team tests they’ve had to regularly go through.

What to look for?

Ask most security personnel what they need to look for, and they’ll tell you “anything suspicious” (I Know this for a fact, since I’ve posed this question to thousands of operators over the years). The problem with this is that the “anything” part of “anything suspicious” is way too vague and general. I’m absolutely interested in detecting anything suspicious on the property in question (or in the Inner Circle), but at a distance of a block or two, or three, I’m most interested in people. Just like weapons and explosives don’t deploy themselves, information doesn’t collect itself, and hostile plans don’t just plan themselves – it takes people to do these things, and that’s why I’m primarily interested in people at those distances. It’s true that cameras and recording devices can also be used for hostile planning, and that these can be hidden in vehicles that are left there. But keep in mind that someone has to bring these devices there first; someone has to park the car and then return to retrieve it; someone needs to figure out where to point the camera or recording device in the first place. Gadgets and technology can certainly make it easier to plan and execute hostile activities, but they’re not going to completely eliminate the human factor (at least not yet…).

Initial screening of the area

When you first take position, you’ll want to spend a limited amount of time (measured in minutes usually) to screen and observe the area very closely. You’ll need to do this in order to familiarize (or re-familiarize) yourself with the area in question, and to establish a secure start to your shift or operation. The two following segments will cover how to maintain awareness and visual control for the long haul, but this only comes after we’ve initially established that there’s no person or object that’s already waiting for us there. Start by establishing visual control; continue by maintaining it.
In order to initially establish control, you’ll want to be very dynamic, with your head on a swivel, staring at every single thing you see out there. This, as I mentioned above, is not sustainable for the long haul, which is why I limit it to a short amount of time (usually measured in minutes).


Now that we’ve established a secure start, it’s time to take down our energy level a notch or two in order to make it more sustainable. And in order to not lose track of things with this decreased level of energy expenditure, we come to the idea of zoning.
The idea here is to take a large and not so well defined area, and break it up into defined zones. The zones obviously don’t change the area itself, but they change the way you observe and think about it – making it easier to categorize, contextualize and keep track of things. Think of this like chapters in a book or paragraphs on a page – it’s the same amount of words and information, just better segmented for better comprehension and reference.
There are many ways to zone an area (by numbers, letters, codes, etc), but the idea is the same, you take a large and mostly unfamiliar swath of city, break it up into segments and give each segment what’s essentially an addresses, or zip code.

It’s a bit difficult to keep track of someone who’s hanging out somewhere in the general vicinity. But as soon as you reframe this as an individual who’s sitting in the middle of, say, zone #2, it becomes a lot easier – there’s an address for it now (zone #2) – a defined location. The better defined the area, the easier it is for us to keep track of what’s going on there, and breaking up a large area into zones is the way to get started with this.

Taking inventory – keeping track of what’s in the zones

After you’ve broken the area up into zones, the next step is to take a quick inventory of what’s in each zone. Remember, we’re mostly concentrating on the people who are spending time in each zone, but it’s also important to keep track of things like vehicles.
The way this works is that you give a quick, little nickname to every individual you see. I usually just base it on their appearance (Zone #2 – brown sweater guy, Zone #3 – old lady with a dog, etc). As for vehicles, you won’t have to come up with nicknames for them because vehicles already have names (make and model). Therefore, Zone #2, for example, may have that ‘Brown sweater guy’ sitting on a bench, and a Civic, Accord, Camry and Corolla parked on the street.

Now, keep in mind that you’re not actually trying to memorize all this information. You might have lots of people and cars in the area, and unless you have a photographic memory, storing all this information in your head (while you also perform other security functions) would be way over the top.
What you’re trying to work on here is
recognition. This means you don’t have to remember exactly what’s in each zone, even when you’re not looking at it, you just have to be able to recognize a person or vehicle if you see them again. If a few minutes have passed since you last looked at Zone #2, and now you see a man with a brown sweater (‘Brown sweater guy’) sitting on a bench, and a Civic, Accord, Camry and Corolla parked on the street, you should be able to recognize all those things – they should look familiar to you, since they were all there the last time you looked. If, on the other hand, you see a Ford F-150 pickup truck in zone #2, it’s enough to notice that you don’t recognize it, that it doesn’t look familiar to you (since it wasn’t there the last time you looked).
You’re only human, and you won’t be able to see every single change as it happens, but you will want to notice changes as soon as you can, and do so without wasting too much energy. If you spot a change, there’s usually no cause for alarm – cars and people will be coming and going all day long. See if there’s anything suspicious about the F-150, and if not, add it to the inventory of Zone #2.
I know that the idea of zoning and taking inventory sounds like a huge undertaking, but it really just takes a few seconds to do. And once you’ve gone over your zones a few times, you’ll be surprised at how quickly familiar you can become with an area you might have never been to before.
Also, keep in mind that the inventory you’re taking is just for maintaining visual control. In other words, unless there’s some kind of active incident or suspicious activity, you don’t need to collect and/or report detailed descriptions on what you see out there – that would be way over the top, and your team would be drowning in white noise if you do that. All you’re trying to do is get to a level of familiarity that will make it easier for you to spot things, and to keep track of changes.

The hardest part in the visual control game isn’t actually a visual issue, it’s a concentration and focus issue – it’s not in your eyes, it’s in your mind. Anyone who’s not visually impaired can physically see people, the question is whether you actually notice and keep track of them.

The points above are the ways I’ve found to deal with the difficulties of long distance visual control in private sector security operations. Have you had success with these techniques as well? Have you had success with other techniques? Please share your thoughts or questions in the comment section below (I promise I’ll reply to them personally).

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3 thoughts on “Visual Control

  1. One slightly unrelated question that popped into my mind – what would be your advice for dealing with the moment of shift change, which I guess is a critical point in time that an adversary can easily take advantage of? Partially overlapping shifts? Something else?

  2. The way I see it, there are two options for dealing with perceived vulnerabilities: you either make sure they don’t fall on any consistent routine that can give an observer predictive abilities about you, or you compensate for them in other ways.
    It’s easy to say that we have to always vary routines, but not all routines can be varied (business hours, shift changes, etc). For this reason, you identify the fact that you have a vulnerability (everyone has some), and compensate for it with such things as extra coverage, extra screening, extra attention, etc, for those periods of time.

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