It Couldn’t Happen to Me

May 23, 2017

Mental Conditioning strategies for survival In Blue Line December 2016


The objective of this article is to discuss the application of safety critical mental conditioning practices learned from policing which also have direct application to the risks faced by seafarers  and motorcyclists. It is an unusual combination but these practices have the common factor that they can prevent fatal mistakes or serious injury in high risk environments.

This article will describe three practical mental conditioning methods reinforced in police officer operational safety training and thoroughly documented in The Tactical Edge by Charles Remsburg. Although the methods have been around for decades the deadly results are still with us.

These are:

  1. The Ten Fatal Errors: RCMP fatal accident during the response to an armed robbery
  2. The Awareness Spectrum: The sinking of the BC ferry, the Queen of the North
  3. Myths and False Beliefs: A near fatal motorcycle collision
  4. The 10 Fatal Errors

These tend to vary between police jurisdictions. The original list was published after a spate of police fatalities in the 1970’s which initiated a whole new paradigm in ‘officer safety’ training. In the tragic Newhall, California incident four highway patrol officers were killed in a ‘routine’ traffic stop. One of the surviving felons, when interviewed in prison was asked “Why did you kill them?“; he is reported to have said chillingly “They were so stupid they deserved to die”.

  • Complacency, apathy
  • Getting caught in a bad position
  • Not perceiving danger signals
  • Relaxing too soon
  • False perceptions and assumptions
  • Tombstone Courage (the John Wayne Syndrome)
  • Fatigue and Stress
  • Not enough rest
  • Poor attitude
  • Equipment not maintained

 Policing Example: False perceptions and assumptions in a high speed pursuit.

A fatal accident occurred when police responded to an armed robbery. The officer driving a marked Highway Patrol unit collided with an unmarked Investigation Unit. He tragically assumed that when the unmarked unit in front pulled over to the side of the road it was to allow him to pass. He would have been conditioned in normal traffic situations with the likely assumption that ‘vehicles in front always pull over when police emergency lights/siren are actuated’.  He may also have assumed that other units were on the same radio frequency.

Updated information about the location of the armed robbery had been received from the radio room. The unmarked police Investigation Unit in front was pulling over to execute a 360 turn. The driver assumed the officer driving the Highway Patrol marked unit behind had received the same radio message. Tragically, they were on different radio channels.

2. Managing Situational Awareness

An effective situational awareness and perception management system known as the “Awareness Spectrum” identifies five levels of awareness and perception control originally articulated by Charles Remsburg in his book “The Tactical Edge, Surviving High Risk Patrol”[4] 

The Awareness Spectrum

White Situationally unaware, daydreaming, unfocussed, mind in neutral


Yellow Alert, observant but relaxed, scanning, observing, attentive to the situation, focus broad


Orange Potential threat, volatility, increased alertness, focus narrowing on threat area


Red Imminent high risk danger. life threatening, very narrow focus on source of the threat, hands, knife, gun, vehicle


Black Overwhelmed by fight/flight stress (Panic, Paralysis)  visually overwhelmed, loss of focus and inability to make a decision

Maritime Example: The sinking of the ‘Queen of the North’

At 8pm on March 22nd 2006 the BC Ferry ‘Queen of the North’, departed Prince Rupert on its regularly scheduled service to Port Hardy at the northern end of Vancouver Island. The vessel failed to make a 109 degree course correction and ran aground at 15.5 knots on Gil Island, then sank. Two passengers’ bodies were never recovered. Human error was found to be the central cause of the accident.

Two people were on the bridge that night, music was playing in the background and they were chatting. The vessel was on autopilot. The internal report concludes that the 4th Officer (4/O), who had 13 minutes earlier called in a course correction but he had failed to act on it. The 4/O and the QM1 had “lost situational awareness” .

At about 0020, with the vessel now 13 minutes past the planned course-alteration, the 4/O saw trees ahead and moved to the aft steering station. The Vancouver Sun newspaper reported that “Just before the crash, the 4/O screamed at the helmswoman to make a bold course correction–a 109-degree turn–and to switch off the autopilot. The QMI  helmswoman responded that she did not know “where the switch was located.” The autopilot disengages simply with a single switch and would have been operated numerous times by [the helmswoman].” [7]The Canadian Transportation Safety Board (TSB) indicated that human error was the principle cause of the sinking.

It is likely that that both the 4/0 and the QM1 were in the Awareness Spectrum ‘Condition White’ ‘situationally unaware’. They were chatting and  listening to music; the course correction forgotten The helmswoman  saw the trees on Gil Island directly ahead and panicked when subjected to the 4/0 screaming at her. She was most likely  in a ‘Condition Black’ high stress fight/flight response. Tragically she lost her capacity to locate and switch off  the auto pilot.

  1. Myths and False Beliefs: A near fatal motorcycle collision

Personal – Failure to Manage my own MythsMy personal myths at the time were ‘It couldn’t happen to me’, ‘I can handle it’, ‘I have years of training and experience’, ‘I’ll wake up on the ride’.

It was a pitch black night and I had a few drinks with my Ulysses Club group in a campground and stayed till it was fully dark enjoying a beer. Against the advice of knowledgeable others about animals on the road I decided to ride back to my motel in the dark. The road was in excellent shape with wide sweeping corners. What could go wrong ?

Kangaroos are mostly nocturnal. As they tend to graze on more open spaces, I felt quite safe and rode slowly, shifting from Awareness Conditions ‘Orange to Yellow’ on a long downhill. It had rough high bush on either side of the road. I picked up speed. Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, a kangaroo came out of the bush above me and landed on my windshield.

Survival stress reactions kicked in immediately. It all seemed to happen in slow motion. My visual acuity magnified so much I could, for a second, see the tiny hair roots  on its haunch. I hit the road hard in seconds. Still pumping with survival adrenaline and feeling no pain I  lifted the 240 kg Triumph motorbike up effortlessly and walked it across to the side of the road. The windshield and the head/side lights were gone, the instruments were shattered and the ignition cables were ripped out. It was a mess but I was as high as a kite  with stress chemical alertness and strength  and felt OK. The shakes and pain kicked in shortly after but I was alive.


John Walker

[4]  The Tactical edge : Surviving high-risk patrol by Charles Remsberg ; pub. Northbrook, IL : Calibre Press, 1986.

[7] Cindy E. Harnett, “Probe fingers crew in ferry sinking, the Vancouver Sun, March 27, 2007, p. A4.

[8] Arrive Alive; Hits and Myths of Motorcycing, Australian Road Rider, Vol 9 # 40, pp 108 – 110, 2007