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  • Writer's pictureJohn O'Rourke

Stay Safe This Summer: Mastering Situational Awareness at the Shore

Since summer is upon us, it is important for vacationers and residents in our seashore community to take personal safety measures to ensure a happy and pleasurable season. In light of the recent violent and rowdy weekend in Wildwood, where the Governor declared a state of emergency, it is crucial to understand how to comport yourself and recognize warning signs of danger.

The catchphrase “See Something, Say Something” encourages us to report suspicious behavior, but many are unsure of what that may entail. A simple way to identify something suspicious is to determine if it is part of your “baseline.” Your baseline is what you observe daily. For example, a knock at your door. Many don’t think twice about it, but this is often how a home invader gains entry. For most people, a knock on the door is not part of their baseline. Normally, this doesn’t happen every day. Therefore, it is the subtle signs that are often overlooked. This doesn’t mean we should panic when we hear a knock on the door; rather, it means we should look to see who is at the door before opening it.

Things that are not part of your baseline are called “disruptions.” Most disruptions are innocuous, but it is important to identify them to effectively evaluate what is unfolding and avoid becoming a victim.

I often use case studies to help illustrate this. A notable example is the kidnapping of Exxon International President Sidney Reso. His abductors knew that every day he would drive down his driveway, open his door, and retrieve his newspaper without exiting his vehicle. On the morning of his kidnapping, one of the abductors kicked the newspaper to the side of Reso’s driveway, hoping he would exit his vehicle to get it. When he did, they kidnapped him, and unfortunately, he died in captivity.

The lesson here is that the newspaper represented Reso’s baseline. For years, it was in a position where he didn’t have to leave his vehicle to retrieve it. However, he never viewed the newspaper being out of place as a “disruption” to his baseline. Had he done so, he might have looked around and noticed the white van idling nearby with two people in it—his abductors.

The takeaway is that a disruption to the baseline is likely nothing, but we need to pay attention to these changes in our daily lives to spot the unusual. We need a paradigm shift in how we view things to identify minor warning signs.

Often, we read or watch the news and wonder how nobody noticed something was wrong. This is often because people don’t understand the subtle behavior changes (baseline disruptions) of others. This happens too often with workplace violence or active shooter incidents. A slight behavior change is overlooked, simply dismissed as “that’s interesting.” Violence often simmers before boiling over, and the warning signs are minor changes that people don’t notice because they don’t understand the concept of the baseline.

Another obstacle to “See Something, Say Something” is known as the normalcy bias. The normalcy bias is a cognitive bias where people tend to dismiss or minimize warning signs. A good example is the Batman movie shooter incident a few years back, where people in the theater thought the smoke bomb and shots were part of the movie experience the theater was putting on. Or the Las Vegas shooting, where the shots were mistaken by many as fireworks. These are examples of the normalcy bias. People dismiss these warning signs to avoid dealing with the stress of what is unfolding.

Understanding your baseline and the disruptions that occur to it will increase your alertness and provide you with inquisitive eyes to evaluate what you are seeing. Furthermore, understanding the normalcy bias will enable you not to fall for your own emotions, fooling you into thinking nothing is wrong when the warning signs are right in front of you.

As you walk the weathered boards of the Wildwood boardwalk or stroll down Washington Street in Cape May, increase your situational awareness by understanding your baseline and the baseline for the location you are visiting. By doing so, in the unlikely event that you are present when something troubling is about to unfold, you will notice the signs that those around you might miss.


John O’Rourke, CPP

John E. O'Rourke is a licensed private investigator and the author of "The Jersey Shore Thrill Killer: Richard Biegenwald" and "Mystery, Millions & Murder: The Tragic Kidnapping and Killing of Exxon's Sidney Reso." He can be contacted at



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