Using Pattern Matching and Recognition

While there are many other effective ways to evaluate security, safety, and emergency preparedness, red team assessments are among the most effective ways to test security short of an actual act of intrusion by a person intent on committing a crime. Red team assessments involve an intentional test of the security of a site by professionals who are experienced at simulating security breaches. The accuracy of the red team approach comes from the challenge of our assumptions about how staff members will and will not react if an intruder were to gain entry to a specific area.

Over the past decade we have learned a great deal from the relatively small number of campus employees who properly detect our presence while conducting these types of assessments. Consistently, we find that the people who report us to security and police personnel are using a concept known as pattern matching and recognition. Though the employees who detect us are not always formally trained in this concept, they have learned on their own to utilize this evidence-based and powerful concept to protect others.

Finding a Pattern
Pattern matching and recognition was first formally developed and implemented in cardiac units in Australian hospitals. The patients in these wards had suffered heart attacks and were at a higher risk of death if they experienced a subsequent heart attack. Initially, nurses were provided training normally provided only to medical doctors to help them recognize the specific symptoms that could indicate that a patient was about to have a heat attack. This approach resulted in a drop in patient mortality because the nurses were better prepared to spot impending trouble.

As the concept gained support, nurses at some hospitals were given additional instructions to summon an emergency support team not only when they observed specific symptoms in patients but also when they noticed patients who did not act like patients normally do under similar circumstances. Basically, the nurses were specifically trained and empowered to trust their own work experience and what might be mistakenly assumed to be intuition. When the mortality rate dropped as much as 50 percent, experts in the field of medicine began to carefully evaluate this incredible and life-saving success.

Cultivating a Skill
By quickly matching and recognizing behaviors, human beings who use pattern matching and recognition can detect things that are simply not right for the context, such as a relatively normal-looking person strolling onto a college campus who is, in fact, a danger to others. Pattern matching and recognition is valuable for noticing a wide range of situations that we would like staff members to detect.

The problem is that while we are learning appropriate patterns throughout life, we are conditioned not to “cry wolf” and usually quickly seek reasons to explain why someone who is acting differently probably poses no harm. While there is definitely value in this reaction, it also frequently causes us to miss important cues that we can spot to detect danger. Has an appropriate balance between alertness and overreaction been achieved at your institution?

About the Author

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, nonprofit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens website at