Area Familiarization 101
Area Familiarization, or AreaFam, is another one of those terms spies, military folk, and police officers toss around regularly that the Reno Dads are borrowing to continue to educate our readership on protecting their families. Much like situational awareness and surveillance detection, area familiarization is another technique that can save your life and the lives of your loved ones.
In this short guide I will explain what area familiarization is, tips for improving your own area familiarization, and how I have introduced the Slug Bug game to increase not just my own, but my kids’ area familiarization, as well. As a bonus, I will share a short, heavily redacted area familiarization story from my experience serving in the CIA related to this topic.
What is Area Familiarization?
What is area familiarization? Area familiarization is exactly what it sounds like: being familiar with whatever area you are operating in. While spies might operate in third world countries, dark allies, or busy capital cities, Dads and Moms are carrying around cargo more valuable than anything a CIA officer has during an operation*: their children. It is no less important to be familiar with the suburban jungle while conducting DadOps and MomOps than it is for spies and military personnel operating throughout the world.
Improving Your Area Familiarization
All that said, parents are typically already familiar with their towns. It doesn’t take much, especially in a world with GPS maps in every car, or on every phone. However, most people still take the same route out of the neighborhood or to work. They take the same route to school and the same route to go shopping.
My area familiarization tips are simple, really. Just take a little extra time each trip and mix up a portion of the route. Take the exit before or after your normal exit and work your way back. Go out of your way to take a different route. Always know the back way to wherever you are going. Area familiarization is something you have to continue to work on. I was born and raised in Reno. I have lived here most of my adult life outside of serving overseas. And I still practice my area familiarization every single day.
Why Is Area Familiarization Important?
Area familiarization is one of the critical skills a CIA officer begins developing the second they land in a foreign or new environment. Sure, a CIA officer has other intentions to know the area, but they are not so different than any parent. CIA officers and parents all want to know the best routes and alternative routes to take for routine errands. They also want to know how to get around heavy traffic or bypass an accident. And they want to know where to go for emergency help. That could be the Embassy for them, or a police or fire station or hospital for parents. Most importantly, whether it is a CIA operation or a DadOp or MomOp, we need to know where the best shawarma stand is. Or Starbucks, whatever.
Slug Bug Game
For kids, however, area familiarization is a challenge. They often have an iPad or a book in their face while being dragged along for those DadOps and MomOps. To remedy this, I have reintroduced the Slug Bug game to my boys.
We have modified the game somewhat to meet the requirements of my ultra-competitive boys. And also because Volkswagen Beetles are rarely around anymore. But the most important component survives, or second most if you are the slugging type. The kids constantly have their heads on a swivel. They are looking down every street we drive by. They are looking into parking lots and alleys. And they are identifying cars that are regularly parked outside their place of employment.
While it is a silly game (I’ll list our current rules at the end for those interested), it is having the intended effect. My kids are quickly becoming familiar with our town. Our routes change frequently and with intention, so the kids are constantly developing a deeper area familiarization during each ride.
CIA Side Story
When I was serving in Libya, there became a serious threat to our Embassy (read the story here) and Embassy officials and we needed to get to the Embassy. The city was collapsing into chaos and we needed to get to safety. The main roads from my house to the Embassy were blocked by protests and debris. Fortunately, I knew the city in and out and got to the Embassy quickly. An Embassy official from a different organization neglected his area familiarization, despite being in country for months. To my shock, rather, my annoyance, he simply went home upon getting stuck at a road block. I had to send one of my teammates to go grab this guy as the city was falling quickly. We had to risk someone else’s life to get him back safely. He should have protected himself on day one.
But this can happen to any of us. If a kid breaks his arm, we need to know where the hospital is. If someone is following you, you need to know the location of the nearest fire or police station. And if your kid gets lost or turned around they need to be familiar with the area they are in. This will also reduce panic and get them to where they are going.
Our Slug Bug Game Rules
We change frequently to keep it interesting and ongoing, so here are the current rules. The score resets when the engine turns off. The winner gets absolutely nothing but bragging rights for a minute or so.
- 1 Point: Mini-Coopers, Emergency Vehicles (police, fire engines, ambulances)
- 2 Points: New style Volkswagen Beetles
- 3 Points: Original Volkswagen Beetles
- 4 Points: Supercars like Lamborghinis, which we shockingly see once a week or two! Reno has changed!
- 5 Points: The Holy Grail itself, the Volkswagen Bus. To date, very few have been identified!
Modifications: We try to keep cars on the list that are recognizable at a distance. Teslas made the list originally, but that became really annoying in Reno since they are everywhere and look like regular cars. Currently, Corvettes award one point. We retire cars from the game once their locations become relatively known (parked at their workplace or home). The kids get tunnel vision waiting to be first to call out a known car. Surprisingly, I have been losing more often than winning and I am actively trying to win!
* I can neither confirm or deny I have taken my son on an operations like “bumping” into targets the office was working on, evaluating local surveillance, or making mid-day purchases of office supplies like burner phones.
Reno Dads is all about exploring fatherhood in all its glory. If you enjoyed this article by former CIA Officer David Bradfield, check out his series on keeping your family safe:
- Teaching Kids Situational Awareness (expanded discussion on our podcast)
- 15 Travel Tips from former CIA Officers
- Surveillance Detection: A CIA Officer’s Guide to Protecting Your Family