The Art of Planning Ahead: Why Pre-Surveillance is Key

As anyone who has ever done surveillance work can tell you, going into a job without proper preparation is just begging for trouble. That’s why planning ahead with pre-surveillance is key! When it comes to gathering intel or keeping tabs on a person of interest, the old adage “failing to plan means planning to fail” is particularly true. Rushing in half-cocked rarely leads to good outcomes and can seriously compromise the integrity of your operation—or worse. That’s why pre-surveillance, or taking the time on the front end to strategize your approach, is so essential for investigators, security professionals and law enforcement.  

In this business, lack of preparation is a surefire way to seriously botch an operation from the get-go. Sure, there are those fly-by-night cowboys who just wanna rush in gunslinging without laying proper groundwork, well – let’s just say their success rate won’t be too high. It isn’t just about whether you nail your objective either – sloppy work can put cases, business deals, and even lives at risk when things go south unexpectedly. 

Surveillance work requires meticulous planning and strategic thinking if you want any hope of getting the intel you need without blowing your cover or compromising safety in the process. Whether you are dealing with criminals, fraudsters and cheating spouses or national security threats, there is no room for a mistake that could blow back on you and your case. Every “i” must be dotted and “t” crossed before making a move, or an aware subject might just spot your tail from a mile away and lead you on a wild goose chase. That kind of slip up could cost you critical evidence or put folks in harm’s way trying to regain control of a botched operation. 

Furthermore, sprinting in with guns blazing and no forethought for contingencies is a sure way to stir up unnecessary attention on your goal from locals, neighbors and others. This unwanted attention will also make it harder to run future surveillance on those same individuals if they become wise to your tactics. 

The way I see it – and from decades of thrilling successes and humbling failures – is that pre-surveillance is outright paramount for field agents and private investigators alike. It’s downright foolish these days to even consider taking on a new case without spending some time on upfront diligence, building out your strategy, staging supplies, vetting the location, sharpening your team, and more. That cushion of preparation is what distinguishes professionals from amateurs. Plus, it makes the actual fieldwork go way smoother having your ducks all in a row beforehand. 

So, before you get the camera rolling, you can bet I will be spending some time on recon, intel gathering and strategizing to make sure the correct groundwork is done. In this article, I’ll share some insights on why advance planning pays off dividends for any surveillance project. 

Contingency Plans Developed During Pre-Surveillance

One of the biggest advantages of pre-surveillance is developing contingency plans for potential issues or complications. You never know what might come up once you’re in the field, so considering alternate scenarios ahead of time means you won’t be caught flat-footed. Maybe your subject changes routines unexpectedly or spots your team on location—having backup strategies ready to implement can help you recover and avoid missing key intel. Planning contingencies also makes your team more adaptable when surprises arise. 

You just never know what might get thrown your way once surveillance is in motion. Murphy’s Law tends to apply strongly in this line of work – if something can go wrong, it likely will at the worst possible moment. Which is why it’s crucial for investigators and agencies to map out contingencies extensively during the pre-surveillance planning phase. 

Having alternate protocols and back-up strategies defined beforehand keeps you agile when surprises pop up. Maybe your subject suddenly changes routines or suspects they’re being followed. Communication channels could cut out or your equipment malfunctions. Extenuating factors like severe weather altering the landscape also aren’t uncommon. Even worse, if one of your team members is compromised or injured in the field. 

When seconds count, you can’t afford to freeze up scrambling for solutions. Contingencies allow investigators to seamlessly shift surveillance off-script to get ahead of changing conditions, roll with the punches to maintain control. They also reassure field investigators that backup plans exist should they find themselves in a pinch. That confidence and flexibility boosts morale while also potentially saving the case down the line. 

I’ve surely learned this lesson the hard way over the years when Murphy decided to rear his head. No contingency meant losing the subject and needing to restart from square one which wasted valuable time and resources. Proper fallback provisions could’ve had secondary investigators ready to pick up the trail.  

Any time spent integrating alternative protocols and problem-solving worst-case scenarios upfront pays major dividends. The more layers of contingencies planned, the greater agility and adaptability your surveillance maintains even during rapidly evolving situations. Preparation is key, as they say – but without contingencies, all that preparation isn’t worth a dime when things go off-script in the field.  

Research Your Location in Advance 

Advance research into your location is another pre-planning tactic that can’t be overstated. Knowing the lay of the land, identifying blind spots vs. line-of-sight areas, scoping out potential observation posts—this type of terrain familiarization will make your team far more effective on-site. When every second counts, wasting time figuring out where to set up or getting turned around wastes precious opportunities. Scout the area yourself ahead if possible or use mapping tools to your advantage so you hit the ground running. 

Knowing your territory inside and out gives you a tremendous advantage over your target. Here are a few key reasons why thorough location research is so valuable: 

  • Scouting Potential Observation Points – One of the primary goals of location research is to scout out ideal places you could set up to observe your subject without being detected. Careful examination of maps, satellite imagery, and physically surveying the area allows you to identify buildings, parked vehicles, wooded areas, or other vantage points with good lines of sight on likely approach routes or meeting spots. Picking the right observation posts greatly increases your chances of not blowing your cover. 
  • Understanding Surveillance Choke Points – Another benefit is learning where you’re most likely to lose visual contact on your subject, such as intersections, or areas with limited visibility like dense tree lines. Knowing potential choke points in advance enables you to strategically position additional team members or technical surveillance tools to maintain coverage through such risky locations. Failing to identify choke points could cause you to lose the subject at a critical moment.  
  • Mapping Egress/Ingress Routes – Thorough location research also illuminates secondary access points, fire escapes, adjoining properties, and other paths that could be used to secretly access observation posts or quickly exit an area. Having advanced knowledge of alternative egress/ingress routes can both help you seamlessly shadow your subject or discreetly exfiltrate if your cover is compromised or in an emergency situation. Not having all potential routes cased out in advance severely limits your flexibility and tactical options.  
  • Familiarizing Yourself with Conditions – Lastly, closely examining an area beforehand familiarizes you with important terrain features and conditions like lighting levels at various times of day, traffic/pedestrian flows, noise levels, notable landmarks, and environmental factors like weather that could obscure visibility. Understanding every nuance of the location in different scenarios gives you a mental blueprint of the area to smoothly operate within without missing critical details or expending valuable time for on-site recon in the middle of your case. 

In summary, no expense of time and effort can be spared upfront to thoroughly research and analyze a key location. Surveillance work often means the difference between success and failure relies on hyper-local nuances of the terrain. Leaving no stone unturned ahead of time makes you master of your domain. 

Pre-Surveillance Logistics / Equipment  

Logistics like equipment, staffing, and shift scheduling also deserve proactive consideration rather than last-minute scrambling. Test communication gear, charge batteries, know camera capabilities inside and out. Determine optimal team size and rotations based on anticipated workload or subject patterns. Ironing out logistics in pre-planning stages means your team can stay laser-focused on the task at hand without getting bogged down by operational minutiae. A well-oiled machine spends more time watching and less time getting waylaid by minor frustrations. Here are a few thoughts on why advanced preparation in these areas is so important: 

  • Having Your Equipment Tested: Surveillance equipment needs to be meticulously tested and maintained. Cameras, communications gear and batteries must be fully operational with fresh batteries/charging backups. Consider what equipment is needed for various scenarios, weather conditions, or range of environments. Make sure your team is fully versed on all gear and features ahead of time. 
  • Coordinating Staff Rotations: Even simple surveillance requires coordinating multiple moving parts. Ensure staff has clearly defined roles and shift rotations mapped out based on workload projections, team size options, and anticipated durations. Clear handoff procedures between shifts are crucial to maintaining continuity. Fatigue must be accounted for safely. Flexibility is key as situations evolve. 
  • Establishing Supply Chain: Some surveillance engagements may last days and while some are in built up residential neighborhoods, some are not so straightforward. Anticipate needs for food, water, change of clothes or weather gear, tools, documentation, and other important surveillance provisions. This type of planning applies to both the one-man case and the team approach. Hunger and needing to go to the bathroom are two of the biggest distractions on a surveillance, how are you planning for this?  
  • Addressing Transportation: Surveillance often requires coordinated mobility and positioning of assets. Vehicle placement and additional transportation considerations like foot, air, and water travel all require integration based on area characteristics. Even the difference between rural and urban surveillance could make a difference to your vehicle choice. Fuel, maintenance, permits, off-site parking and vehicle transitions must be thought out. Have you ever followed a subject to the lake and not been able to observe because you didn’t have a boat? Good intel and planning here can prevent this. Addressing these pillars methodically upfront allows teams to arrive fully prepared to focus solely on surveillance execution once underway. Proper planning eliminates unnecessary complications in the field. 

Pre-surveillance legwork is also your chance to obtain critical intel to help guide your physical strategy. Research public records of your person of interest—their addresses, associates, vehicles, criminal history. Monitor social media for clues about routines. Consult confidential sources within your network. The more you know about habits and affiliations ahead of time, the easier it’ll be to predict movements and maximize observation windows without ever being seen yourself. Advance intel is the gift that keeps on giving throughout the life of any surveillance project. People are creatures of habit! 

Taking time for pre-surveillance oversight allows leadership an opportunity to monitor details, suggest adjustments, and assist the team as needed before things kick off for real. Enabling early check-in is invaluable for ironing out unforeseen wrinkles, ensuring protocols are followed, and addressing any gaps before pressure is on. Beginning an important surveillance operation with leadership buy-in and support increases your chances of success from the very beginning. 

Conducting a Thorough Post-Operation Debrief is Crucial

Finally, surveillance operations will always encounter the unexpected, so conducting a thorough post-operation debrief is crucial. It allows the team to evaluate challenges faced, document lessons learned, review mission objectives against outcomes, and maintain operational continuity across shifts – all strengthening tactics, resource allocation, knowledge sharing, and accountability going forward. Most importantly, the structured documentation of experiences and issues promotes a culture of continuous improvement. By translating realities from the field back into updated policies, procedures, and training, every person benefits, as institutional understanding grows stronger over time. In short, pre-surveillance and good post-op debriefing are the cornerstone practices for maximizing results while protecting all individuals involved in this important work. 

In summary, while the desire for instant gratification might tempt even the best operators to rush in prematurely, advance planning or pre-surveillance, really is key for investigators, security professionals and law enforcement conducting surveillance. Whether it’s strategizing contingencies, terrain mapping, equipment prep, intelligence gathering, or oversight discussions—taking the time to pre-surveil almost always pays dividends down the line. Those who plan ahead become far more adept at anticipating roadblocks and seizing opportunities to fulfill their critical public safety missions. With a solid foundation of due diligence and pre-surveillance legwork, you’ll be well-positioned to do your important work both discreetly and effectively. Pre-surveillance: it really is a high-impact, low-effort part of any job well done.