Stay Alert: Situational Awareness Color Codes

Stay Alert: Situational Awareness Color Codes

“Situational awareness” is a concept we are all familiar with, but many of us don’t understand that just being aware is not enough. “Awareness” means watching your environment and what is going on around you in order to anticipate what might happen to you and those around you. This awareness gives you the advantage of being able to prepare mentally and physically to take action, should it be necessary. Unfortunately, many people cannot take that step from being aware of a threat to taking action to address that threat, because they haven’t prepared their minds to take aggressive or lethal action to nullify it.

The Colors of Situational Awareness

That is what Colonel Jeff Cooper’s four-level color code is for. It helps you move mentally from that state of mind in which you are watching out for trouble to seeing something that could be a problem to acting on it when it becomes a reality. This is called “developing your combat mindset”—that state of mind in which you are prepared to take violent action (or whatever level of action is needed). Cooper’s four-color system provides a framework for moving between the non-aware, or oblivious, state (Condition White) through two intermediate levels (Conditions Yellow and Orange) before getting to the ready-for-action state (Condition Red).

With this approach, you can move up and down this four-color continuum as the situation warrants, and you can also skip over some condition levels, if the situation calls for it.


Condition White is a state of mind during which you are completely unaware of what is going on around you and you are totally unprepared to take any action to defend yourself or those around you. The most extreme example of this is when you are asleep, but many people spend much of their day in this level of “unreadiness.” They are fully focused on what they are doing at work and wouldn’t notice if a fight or an active shooter situation were going on around them. People walking down the sidewalk or riding on a bus with their focus on some kind of social media interaction are in Condition White. If something dangerous started to play out, they would not notice it.


Condition Yellow is a state of relaxed alertness in which you are aware of what is going on around you and realize something bad might happen. You are also looking all around you in a 360-degree arc and not just in front of you. However, you are not taking any action. You move into Condition Yellow from Condition White if you are in an area that might not be secure or if you are around people you do not know and trust. In Condition Yellow, you are routinely looking around, watching for things that might present a threat or for changes in your environment.

It’s Not Just for Self-Defense

Colonel Cooper’s color code isn’t just useful for preparing for a self-defense scenario; it can be used for any situation in which you might need to take decisive action. For example, during a natural disaster such as a tornado or an earthquake, you should be in Condition Yellow if a tornado alert has been sounded or if you feel the initial tremors.

If you see that either one is happening near you, you should immediately move into Condition Orange and think about what you need to do in your current situation and the steps you would take if you have to go to Condition Red. If the tornado moves toward you or your office building starts to shake, your trigger conditions have been tripped; you are now in Condition Red. You need to move to the storm shelter to get away from the tornado or look for a doorway to shelter under if you don’t have time to get out of the building during an earthquake.


Condition Orange is a state of specific alertness and awareness. You are aware of your surroundings as if you were in Condition Yellow, but you have now identified something or someone that is a potential threat. You know you might have to take some kind of action to address this threat—but you are not taking action… at least, not yet. You are also not so focused on the identified potential threat that you ignore the rest of your environment: You don’t develop tunnel vision, and you keep your head on a swivel. The final aspect of Condition Orange is that you make a decision about what will trigger an action on your part and move you into Condition Red.


Condition Red means you are ready and expect that you will need to fight or act. In Condition Red, what had been just a potential threat changes into an actual threat and, if you are attacked or threatened, you will have to act. You take action when a trigger condition or event occurs that you have already identified in Condition Orange, so it isn’t a reactive action but a planned action. That action might be shooting someone who attacks you or those around you, or it might be taking a lesser level of action, such as proactively disarming the person, using pepper spray to blind him, knocking him out with your fists or a club, or escaping an active shooter by fleeing through an exit before the shooter gets to you.


So, to put it all together, let’s think about an old Western movie. Our hero, who never lives in Condition White (except when he is knocked out), is sitting at a table in the local saloon, playing cards with a mixed group of friends and strangers. Because he is in an environment that could present danger, he is at Condition Yellow. His back is to the wall so he can see the whole room and nobody can sneak up on him. Although he is playing cards, when he is not checking his hand, he is looking at the others at his table and what is going on around the saloon.

The sound of the saloon doors swinging open catches his attention. As he looks up, he sees Black Bart and two of his sidekicks enter the saloon. He is now in Condition Orange, because he knows that Bart has been looking for him ever since he helped the sheriff put Bart’s kid brother in jail.

Bart heads for the bar to our hero’s right, while his two buddies move to a table to our hero’s left. Our hero focuses his attention on Bart but continues to scan the room—this time, making sure to keep tabs on the two sidekicks. He has identified some potential threats but isn’t taking any action, other than thinking about how he might have to act. He might choose to quietly leave by the back door so no gunplay results; he might have to use his fists; or he might have to shoot someone.


Jeff Cooper was a man with a plethora of opinions on topics pertinent to self-defense. Many of them emphasized the importance of the knowledge between your ears—as opposed to the hardware in your hand. Here are few:
❰ “Owning a handgun doesn’t make you armed, any more than owning a guitar makes you a musician.”
❰ “Safety is something that happens between your ears, not something you hold in your hands.”
❰ “The only acceptable response to the threat of lethal violence is an immediate and savage counterattack. If you resist, you just may get killed. If you don’t resist, you almost certainly will get killed. It is a tough choice, but there is only one right answer.”

It’s good to have options. It all depends on what, if anything, Bart and his buddies do. Bart turns around, takes a sip of his whiskey and sees our hero. Bart’s eyes narrow into slits, and a scowl comes across his face. Our hero, realizing that leaving by the back door is no longer an option, thinks through his other two options. He is now in the first stages of Condition Red. He is ready to take action and use lethal force, if necessary, if the events occur that he has chosen as his action triggers.

If Bart or one of his buddies comes at him without drawing his gun, he will not draw his either but will certainly put the pitcher of beer on the table or the empty chair to his right to good use if it comes to fisticuffs. If one of them draws a six-gun, our hero will do the same, take out Bart first and then move his focus to the two sidekicks.

Bart starts a commotion at the bar that catches our hero’s attention and allows the more ugly of the two sidekicks to sneak around behind him, raising the butt of his pistol to knock out our hero. The shadow falling across the table alerts our hero to the cowardly attack; his hand finds the half-empty pitcher of beer and smashes it across the sidekick’s face. Our hero then draws his Colt Peacemaker and refocuses his attention on Bart, whose hind parts are now running out the saloon’s swinging doors, quickly followed by the remaining sidekick.

With the identified threat taken care of, our hero moves back to Condition Yellow and continues to scan the room while trying to fill the partial flush he has in his hand. If you think about it, it’s not that much of a stretch to imagine yourself in a similar situation in a restaurant, theater or other public place.

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the March 2017 print issue of American Survival Guide.