Levels of Situational Awareness: Staying in Condition Yellow

Today I’d like to touch on something that many new defensive shooters may overlook: Their level of situational awareness.  We’ll be using Jeff Cooper’s Warrior Color Code from his book, Principles of Personal Defense, as our measuring stick of awareness. Maintaining an elevated level of cognizance is a skill everyone, not just shooters, should cultivate.


Think of the last time you went out to eat at a crowded restaurant. Did you think about where the exits were? Who was sitting at the table behind you? You might notice what your waiter looks like, but what about the other staff? Did you pay any attention to who was entering the building?

Most people would answer no to the majority of these questions, yet when asked these questions, they immediately consider the implications of the answers. If there’s an emergency, it helps to have an escape plan. If the person sitting behind you is getting out of hand, you’d want to keep an eye on him. When a gunman enters the building, you definitely want to be the first one to know about it.

Enter awareness. Awareness, in a nutshell, is how much attention you give to outside stimuli, i.e., the environment and people in it. Raising your awareness increases your chances of predicting and successfully surviving a life-threatening or emergency situation. Military and security personnel have been taught to cultivate heightened awareness for years, but the lessons apply just as strongly to civilians in day to day life. Let’s evaluate the different levels of awareness Cooper outlines white, yellow, orange, and red and how they apply to our lives.


At the bottom of the color code is Condition White. This is the lowest level of environmental awareness — being completely unaware of events taking place around you. Condition White is the guy staring at his phone, headphones plugged in, and ignoring everything. If a threat were to appear, people in condition white are the last to know about it and the last to respond.

You rarely want to be in Condition White. Ideally you’ll only be in this condition when you’re absolutely secure in your home or about to go to bed.


This is where Cooper,  most defensive experts, and I recommend placing your awareness. This state is called “relaxed alert” by some, and it represents a big step-up in awareness, and therefore survivability, from Condition White. In Condition Yellow, you aren’t specifically searching for a threat, but you have your eyes and ears open. You’re alert. In real terms, this includes evaluating your environment and the people in it for suspicious or threatening cues; if an emergency presents itself, you are ready to respond. The questions I posed earlier should have at least basic answers; 2 exits, an elderly man and his wife, 7 other servers, normal looking people coming in, that sort of thing.

Keep in mind that you don’t have to be so preoccupied with actively cataloging every activity happening around you that you can’t focus on anything else. The goal here is to remain relaxed while taking in your surroundings. You’re staying open to the stimuli around you to better anticipate a threatening situation. At the end of the post, we’ll highlight some easy methods to cultivate this “situational awareness” until it becomes second nature.

What happens when, by being in Condition Yellow, you notice a possible threat? You move into the next stage of the color code, Condition Orange.


In this level, you’ve identified a possible threat, and all of your awareness focuses on that stimuli. Condition Orange is not a reactionary phase, meaning you’re not taking action at this point; rather, what you should be doing is forming an attack plan or strategy should legitimate trouble arise, and preparing to take that action.

Let’s bring back the crowded restaurant example. You smell smoke, or the elderly gentleman behind you starts making choking noises, or your server drops a tray of drinks, or a man walks into the restaurant shouting. All of these situations should immediately elevate you into Condition Orange. This phase of awareness only lasts until the threat either elevates or degrades. Think of Condition Orange as a transitional state of awareness; if the stimuli turns non-threatening, you should immediately drop back to Condition Yellow. If, however, the threat elevates to real danger, you in turn elevate into Condition Red, taking action.


Something bad is happening. You’ve determined that the threat is real and immediate, for example, the elderly man is indeed choking on his dinner. Now is when you implement the action you planned out while in Condition Orange. This level of awareness is an “action phase”, with you doing whatever you can to neutralize or escape the threat.

Once the threat has been handled, you regress back through the levels of awareness; Condition Orange to ensure there aren’t any more immediate threats, and then back to scanning in Condition Yellow.


Cultivating awareness isn’t a difficult task. The next time you go out to eat, ask yourself some of the questions I posed and see how well you can answer them. An excellent training game is to take a friend with you, and take turns asking questions about the people around you. Set a goal before you leave the house to spot a specific type of person i.e., men with facial hair, and then see how many you notice. Make the goal something different every time. Research what suspicious or threatening body language looks like, and keep an eye out for that.

Building awareness includes your environment as well. Notice the light levels of the places you’re walking at night, and avoid the dark spots. Try taking different routes to work in order to familiarize yourself with the area in which you live. Look above yourself as you walk under trees or structures, and try to notice some specific details about what you’re looking at.

With consistent practice, these behaviors will become habitual and second nature. By the time you consciously ask the question, you’ll subconsciously have the answer. You’ll be in Condition Yellow, ready to evaluate and react to threats, or avoid them altogether. You’ll be that much more prepared to defend your life and the lives of others.

Until next time, have fun, stay safe, and shoot straight!


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