How do you maintain an appropriate level of awareness, and stay prepared to act, and react. Trying to remain “hyper-alert” at all times is not practical, and quickly becomes tiresome. Thinking that you will be able to suddenly jump from a low level of awareness to being ready to take immediate physical action to protect yourself or others is also folly. Where can we find some

middle ground?

As a way to address these concerns, U.S.M.C. Col. Jeff Cooper (ret), developed what he called the “Color Codes” of awareness. Generally, broken down into four levels: White, Yellow, Orange, and Red, which let you stay relaxed yet aware, but that can change as you anticipate the situation changing, so you will be mentally prepared to take action if needed.

  • White: Unaware and unprepared. Your brain is in “neutral.” This is when you are at home behind a locked door, or another confirmed safe location. You might be reading a book or watching TV. There is no threat, and no reason to be concerned. You are however aware that should something happen, you will not be ready to deal with it – so a knock at the door, a dog barking, a noise outside, will all bring you to a higher level.
  • Yellow: Relaxed alert. No specific threat situation. You are driving and watching the other cars in traffic. You are walking down the street, or at a store, you are in a restaurant and eating a meal. You are paying attention to your surroundings, and if something happens – you notice it, assess, and then return to your relaxed state. Unless you are in a confirmed secure location, this is where you should spend most of your time.
  • Orange: Specific alert. Something is not quite right and has your attention. An argument between two people sounds as if it may become violent. A group of several “hooligan types” walking toward your general location. In your mirror you see a car approaching very fast from behind you – swerving between lanes and causing other drivers to make sudden maneuvers to avoid getting into a crash. Something makes you feel uneasy, and you start to prepare and begin to form plans of action to implement in case this becomes more serious.
  • Red: Condition Red is ready to fight or react – or in some situations, actually taking action. Your mental danger trigger (established back in Condition Orange) has been tripped. If the argument breaks into a fight, I’ll go out that exit door. I’ll move to the other side of the mall to avoid these guys, if they approach I’ll do this or that, etc. I’ll slow slightly and if the car passes on my left I’ll do this, on the right I’ll do that. If your attempt to avoid trouble fails, you have already identified the first and subsequent courses of action, and will take that action.

Ideally, by paying attention to your surroundings and adjusting your level of awareness, you are at a level appropriate to the circumstances, and never too “aware” unless something happens that requires a higher level of your attention. Being in “Yellow” soon becomes a normal state, and maybe in a “light yellow” state when you are in the corner booth, where you can see the entire room in a sparsely occupied restaurant. More people, more potential threats, go back to “yellow” until things relax again. Walking out to your car from the restaurant? Maybe a darker yellow as you have your head scanning back and forth looking for potential lurkers between you and your parked car, or who might approach from the rear.

You may find other versions that add additional colors (such as black – when you are unable to react, either because you are frozen with fear, or your physical status – when you experience a hyper heart rate or your blood pressure rises to a level where you are physically unable to function effectively). Typically, if you are aware, and have mentally rehearsed potential actions, you will not freeze, and will remain calm as you move through your planned response, so for our purposes, we’ll stay with the simple logic of the original.

It all happened so fast! I never saw it coming! Guess what – chances are someone wasn’t paying attention. We know that in responding to a critical self-defense situation, you may need to “work yourself up” to taking action. If your first indication of a problem is when you see the gun pointed at you, the knife near your midsection, or feeling a flash of pain on the back of your head as you lose consciousness – your ability to defend yourself has been severely compromised.

On the other hand, let’s assume you spot something of concern while in “Condition Yellow.” Then begin to formulate a plan as you shift to “Condition Orange.” As the threat moves closer or becomes more real – your transition to “Condition Red” and you begin moving into action. You may or may not have a better outcome, but you’ll have a better chance of being successful in defending yourself – if you have time to “ramp-up” to taking action.

There is no magic here. This is all based on results obtained and proven in actual real world conditions. All Col. Cooper did for us was to put names and definitions to those actions people trained to be alert were already taking. His explanations have helped by giving us a shortcut, assisting us to better understand ways to remain aware – without needing to learn these lessons the hard way. Start today, take advantage of these lessons, and use them to help protect yourself, and those you care about.