Safety and Training

Training Starts Here: Situational Awareness

Can you spot all the reasons why this woman is in code white?

I’ve been single for the majority of my adult life. My circumstances in my early 20s forced me to take on this role. After all, I moved halfway around the world from my parents and friends to attend college where I knew virtually no one, in a town and a state I had never been to. Fearless in those years, I never let being alone stop me from enjoying myself. I have never been one to subscribe to locking yourself up in the house because someday something bad just might happen. That’s no way to live. So fearless I was. And dumb.

Looking back at those first few years of college, I did make some horrible choices. I have found myself with my Chihuahua, not exactly a great self-defense dog, at a closed rest stop at 1:30 in the morning in the middle of nowhere Oklahoma, at a concert full of drunken skinheads, and completely lost at the final train stop somewhere in Melbourne, Australia. Since then, I have learned my lesson and thank my lucky stars I was never mugged, raped, kidnapped, or murdered. Since making the decision to arm myself for self-defense, I know now I have to have a different mindset. One that is more cautious, more alert, and less fearless. You do not have to spend your life locked up and paranoid, but you shouldn’t be unaware like I was.

When you make up your mind to take control over your own safety and protection, a change in your mindset is the very first training you need. Choosing to purchase a firearm for self-defense means you have answered yes to the question, “Can I take another human life to save my own?” As firearm owners, whether or not we carry one with us, we never want to have to use it in a self-defense situation. To help avoid this potentially deadly confrontation, we need to practice situational awareness at all times. Situational awareness is the first line of self-defense.

The first step in situational awareness is to step out of the world of denial. When I was younger, I probably was living in denial. Denial is when you think, “It won’t happen to me.” Because you have already taken the first steps to defend yourself you probably are not living in denial. You know there is potential for violence and therefore are prepared for it. Good for you, now learn how to train yourself to be observant everywhere you are.

Situational awareness is knowing what and who is around you and the potential threats they might pose. You assess the situation and people around you by gathering information, processing that information, and then figuring out if action is required. Situational awareness can help you avoid a fight or other harmful situation. Not only can situational awareness save your own life, but also other innocent lives around you. The military, the government, all law enforcement agencies and self-defense experts all train, use, and practice situational awareness.

Any time you are not asleep, you should be observing and evaluating what you are seeing. This will help you recognize a potential threat. There are three major ways to look at situational awareness. Colonel John Boyd’s OODA (observe, orient, decide, act),  The United States government’s TEDD (time environment, distance, demeanor), and Colonel Jeff Cooper’s color codes.

Col. Jeff Cooper’s color codes are easy to understand and give us clear, measurable levels of how aware or unaware we are.

Code White

Code white is means you are completely unaware and tuned out. You should only be on code white when sleeping, but I bet if you think about it, you will find yourself tuned out quite a bit. All of the following are tune-out culprits: texting, talking on the phone, engrossed in a movie at the movie theater, sucked into the internet, a video game, a good book, or a TV Show, jamming out to good tunes in the car, if you have your headphones on too loud, or when you are busy concentrating on a work project. There are many times a day you may be “tuned out.” Exhaustion and intoxication can cause you to tune out as well. I am guilty of tuning out when I’m reading, watching a movie, or on road trips. How many times have I been driving, singing loudly to good tunes, when a friend calls and asks, “Where are you?” and I honestly don’t know— too many.

Code Yellow

Code yellow is where we should be at all times, even at work and at home. Code yellow means we are on “relaxed alert.” This means you are aware of your surroundings and who is in them, but you have not spotted any threat. This relaxed awareness means that you are not expecting a fight, but accepting that a fight could happen and therefore not surprised if a threat presents itself. A perfect example of code yellow is when you are walking to your car in a parking lot, or down the street, or on the jogging trail. You are aware of how many people are behind you and beside you. You are aware of their pace and if that pace or position changes. You are in condition yellow if you always get your keys out of your pocket or purse before walking to the car. I was in code yellow when I had to go pick up a friend in a bad part of town and took note of the appearance and clothing of the three guys milling around the apartment’s entry gate.

Code Orange

Code orange, or “focused awareness” is when you have spotted a potential threat. Code orange means you are ready to accept an attack. The NRA calls this level “alert.” You move from code yellow to code orange when you have stopped in the gas station for a drink and someone walks in wearing a long trench coat in the heat of summer. You stay focused on the potential threat, watching their every move, especially if they reach inside the coat. At this point you have assessed the situation and have decided what you will do if they pull out a gun and you are ready to move into code red.

Code Red

The color codes of situational awareness.
The color codes of situational awareness.

Code red is when you move into fight or flight mode, or “high alert.” This is when you will have to make the split-second decision to defend yourself.

Others have added one more level, called “black” or “comatose.” This is when you have reached code red, but do not act. You have actually frozen and cannot do anything about the situation.

Global intelligence-gathering website STATFOR suggests situational awareness drills, such as memorizing people sitting at the bar of a restaurant you are dining at, noting the number of people standing in line at the movie theater, or trying to recall cars stopped at the same stoplight. Another thing you should always do is note all the exits of any building you enter. At a bar or restaurant, always choose to sit facing the door. Do not ever put your back to the point of entry and exit. Not only does situational awareness involve observing and noting what is there, but also what is not there.

Criminals prey on easy targets, those who are distracted, vulnerable, and zombie-like in their routine. Even switching up your route to work once in a while helps deter crime. Walk with your head up, scanning the area around you. Walking with your head down means not only are you not aware of what is around you, but gives criminals a sign you are not confident, making you a vulnerable target.

One more point to situational awareness is to listen to your gut. Our instincts may not always be right, but they can be the first indication that something is wrong. Fear, anxiety, apprehension, and hesitation are all emotions that signal us that something is not right. We should listen to those emotions, if your hair stands on end suddenly, you might just need to move into code orange. When something just doesn’t look right, it probably isn’t.


Don’t beat yourself up if you find yourself going code white, like all self-defense tactics, situational awareness takes practice.

Is there a time you remember you had to move to code orange? Tell us about it!

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Comments (16)

  1. I just discovered this article and think it is both well written and valuable. This seems to be something that most enlightened people are well aware of and most unenlightened people just do not have a clue. How is it possible to spread the word on a wider basis?
    I know this works from 3 personal experiences. Two ended merely by my demonstrating that I was aware of the threat and not prepared to be a victim. The third required that I display my gun and briefly explain I had both the skill and the intention to use it, with my plan being I survived and he did not. It soon became clear that he lacked even rudimentary training, while armed was not terribly skilled or experienced and lacked the desire to follow through on his bravado backed threats. He was not serious. I was. He had started angry and ended scared. I started scared and ended resolved.

  2. Very good article. I realize this is a long time since this article was published, but I have to share an experience and a lesson I learned from it:

    Towards the end of 2012, a photographer friend was going to take pictures of my wife and I at about 7pm. It was dark out, and as we were getting out of the car at the location of the photo session, when a man drives up and asks for money for gas. We politely but firmly said, “No” and that we had no cash. Clearly upset with our response, the man proceeded to pull the car forward and turn it more directly toward us. Our photographer (a CCW carrying corrections officer) instructed us to get back into the car immediately and we drove away. The man followed us for a while, but we lost him after a few circles on the freeway.

    After the event, we talked about the situation. While we all agreed (though not in such terms) that this was a code orange, perhaps even a code red. The objective, as well put in the article, is fight OR flight. A code red situation doesn’t mean ‘Draw & take Aim’. A code red situation means ‘Take action to REDUCE the code level’.

    While my friend could have drawn on the man and said “Sir, please leave us alone” (not recommended when your target is in a car–for many reasons). The best possible action was to get in our car and drive away.

    Situational Awareness is key to peaceful prevention or cessation of hostile possibilities.

  3. I was taught in the USMC MP’s many years ago be polite, be professional but have a plan to kill everyone you come in contact with. Aggressive! Yes but 36 years of being a State LEO it still serves me well. Two thumbs up on your article.

  4. Awesome article. I’ve always had my own “alert modes” for different places and times but never had specific names for them. Now I know what to call them! 🙂

  5. Right on Bill! You had decided ahead of time to defend your self instead of being a willing victim. You may not have fired a shot but they knew from looking at you they, the potential assailants, had picked the wrong victim. Picking victims is what they do. Because of your decision and situational awareness, you were not acting like a victim and they picked up on that. Well done!


  6. Suzanne. Several years ago I owned a small pizza shop and grocery store in a rural Ohio community. I always kept a 9mm auto under the counter, which happily I can say I never fired in defense. One night two young men came in about 10:30 p.m., one stayed by the door and the other mulled around the candy counter. I saw a potential problem in that positioning. My 16 year old son and I had a ‘code’ I learned years ago from a Carnie guy. ‘Hey Rube’ meant possible trouble and for him to move to the back kitchen area; which he did where I had another handgun.

    I was wearing a bibbed apron and placed that 9 mm Ruger under the front of the apron and stood there stoned faced. One man at the door was looking out and as the other approached the counter I cocked the hammer. He bought an item that was a few cents over a dollar, I said “one buck even” which he placed on the counter. I never reached for it, I said ‘thank you’ and they both left my store. Had I not been aware the situation it could very well had been a a bad one for me and my son.

    I shared that story with a Highway Patrolman who often came in. He said, “Are you aware you risked your lives for a few dollars, do you think it would have been worth it if he pulled a gun, I mean for a few dollars”? I said how many robberies are committed and after the robber gets what he wants, shoots the clerk dead, no witness. My son was in the back room, you think had that happened, they would have just stopped with me”? Yeah I think it is worth taking a stand with so much uncertainy. I have insurance if I had a choice of just handing the money over and them leaving, that would be a no brainer. I wasn’t given that choice, the only choice I had to protect my son and my life to the best of my ability, with the 16 shot 9mm I was prepared to use. So it is not a question to decide to kill to save a few bucks, it is a question of are you prepared to ‘trust’ a criminal not to kill you and you son. I don’t take risks like that, no one should have to.

  7. Good article. I absolutely agree situational awareness is the first line of defense. It follows right on the heels of making the commitment to to yourself to fight back, to defend yourself if attacked. The decision to not be a willing victim.

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