Situational awareness, a vital component of personal safety, is an ability that can be honed through dedicated training. It’s about understanding your environment, its elements and how they change over time. This skill plays a crucial role in everyday life, including self-defense scenarios. 

Being situationally aware helps you anticipate risks and make effective decisions.If you pay attention, you can notice warning signs long before a threat arises. Even if your alertness only gains you a few extra seconds in which to react, those seconds could mean the difference in surviving a defensive shooting incident. Being mentally, physically and legally prepared are all essential aspects of personal safety.

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Color Code of Awareness

Many defensive firearms training will refer to the “Color Code of Awareness” or simply “Color Codes” when discussing situational awareness. Developed by Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper, the system is composed of four distinct conditions represented by colors: White, Yellow, Orange and Red.

Condition White

Condition White signifies a state of being completely unaware or oblivious of your surroundings. You’re not paying attention to people, things or situations around you. This level of awareness leaves you vulnerable to threats. For example, if you are walking down the sidewalk or riding the bus with your face glued to your cellphone, you leave yourself vulnerable to threats and may even be making yourself more appealing to a potential predator.

Condition Yellow

Condition Yellow is being aware of your surroundings and maintaining a state of relaxed awareness. Strive to remain in this condition for optimal situational awareness. You’re not being paranoid, but rather exercising common sense and paying attention to stay prepared. In this state, you’re vigilant, observant of your environment and you notice people and things that seem out of the ordinary.

Condition Orange

Moving into Condition Orange signifies that you’ve recognized a potential threat. For instance, imagine you’re walking to your car in a dimly lit parking garage at night, and a man wearing a hoodie with his face concealed begins to approach you in a suspicious manner. The parking lot is deserted, with no other cars nearby. You sense potential danger.

Condition Red

Condition Red indicates that the threat is immediate and demands immediate action. The suspicious man wearing the hoodie withdraws a box cutter from his pocket, points it at you in a threatening manner, and demands you to hand over your cellphone and wallet. In this scenario, the threat is immediate, requiring you to respond.


The OODA Loop, an acronym for “observe, orient, decide and act,” was coined by U.S. Air Force Col. John Boyd in the 1950s and is another valuable tool for maintaining situational awareness.

This loop is a continuous process, likely occurring hundreds of times in a single day. But if you are more aware of the process and how it works, you can train to be more aware, alert and ready.


Even though you process approximately 80 percent of the information you receive with your sense of sight, you can (and do) make observations with your other senses, as well. So this is a great way to remember to pay attention. Look. Listen. Be aware of what’s happening all around you. It’s at this stage of the process that you just might spot that suspicious person in Target.


Once you observe, you are now in the orient stage. In this stage, you are getting your bearings, and you are focusing your attention on what you have just observed. Maybe that suspicious person’s gaze is lingering, or he or she might be popping up in all the same places you are. You’ve consciously made a mental note of that.


The next step is to decide. You have to make a decision about what to do with what you have just observed and learned. Should you continue your shopping and see if the odd patterns and behaviors continue? Should you go to a store employee to report the issue? Should you leave everything and walk out?


Finally, in the last step, you have made your decision and you will act upon it. So, maybe you leave Target with your children and call the store manager from the safety of your vehicle as you drive away.

Then the OODA Loop begins again.

Jeopardizing Your Safety

Unfortunately, our increasingly busy lifestyles prevent us from living in the now and paying attention to our surroundings. Watch people as they go about their daily routines, and you will see that too many of them are utterly oblivious. More often than not, they are absorbed in their cellphones. But other distractions exist. Being in a hurry and/or being preoccupied are the two most common distractions.

Rushing around can lead to all sorts of problems, from forgetting your wallet or purse as you bolt out the door to running a red light and getting a ticket … or worse. You can also lose focus and miss serious warning signs.

Likewise, worrying about something going on at home or at work can prevent you from noticing a clear threat. The term “inattentional blindness” is used to describe this phenomenon. When people focus so intently on internal matters, they literally do not see potential threats, such as a truck pulling out from a side road or the suspicious-looking group standing outside the convenience store.

Let’s face it; things happen. People get sick or lose their jobs. Unexpected bills pop up. Some things can’t be prevented. The only real solution is to constantly monitor emotional states of mind. If you find yourself in a hurry or preoccupied, for whatever reason, stop for a moment to take a breath and remind yourself how important it is to slow down and focus on the world around you.

How to Increase Your Situational Awareness

You can improve your situational awareness and learn to live in Condition Yellow by practicing observation, memory and decision-making skills.

Be Mindful of Your Surroundings

The first step to improving your situational awareness is to pay attention to what is going on around you. This means using all your senses to scan your environment for relevant information and potential threats. For example, if you are driving, you should look at the road conditions, traffic signs, other vehicles, pedestrians, weather and so on. If you are walking on a busy street, you should notice the people around you, their behavior, their clothing, their facial expressions and so forth.

Establish a Baseline

A baseline is what you expect to see or hear in a given situation or environment based on your previous experience and knowledge. It helps you to filter out irrelevant information and focus on what is important or unusual. For instance, if you are in a library, you expect to see people reading books, using computers or talking quietly. If you hear a loud scream or see someone running with a weapon, that would be a deviation from the baseline and a sign of danger.

Anticipate and Predict

Another way to improve your situational awareness is to think ahead and imagine what could happen next based on the current situation and your goals. This helps you to prepare for possible scenarios and plan your actions accordingly. For example, if you are driving and you see a car ahead of you swerving erratically, you can anticipate that it might crash or cause an accident. Then you can slow down or change lanes to avoid it.

Avoid Distractions and Complacency

Distractions and complacency are two of the biggest enemies of situational awareness. Distractions are anything that take your attention away from your primary task or goal, such as your phone, music, conversations or emotions. Complacency is a state of overconfidence or boredom that makes you underestimate the risks or challenges of a situation. Both distractions and complacency can cause you to overlook important cues or signals that could warn you of danger or opportunity.

Trust Your Intuition and Act Decisively

Intuition is your subconscious mind processing information faster than your conscious mind can. It is often based on patterns, experiences and instincts that you may not be aware of consciously. Sometimes, your intuition can alert you of something that your rational mind cannot explain or justify. When this happens, you should trust your gut feeling and act decisively before it is too late.

Learn From Feedback and Mistakes

Situational awareness is not a fixed trait that you either have or don’t have. It is a skill that can be improved with practice and feedback. You should always seek feedback from others who can offer different perspectives or insights on your performance or situation. You should also learn from your own mistakes and failures by analyzing what went wrong and how you can avoid repeating them in the future.

Train Regularly and Realistically

The best way to improve your situational awareness is to train regularly and realistically in situations that simulate the challenges and risks that you may face in real life. This will help you to develop your mental models, sharpen your senses, test your intuition and hone your decision-making skills under pressure.

Staying Alert and Prepared

Situational awareness is not something you can achieve overnight or by reading an article. It demands continual practice, feedback and improvement. However, by following these tips, you can enhance your situational awareness and become more aware, alert and effective in any situation.

This article is a compilation of previous blog posts authored by Eugene Nielsen, John Caile, Beth Alcazar and Kevin Michalowski.