The Importance of Situational Awareness

posted on May 12, 2020

Staying out of Condition White is imperative, but remaining constantly in Condition Orange can be exhausting. How do you balance being aware of your surroundings with real life?

A number of years ago, Col. Jeff Cooper designed the Color Code to help us understand the level of mental awareness and preparation needed to deal with the violence—or potential violence—that might be visited upon us. In Condition White, the person is unaware and unprepared. In Condition Yellow, the person is in a state of relaxed awareness, alert for any possible threat. In Condition Orange, the person has observed a potential threat. And, in Condition Red, the person has observed an actual threat.

The armed citizen will rarely, if ever, find himself in Condition Red—that is, faced with an actual violent threat. He or she will, however, wind up in Condition Orange quite often. How we deal with a Condition Orange situation directly effects how we can deal with a violent attack, or avoid it completely.

Recently, I was having lunch in a little cafe, enjoying my sandwich and reading my book. Since I was sitting where I could see the front door, I immediately noticed a guy come in whose body language just seemed off. Further, he was carrying a walking staff that was about 5 feet long and 2.5 inches in diameter. To make matters worse, he was talking to himself. Clearly, this could be a problem—Condition Orange.

I kept him under continual observation while he got his meal and sat at a table about 10 feet to my left. He continued to talk to himself, but showed no signs of aggression. My response was to shift in my seat, turning slightly toward him, so I could see him without staring directly at him. At the same time, I unfastened my vest so that I could make a quick pistol presentation should the need arise.

The fellow finished his meal and left the cafe, still chatting away with himself. I went back to Condition Yellow.

It is critically important that, once a potential threat is spotted, we keep it under constant observation. This is not the time to watch a while and then go back to shopping, reading your book or that friendly conversation. We keep the potential threat in view until the threat leaves, we leave or the matter is otherwise resolved. Let me repeat—don’t take your eyes off of a potential threat.

In the meantime, you should be formulating a plan. Where is the nearest exit? Where is the nearest cover? If you are carrying things, it’s time to put them down and free your hands. It is also time to open whatever covering garments you might have on for freer access to your defensive firearm. With a little thought, you can find a way to do all of these things without looking like Wyatt Earp about to enter the OK Corral.

Part of your plan should be what Cooper called the Mental Trigger, “If this person of interest does X, then I am going to do Y.”  You should have a good idea ahead of time what actions you will take in response to the actions taken by the potential threat.

And don’t be so cocky that you forget that the smartest move on your part might be to just leave the area. If an argument starts at the other end of the bar, the best move might just be to pay your tab and leave. If a gang of punks are wandering around the shopping mall, it might just be time to cut your shopping short and head home.

Although we will rarely draw our defensive handgun while in Condition Orange, it is an excellent idea to make sure it is close at hand. If strangers are on your front porch, or wandering around your property, you really don’t have the luxury of leaving. In this case, having the firearm in a position of quick access is critical. Keeping in mind that most situations that put us in Condition Orange don’t escalate, we can still be alert and ready while having a pleasant smile on our face and a kind word on our lips.

If a person truly tries to be alert and aware of what is going on around him, he will go from Condition Yellow to Condition Orange on many occasions. And those occasions of Condition Orange rarely, if ever, escalate to Condition Red. In spite of that, we keep the potential threat under constant observation until we realize that it is not a threat or it leaves, or we leave. And, in the meantime, we develop a plan for dealing with a threat. 

It is also important to not ignore a gut feeling in this regard. Regarding the fellow that I saw in the cafe, my gut told me that he just wasn’t right. I stayed in Condition Orange as long as he was in my presence, but I did it in such a way that neither he nor those in the cafe knew that I was just a step or two away from being ready to fight.

As we have observed before, the armed citizen must wait for the criminal to make the first move before responding in a lethal manner. Understanding Condition Orange helps the citizen recognize and prepare for the likelihood of an attack and helps to take some of the advantage away from the criminal.


308 wildcat cartridge components
308 wildcat cartridge components

308 Based Cartridges Part 2: Boutique And 308 Wildcat Cartridges

.308 Win. is the starting point for boutique and wildcat cartridges of all shapes and sizes

First Look: Versacarry Compound Carry Holster

Ideal for appendix carry, this new hybrid holster packs a lot of nice features.

iRayUSA RICO MK1 640 3x50mm Thermal Rifle Scope Review

A full-featured thermal optic with a lot going for it.

Silencer Central Holds New HQ Grand Opening

Larger facilities mean more choices for American gun owners.

First Look: TAC Six Branded Shooting Cases from Allen Company

Gear designed for the tactical market that performs at a higher level.

Colonel Rex Applegate

For me, one of the many bonuses of this gunwriter business has been the opportunity to meet and become friends with a number of the firearm enthusiasts of an earlier generation; legendary figures such as Frank Hamer Jr., Bill Jordan, Bill Toney, Col Walter Walsh and the subject of this column: COL Rex Applegate.


Get the best of Shooting Illustrated delivered to your inbox.