I recently read an article by Patrice Bonnafoux entitled What Too much Situational Awareness Does to Your Brain(http://www.urbanfitandfearless.com/2015/08/what-too-much-emphasis-on-situational.html) that raised some great points worth considering. While I don’t agree with everything in the article, it illustrates the danger of becoming hypervigilant when striving to be situationally aware.

Hypervigilance is defined as is “an enhanced state of sensory sensitivity accompanied by an exaggerated intensity of behaviors whose purpose is to detect threats. Hypervigilance is also accompanied by a state of increased anxiety which can cause exhaustion” (Wikipedia). Hypervigilance and paranoia are contradictory to good personal security and situational awareness. They are mentally exhausting and may cause the individual to miss true threat indicators in the environment.

Bonnafoux’s article raises some good points about what can go wrong when situational awareness is presently incorrectly or misinterpreted. It’s critical that situational awareness techniques be introduced and implemented correctly or they will be counterproductive.


Cooper’s Colors

The article addresses the use of Cooper’s Colors and I firmly believe the concept behind Cooper’s Colors is critical to situational awareness. In his book Principles of Personal Defense Cooper outlined four levels of mindset (excerpted in part from my book Safe Travel Abroad ):

White: Unaware and unprepared. In this condition you are unaware of your surroundings and unprepared to respond to a threat against you. Unfortunately many people walk around at this level every day.

Yellow: Relaxed alert. You are aware of what is going on around you and you have mentally recognized that a threat may appear and you may need to respond to it. You are not however in a hyper-vigilant state. This is a relaxed state that can be maintained for long periods of time without fatigue. This is the level you should be in most of the time, in particular whenever you are in public

Orange: Specific alert or heightened alert. You have identified a particular threat and have made the mental decision that you will act if the threat takes a certain action. This can also apply to entering a location or area where there is an increased threat that requires deliberate attention. This is not a relaxed state and cannot be effectively maintained for long periods of time.

Red: Condition Red is fight. This is pretty self-explanatory. You are in a personal combat situation or a survival/self-preservation mode.

Cooper’s Colors and variations of it have been adopted by numerous entities, instructors and so forth, sometimes with minor modifications. Some also use a fifth condition call Condition Black that refers to a breakdown of mental and physical performance due to being overwhelmed by a situation – for example moving from condition white to red as the result of an ambush attack

You don’t want to be in Condition Black and Condition Red is largely situationally driven which means your primary focus should be on the other three colors or levels of awareness.
That also does not mean there are not gradations of each level. We don’t talk about light yellow, dark yellow, etc. but that does not mean there cannot be variations or gradations in each category.

The color concept is only a guide or frame of reference.

In my opinion the key points to take away from the Cooper’s Colors concept are:

(1) Awareness levels are scalable.
(2) Condition Yellow is arguably the level we should all maintain most of the time.
(3) We will likely move back and forth between levels yellow and orange as we encounter different people and situations in our daily routine.
(4) There are some inherent dangers in Condition White. We should recognize Condition White and not use it when we are in public.


When to raise your level of awareness:

Understanding where you are most likely to be attacked and knowing how to ratchet up your alertness level appropriately is a key component of personal protection — probably the key component. You can’t walk around hyper-alert in condition orange all the time. You’ll be exhausted and at some point – probably pretty quickly – it will become counterproductive.  Whether you are an at-risk person who may be specifically target for attack, kidnapping or some other crime for whatever reason or whether you are – like most of us – more likely to be the victim of an opportunistic crime you should recognize that you are more vulnerable and the likelihood is greater at certain locations and at certain times.  I’ll exclude mentioning the more obvious places and times like late at night and in a bad neighborhood or secluded area — although of course these are places and times that call for heightened vigilance.  Here are some of the times when you should avoid distraction and focus on your environment:

  • Arrivals and departures: whether you are leaving or arriving your home, office, supermarket, gym, shopping mall, etc. you should take a moment to look around and observe the people and vehicles in the area and assess if anyone might present a threat to you. This is particularly true if you are entering or exiting a vehicle.
  • Boarding Mass Transportation: when stepping on to a subway car, bus or even an aircraft cabin you should look at your fellow travelers and assess which ones, if any might present a potential threat.
  • Areas where you are channelized or your options for maneuver or movements are restricted: These might be bridges, narrow roads with a blind curve, etc. Often referred to as chokepoints these are locations that are well suited for ambush-style attacks.
  • Identified Danger Areas: these are locations that have a past history of violent or criminal incidents occurring. In some overseas locations where civil unrest and rioting are practically the national pastime these can be focal points where crowds form or protests regularly occur.

The above list is far from exhaustive but should give you a good starting point.
When in these locations you should put away the Android, the iPhone and whatever other distractions away, stop compiling the shopping list or planning your weekend and focus on the environment around you – in particular people or things that might cause you harm.


Living in Condition Yellow

It’s totally possible to live in Condition Yellow and in fact it’s arguably the condition you should maintain when you are in a public place. Condition Yellow is relaxed awareness and should not be confused with hypervigilance.


The Driving Analogy

I have found one of the best ways to think about and explain situational awareness is to compare it to driving. It’s not an original idea but I have found it works pretty well. Most adults drive and many of us drive pretty much every day. When we go out on the road we are practicing situational awareness as it relates to our driving. For the most part you are in Condition Yellow. You are aware of what is going on around you, the position of other cars, whether the light is changing or not. You take this information in and adjust to it but it is not mentally exhausting and you can often carry on a conversation at the same time. A car pulls out in front of you suddenly – potential imminent danger – you go up to Condition Orange, perhaps take some evasive action to avoid and accident. The situation passes and you drop back to Condition Yellow. You can maintain this level for an extended period of time, operate effectively and not find yourself hypervigilant, paranoid or mentally exhausted.
Now apply the same mindset to your daily (non-driving) life and maybe consider criminal threats as well as road hazards when you are driving.
You leave your home – that’s a departure. You ratchet your awareness up to see what other people or vehicles are on the street. Nothing out of the ordinary, you continue on your way. You reach an isolated underpass that you need to pass on your route and you recognize it as a potential danger area and raise your alertness. There is a man standing near the entrance to the underpass. He is trying to look nonchalant but not doing anything or appearing to have any purpose there. You acknowledge his behavior as a potential threat, raise to Condition Orange and take a different route or some other action.


Condition Orange and Hypervigilance

Remaining in Condition Orange for an extended period of time can cause mental exhaustion. Again using the driving analogy this is similar to driving on an icy road or in a blizzard or a torrential rainstorm. Your visibility may be reduced, traction is poor and you need to give your full attention to driving your vehicle. You arrive at your destination alive but exhausted.
It’s very difficult to remain in Condition Orange for extended periods of time without having negative effects. Therefore it’s very important to assess your risk profile as accurately as possible and adjust your alertness level accordingly.



Its critical to remember that situational awareness is scalable based on your risk profile, the location you are in and what you are doing. People who are at-risk or operating in high risk environments need to be more vigilant that those who are less at risk (we discuss at risk persons here: https://protectiveconcepts.wordpress.com/2013/06/08/a-tiger-kidnapping-in-connecticut-and-defining-an-at-risk-person/ and here: https://protectiveconcepts.wordpress.com/2013/11/08/probability-looking-at-likelihood-when-assessing-personal-risk/.



Situational awareness is the cornerstone of good personal security. Spotting potential danger in advance increases your ability to avoid an incident or when unavoidable at least prepare for it. Even in a situation like the attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, California it may help you detect a problem seconds earlier giving you a better chance to seek cover or escape the area.

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