Colors, Numbers, and More Colors… Oh My!

Much has been made of how to quantify awareness and how to give yourself more of a fighting chance when violence comes calling.

When you figure that out, let me know.

There are many different techniques promoted by thousands of different instructors in regards to this (and we’ll talk about three of them below)… but here’s the big secret: they’re all right and they’re all wrong.  You see, it only counts if they actually helped you in some way – and that’s not something I’ve had much success at finding statistics on.

Bing gives me 2,250,000 results when I search for “Sharknado,” but nothing on this.  But I suppose that’s fair – add Ian Ziering and Tara Reid into a movie that includes herds (flocks?) of flying sharks and you clearly have cinematic GOLD.  Did I mention they’re making a sequel?  Woo hoo!  But I digress.

Clearly, every Hollywood actor with any talent was busy when they filmed this.

He came out of nowhere!

So as we all know, if we’re attacked or violently confronted (“give me your wallet!!”), the odds of a “favorable” outcome for us drop significantly if we have absolutely no warning.  Any heads-up we can get, even a very brief instant, pays significant dividends toward avoiding or de-escalating (or surviving) conflict.  THAT is the goal here – not to give us a series of colors or numbers to memorize, but to give us a training aid whose purpose is to increase our odds of survival in any number of bad or unusual situations.

Let’s get to some specifics.

Col. Jeff Cooper was one of, if not the first one to quantify this into some sort of repeatable system.  Here’s what he came up with:

  • White: Unaware and unprepared. If attacked in Condition White, the only thing that may save you is the inadequacy or ineptitude of your attacker. When confronted by something nasty, your reaction will probably be “Oh my God! This can’t be happening to me.”
  • Yellow: Relaxed alert. No specific threat situation. Your mindset is that “today could be the day I may have to defend myself”. You are simply aware that the world is a potentially unfriendly place and that you are prepared to defend yourself, if necessary. You use your eyes and ears, and realize that “I may have to shoot today”. You don’t have to be armed in this state, but if you are armed you should be in Condition Yellow. You should always be in Yellow whenever you are in unfamiliar surroundings or among people you don’t know. You can remain in Yellow for long periods, as long as you are able to “Watch your six.” (In aviation 12 o’clock refers to the direction in front of the aircraft’s nose. Six o’clock is the blind spot behind the pilot.) In Yellow, you are “taking in” surrounding information in a relaxed but alert manner, like a continuous 360 degree radar sweep. As Cooper put it, “I might have to shoot.”
  • Orange: Specific alert. Something is not quite right and has your attention. Your radar has picked up a specific alert. You shift your primary focus to determine if there is a threat (but you do not drop your six). Your mindset shifts to “I may have to shoot that person today”, focusing on the specific target which has caused the escalation in alert status. In Condition Orange, you set a mental trigger: “If that person does “X”, I will need to stop them”. Your pistol usually remains holstered in this state. Staying in Orange can be a bit of a mental strain, but you can stay in it for as long as you need to. If the threat proves to be nothing, you shift back to Condition Yellow.
  • Red: Condition Red is fight. Your mental trigger (established back in Condition Orange) has been tripped. “If ‘X’ happens I will shoot that person” – ‘X’ has happened, the fight is on.

Col. Cooper was of the military mindset, through-and-through.  But my take-away for his awareness levels has always been this: “White = bad.  Other levels = other stuff going on.”  And yes, that’s pretty much exactly how my brain files stuff like this away.

One of my friends rightfully points out that it’s physically impossible to remain constantly in at least Condition Yellow when you have a gun – something Col. Cooper was very clear about.  My friend is absolutely correct.  It’s just not always possible, and that may not be a horrible thing.  But it’s still a good goal.

So again – don’t get wrapped up in the specifics of the definitions of each color/level or you’re missing my point here.  There are varying degrees of awareness and various triggers which thrust you into each successive level.  Still with me?

Massad Ayoob has his own take, which helps to clarify some of the legal differences between when deadly force is authorized and when it isn’t – or at least that’s the goal.  Here’s what he came up with:

  • White – lowest level, unprepared for violence, unaware of the symptoms of violence
  • Yellow – relaxed alert, relaxed state of preparedness; tell me people within 10 feet, tell me what street you’re on; if you’re carrying a gun you should be in yellow; not paranoid, just observing what’s happening around you; it’s not paranoia, it’s FREEDOM FROM PARANOIA.  Become a people watcher – discovering great things that are around us every day.  When you’re on your hands and knees in the bushes looking for thorns, you can’t help but smell the roses when you’re there.
  • Orange – an unspecified alert; there is something wrong, but we don’t know yet exactly what it is; we have perceived some sort of threat; body alarm reaction begins (was it a passing threat?  Breaking glass?) pulse quickens, respiration begins, mouth is try, face is pale, vaso constriction, etc. the weapon may or may not be in hand (tactical decision), but it should be ready to go… be aware of cover – where will I go, what will I do if… sensory antenna are out, trying to intercept any sign of danger
  • Red – armed encounter.  Facing 1 or more people you believe have the potential to take your life and you’re prepared to do the same to them.  You may or may not hit the final point of body alarm reaction, which is fight or flight.  If you are aware of cover in orange, you are now taking that cover.  You’re drawing your weapon and controlling lanes of access and egress; probably will be appropriate to issue the “challenge” in command voice – don’t move!!
  • Black – lethal assault in progress, upon you or a person in your protection – he’s trying to kill us now.  This is now officially non-negotiable.  In most cases, there is only 1 real option – neutralize.  We shoot to stop or to neutralize.  

Do you see all the similarities?

Marc MacYoung, as Marc is known to do from time-to-time, has completely broken with the standard philosophy on this… and has tried to make everything easier.  To paraphrase his take on this: “Colors complicated.  Numbers good.”  Ok, that’s not nearly how he explains this, but that’s how my brain files it.  But I’ll try and lay out his take on all of this… and hopefully I didn’t screw this up too badly (and here is where this kind-of was born).

  • Code 1 – I’m responding, but I’ll get there when I get there.  Something is going on (a cat is stuck in a tree), I’ve noticed, but I’m going to finish my ice cream first before I worry about this.
  • Code 2 – There are two guys standing on either side of that ATM machine over there where I’m going.  That doesn’t seem normal to me.  There’s a chance it’s nothing, but considering alternative options here (potentially even preparing for an attack) is a great idea.
  • Code 3 – I’m being attacked!

So there are 3 common approaches to awareness.  All are good, all are useful, and all are worth pondering.

What do you think?


2 comments on “Colors, Numbers, and More Colors… Oh My!

  1. Jeff,

    I was in the military and short of communicating the unit status to us these are overly complicated. Everyday on deployment I was greeted with a sign showing that we were white and tight (no specific threat – fire not authorized) to red and loose (specific threat – fire authorized) these communicated to me the status and mindset I should have while greeting the day. In the rest of the world you live 99.99% of your life in normal happy society and the balance 0.01% in a fight for your life, that’s too much time walking around at ‘yellow’ alert.

    In my civilian life I try to approach everything with the same interest a child does. Don’t judge but be interested, don’t confront but ask questions. If you see something that doesn’t make sense to you, be cautious and ask, most often ask if you can help. Most of the time when I’ve verbally engaged a person who appeared to be a possible threat the response was overwhelmingly positive.

    Later in life I learned this is a tactic they teach to help reduce robberies in convenience stores. Apparently potential robbers, once greeted find it overwhelmingly difficult to rob the greeter. Once you are a human and caring to the attacker they aren’t interested in hurting you, they may go on to someone else who doesn’t acknowledge them or even look up from their smartphone as they pass. It’s first about being a human and second about protecting yourself.

    As someone carrying, have the confidence to be the right person. I think I saw a quote – if only Zimmerman had given Trayvon a ride home that night. They could have talked and gotten to know one another rather than distrusting and hating each other.


    • Keith – that’s exactly my point! 😀 It’s fluid and the definitions don’t really matter nearly as much as the over-arching principles. But if one or two or three of the examples above are too complicated, that doesn’t mean they’re useless.

      And “Yellow” (or Code 1 as Marc puts it) does NOT mean paranoia – it just means noticing your environment! And yes, especially noticing *LIFE*!

      I’m not sure I’m with you on TM and GZ becoming best friends… but there’s a big lesson to be learned on how law enforcement interacts with people – there’s a bizarre knack for eye contact. And it works!

      Thanks for your service!

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