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Good situational awareness (SA) means always having a vital understanding of time and place and how they relate to you, your companions and others around you at any given moment in any place, work, home or recreation. Any time you are with others, especially strangers, you should maintain good SA. Good SA strikes a balance between being oblivious and paranoid. SA can be developed and improved through practice.
Color Code System
A color code system may help you define and understand different levels of situational awareness. Based on the color alert system developed by the United States Marine Corps during World War II, not on the similar Homeland Defense levels of alert, this system is modified for civilian use; in the Marine Corps, the highest level of SA requires that a Marine shoots the enemy on sight. This is fine on a battlefield, but most police departments frown on this sort of behavior in their jurisdictions. The paragraphs below describe your attitude and state of mind in five different levels of situational awareness.
Condition White: You are pretty oblivious to your surroundings. You are not prepared if trouble arises. You do not perceive any danger in your immediate area, but you are not alert for any. Walking around in Condition White means being distracted or simply unaware. Your head is likely down or fixed on a distant spot. You may be looking at a map, searching around for an address or landmark. You are an easy mark for a pickpocket. Tourists are often in Condition White. If you are attacked in Condition White, you are likely to be hurt. If armed, you are a danger to society.
Condition Yellow: You are at ease, not perceiving any danger, but you are aware of your surroundings. You can identify, without looking, generally who and what are around you - people, entrances, exits, areas for concealment and/or cover*. Although you are not looking for or expecting trouble, if it comes up you will know about it. You walk with head up, casually scanning the immediate area and what is just beyond. You see who and what are ahead of you, are aware of areas to your side, and take an occasional opportunity to scan behind you. Any time in public is a good time to be in Condition Yellow. If you are armed in any way, you must be in Condition Yellow.
Condition Orange: You become aware of some non-specific danger. You might hear a nearby shout or yelling, glass breaking, an unidentified sudden noise where there should be none, or you see a person or persons acting abnormally, perhaps seeming angry or maybe you just happen to see someone over and again in a store. You focus on the nebulous danger, but not to the exclusion of a broader awareness of your surroundings and the people there. Trouble may be starting in places in addition to the one place that has drawn your attention. Beware ambush set-ups.
You look for routes of possible escape, concealment or cover. You look for objects to use as weapons or distractions. You do not make aggressive moves, but may reposition yourself to take advantage of these things if need be. If the trouble is immediate, but not directed at you, verbal de-escalation may be appropriate, but may also involve you where you do not want to be. You may want to move away to safety as simply a precaution. If armed, you want to have your weapon accessible, though probably not drawn. Perhaps you should call the authorities. If you are in a lonely area, say a parking garage, you might move into a lighted or populated area like a store.
Condition Red: You have been confronted or people are becoming very aggressive near enough to you to confront you quickly. You have reason to believe that they do or could present a danger to you or people with you. You begin to move away to your routes of escape, concealment or cover. If the confrontation is immediate, you move away from any weapons being brandished or distractions being made, while at the same time keeping well aware of them.
If you are armed, draw and ready your weapon. A verbal challenge may be useful. Verbal de-escalation may be an option, but be ready to escalate to Condition Black. A show of ability and readiness to resist may stop the confrontation, but may also push it higher. Your intent is to stop the potential assault that is coming, escape to safety or stay safe until help arrives, and do so without harming anyone, even those threatening you. (Pay attention to the phrasing here. I am not a lawyer, however in the aftermath of an event, what you say will be very important. You do not want to kill or hurt anyone. You do not want to teach them a lesson. These attitudes make you the agressor. Remember your rights regarding what you must say and what you may avoid saying. Contact the ACLU for more information on this score.)
Condition Black: You or people you are with are being attacked. You flee, fight back, and/or use the weapons or distractions at your disposal. If armed, you will use your weapon. Verbal challenges and de-escalation will not be useful. Your intent is to stop the assault that is in progress, and escape to safety or stay safe until help arrives.
Stay alert - Stay alive!
Concealment vs Cover: Which is which may depend on the circumstance, but generally, concealment hides you from sight, but offers little or no protection from bullets, rocks, or other attack. Cover both hides and protects you. A secure hiding place with a lockable door may be cover from physical assault, but drywall is only concealment if an assailant has a gun.