The Myth of Condition Yellow and Situational Awareness

Colonel Jeff Cooper founded the Gunsite Academy (American Pistol Institute) in 1976 to develop and teach the art of fighting with a pistol and almost everything that exists today in the world of firearms training and concealed carry goes back in some way or another to Col. Cooper.

One of the things that Col. Cooper came up with was a set of 4 “color codes” that designated what mental state people are in.  Cooper’s color codes pretty much laid the groundwork for the general public becoming aware of the concept of situational awareness.

The color codes are:

Condition White: You are asleep or unaware of the possibility of danger. If danger presents itself, the natural reaction is denial and/or bargaining.

Condition Yellow: You know that the possibility exists for danger, but aren’t pre-occupied with it. You have no specific concerns and haven’t identified any threats or serious potential threats. You are ready to deal with threats if they present themselves and won’t be surprised if they do. If danger presents itself, your reaction is action.

In condition yellow, you are relaxed, calm, and alert. Pulse is low, pupils are dilated, blood pressure is low, hands are warm, etc.

Because you are relaxed, calm, and alert, you can remain in this state for long periods of time without fatigue or irritation and can be fully engaged with people around you.

Condition Orange: When a potential threat attracts your attention, you switch into condition orange until you determine that it is a real threat or a false positive. Usually it will be a false positive and you’ll want to switch back to Condition Yellow as soon as you determine that, but people get tripped up by not realizing that they’ve “gone orange” and forget to switch back and calm down.

Condition orange is where you decide on your mental trigger—“If he does x, I’ll do y”

Condition orange is taxing on the mind. If you know anyone who’s recently come back from battle or is hyper-vigilant in a situation where it’s not necessary, it’s likely that they’re in some shade of condition orange.

When you’re in condition orange, a significant portion of your mental bandwidth is focused on identifying potential threats. Fun, humor, conversations, beauty, and the present experience start to be minimized to focus on how to survive what might happen next.

Oftentimes, you’ll know that you’re in condition orange because your body starts preparing for battle and will start showing early signs of stress to one degree or another—shallower breathing, higher pulse & blood pressure, etc. in preparation for a fight/flight.

Condition Orange is a lifesaver when you need it, but can wear you down if you stay in this mode too long unnecessarily.

Condition Red: This is fight or flight time, based on what your mental trigger is/was. This is when you execute pre-conditioned and pre-determined responses…not when you start thinking through things.

So, what’s the myth of condition yellow?

The myth of condition yellow is really a misunderstanding that happens after people learn about the concept.

They instantly understand and appreciate the color codes and try to apply them…even if they don’t have a framework to follow to apply them successfully.

They end up spending a lot of time amped up in condition orange THINKING that they’re in condition yellow rather than being relaxed and alert like you are in condition yellow.

You see, condition yellow is when your mind is UNCONSCIOUSLY scanning your environment for threats…kind of like a backup warning beeper on a car. It’s working and scanning while your conscious mind is doing other things.

When it (either your mind in condition yellow and the backup beeper) sounds a warning, the conscious mind immediately jumps into action, shifts attention, goes into condition orange, and determines whether or not the warning requires further action or not.

In a car, when the backup warning turns off because you put your car into park or drive, you don’t keep staring backwards, looking for threats…you let the sensors do their job in the background while you do whatever you want to with your conscious mind.  This is the equivalent of switching back to condition yellow and it’s what you want to do in everyday life.

But with condition yellow and condition orange, 2 things typically happen:

First, people don’t know how to program their mind to minimize the number of false threat warnings.  They don’t have a vocabulary or a threat profile in their mind to use for filtering and inner dialog.

And they confuse vague sayings like, “always look for exits” and “be on the lookout for threats,” that create unease with true situational awareness that creates calmness.

Second, people spend way too much time in condition orange for no reason, which is taxing and conditions them to mistrust their instincts and eventually become blind to actual threats.

Some people need to be in condition orange for extended periods of time…like law enforcement driving through neighborhoods where turds are taking pot shots at cruisers, but most people don’t.

The key is to be able to quickly switch back and forth between condition yellow and condition orange as situations present themselves.

And the way to do that is with accurate threat profiles.  When you give your mind a short, simple list of criteria to compare potential threats to, it helps you identify threats quicker and more accurately, it helps you avoid false alarms, and helps you live safer and calmer at the same time.

Before now, that was a skill that people either had or they didn’t. There just hasn’t been a very effective way to teach the concept of how to switch back and forth and how to enjoy maximum situational awareness with minimal conscious effort.

This has been complicated by the fact that most of the loudest proponents of situational awareness in the firearms and self-defense worlds aren’t fully aware of how they developed their own situational awareness skills in the first place. And if you don’t know how you got good at something, it makes it very difficult to teach.  I know…I used to be a big proponent of situational awareness, but had no clue how to help people get from where they were to where I was.

And that’s why I’m such a big supporter of the Avoid Deter Defend Situational Awareness and Threat Detection Course that retired US Navy SEAL Larry Yatch and his former intelligence professional wife, Anne, put together.

It’s the same skills that Larry used downrange when operating solo and on small teams to protect him from ambush and kidnapping, except it’s been modified to help civilians protect themselves and loved ones from muggings, assault, and sexual assault, regardless of their age or tactical ability.

It’s the only training available today in any form that seamlessly takes you from the pre-fight stage where you use situational awareness to identify and avoid threats, to the fight stage where you defend yourself with whatever training you have, to the post-fight stage where you interact with law enforcement and 911 and go home free and safe that night.  Every other training that I’ve seen misses one or more of these stages.

If you don’t have it yet, I want to strongly encourage you to check it out today by going >HERE<.

Thoughts, questions, or comments about condition yellow?  Fire away by commenting below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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  1. Robert Torbett
    10 months ago

    I learned Situational Awareness while in the Navy back in the ’60s. I’ve practiced it ever since. As I’ve aged, I’ve slowed down of course and find being aware of my situation is even more important for me and also in keeping my disabled wife safe. An example is a couple of months ago we were at a Wal Mart near us. I had just unloaded her scooter from the back of the truck when a man who had the appearance of someone rather seedy picked up her purse from the scooter seat. Before he could explain himself as just helping her sit down, my hand was on the grip of my 9mm. She didn’t know this until I told her later that he was almost staring down the barrel my pistol. Good self control and being able to make this move without anyone even realizing what I was doing kept the situation from turning ugly. This is why I believe everyone needs to ensure they are fully aware of their surroundings and conditions. I’m a firm believer in the “Color” system and feel all persons especially those with a CCL need to be trained in the process. I’ve been using the cards for dry fire practice, but wanted to refer to your information regarding them.
    Thanks for system.
    Robert Torbett


  2. Mark
    7 months ago

    Being aware comes naturally to some, but not for all. Some don’t feel the need to. Sheep some of them. But we try to teach awareness. It is picked up when the need presents itself. So, some will always be on first base, while others are still at homeplate trying to get on. It helps when people can stave down perpetrators often times. Keep teaching, and we’ll keep reaching.


  3. Frank Garfield
    5 months ago

    I trained with Col Cooper at Gunsite in 1978 and again in 1979. We drilled with the color system right from the first day. Yellow means things like periodically checking the reflection in a store window you’re passing by just to better know what is around you. You are just being “AWARE,” (Yellow) you’re not “GETTING READY” (Orange) for anything. Situational awareness is only a myth when people don’t understand exactly what it is.
    Orange (like Torbett said) is actually perceiving a potential threat and “Getting Ready” to deal with it if you have to (if you feel an imminent threat of death or bodily harm). However, someone snatching a purse and running away is not justification for drawing and threatening or actually shooting a perp because they are then running away and do not pose a threat.
    Not long ago in Michigan a CPL holder presented a weapon when her purse was grabbed and was charged for threatening with a firearm when the purse snatcher was running away.
    Learning to use the Color Code Mindset is a must do, especially if one is carrying.


  4. John McClarren
    1 month ago

    Thank you for clarifying these color conditions. I think I am pretty consistently in the yellow category. I am always aware of potential dangers around me, but by no means paranoid about the possibilities. We live in a very strange world now, with frequent radical and violent events happening in very unexpected places, not even necessarily heavily populated. Always being on the alert is a wise thing, but not becoming overly concerned to the point of continuous discomfort. Relax and enjoy life. If imminent danger presents itself, fine; take whatever appropriate action is necessary at the time, but don’t stress out over the mere possibilities of things happening.

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