Awareness Part 1: Redefining Awareness and the Color Code Model


Awareness is a buzzword in the personal defense community that is given a lot of mentions, but far too often accompanied with very little substance or understanding.

Wednesday morning tragedy struck Virginia as a murderer shot and killed Alison Parker and Adam Ward, as well as attempted to murder Vicki Gardner. On behalf of Magic City Dojo and myself, our thoughts and prayers are with you and your families.

Alison Parker & Adam Ward

Soon after the initial news broke on social media, the murderer’s own self recorded point of view video taken on his cell phone of the attack surfaced. Then came the comments from martial artists and other personal defense experts…

“No awareness! That’s why situational awareness is so important! Complete lack of attention! No zanshin! Not aware of their surroundings! They’re oblivious! How could they not see that coming?!”

Many “experts” on self defense claim that you must maintain situational awareness at all times…and that’s the end of the sentence. First, what the fuck is “situational awareness” anyway? Second, I’d argue that maintaining that level of vigilance is not only not possible, it’s also unhealthy.

The common, lip service, thrown-around-too-much buzzword of “awareness” basically means being aware of your surroundings.

That sentence didn’t give you anymore insight than what you already knew did it? But that’s all what is often given by most experts. Some will go further and say that it means knowing where you are and where you’re going. Being aware of escape routes, improvised weapons, and possible places to be attacked. Assessing the people around you and whether or not they are a potential bad guy. Always sitting with your back to the wall, etc. etc. And that’s all good and valuable to know.

Some will go into the old color code model created by Jeff Cooper which is the current standard.

  • Condition White: unaware, oblivious, asleep.
  • Condition Yellow: relaxed awareness, conversational awareness, awake.
  • Condition Orange: suspicious, interest piqued, possible threat, focused attention.
  • Condition Red: threat confirmed, decision to act required (fight or flight).
  • Condition Black: lethal threat, completely focused on the threat to the exclusion of all else.

Often instructors will say that you should never be in condition white unless you are sleeping. That if you are awake, you should be in condition yellow 100% of the time. That might be possible if you’re just chilling out on a park bench and not engaged in any cognitive activity such as talking to a friend or reading a book. But trying to maintain that level of vigilance will eventually lead to burnout and possibly even psychological problems. That’s why soldiers get sent home periodically. It’s unhealthy to maintain that level of intensity for prolonged periods of time. And you’ll miss out on the finer things of life if you’re always scanning for threats. The word for that is paranoia and it’s no way to live life.

The truth is, awareness is not a clearly defined state that fits into simple color codes. It is a fluid, always changing state that overlaps and intersects on various levels. Cooper’s color code model may be a good place to start, but to be practical in the real world, we in the personal defense training community must evolve past that model.

In his book, Counter Ambush, Rob Pincus, creator of Combat Focus™ Shooting and head of I.C.E. Training Company, talks about Keith Code’s concept of having $1.00 worth of awareness.

The idea being that as you are reading this post, you’re investing a certain amount…let’s say $0.80…of your awareness into digesting and comprehending the words you are reading. That means that you only have $0.20 left of awareness to spend. Maybe you’re spending that other $0.20 on watching to make sure your boss doesn’t catch you reading this post instead of working (by the way, he’s reading this over your shoulder). Did you look? If you did, then you had to move some of that awareness money away from this article and spend it on checking for your boss.

The same scenario in the color code model would have you at yellow/orange in terms of your reading and probably close to white behind you or to your sides.

Have you ever been driving while speaking to someone on the phone and miss your exit off the interstate? You were focused on the conversation (yellow/orange) and missed your exit (white). Missing your exit caught you off guard. A metaphorical ambush.

In the real world, we focus on things. The menu we’re reading. The friend we’re talking to.

Maybe now you can see how the news crew were caught off guard. Adam Ward was cognitively engaged in doing his job of running the camera. Alison Parker was cognitively engaged in asking specific questions, actively listening to Vicki Gardner’s response, positioning the microphone to Gardner to pick up the audio, and thinking of follow up questions. Gardner was cognitively engaged in understanding Parker’s questions and giving a thoughtful response. You must also ask how desensitized news crews are to having random people walk up to watch what they are doing, say “Hi, mom!” ,wave to the camera, and get their 15 seconds of fame.

Awareness is a fluctuating spectrum.

Once you understand that awareness is fluid…once you understand that constant, 100% vigilance is an unrealistic expectation to hold yourself to…then you must admit that, even as the well trained person, there are times when you can be caught off guard and ambushed.

In the next post we’ll go beyond the cliche of “situational awareness” and look at specific things you should not only be looking out for, but understand what those things actually mean, and how that understanding can enhance your survivability.

Have you had a moment when you were caught off guard? Tell us your story in the comments.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Privacy Preference Center