Straight Talk about Situational Awareness

Straight Talk about Situational Awareness

Those of us in the US inhabit a fairly peaceful nation. Crime has been dropping steadily for years and we are, in general, safer than we’ve been in living memory.  And while that’s comforting, it doesn’t change the fact that sometimes trouble comes looking for you.  We’ve talked a lot on USA Carry about the weapons and tactics of personal defense, but now I’d like to take a look into how we might avoid trouble before it starts—or at least give ourselves the maximum amount of time to react to it.

What is situational awareness?

The incredibly smart folks over at Stratfor said it best: situational awareness is

“ being aware of one’s surroundings and identifying potential threats and dangerous situation.”

They also note that this is a mindset and world-view more than it is a skill, and like all mindsets it must be carefully and consciously cultivated.  The critical first step is a relaxed acceptance that bad things can happen. No denial, no rose-tinted glasses—but likewise no gloom and doom. Be stoic; evil exists and violence can happen. Accept that and move on.

From there: remember that you’re responsible for your own safety. The cops bear no legal obligation to you as an individual, and they’re in the main a reactive force. When the balloon goes up, your actions will be what saves your life. Situational awareness allows you to recognize problems and respond to them quickly and effectively.

Levels of Awareness

The best cognitive tool I know of for adopting a situational awareness mindset comes from the works of noted firearm guru Jeff Cooper. In his landmark book Principles of Personal Defense, Col. Cooper lays out the “color code” system, in which organizes mental states of alertness and awareness:

  • White: unalert and unprepared, totally relaxed. This state should only be reached when secured in the privacy of one’s own home, if then.
  • Yellow: relaxed but alert and well aware of one’s surroundings. This is the mindset Col. Cooper advises us to cultivate most of the time. You keep your eyes moving, gauge the mood/feel of your environment, and stay aware of any changes or developments.
  • Orange: focused alert. Something specific has your attention and you are evaluating it as a potential threat. You’ll likely keep your weapon holstered, but you’ll be ready to respond if needed.
  • Red: go time. This is your mental fight trigger: “If the threat does X I will shoot.”

The color code system is active rather than descriptive—i.e. you move consciously through the stages of alertness. Combined with some tactical positioning—stay aware of where the exits/fire alarms are, keep the room in your field of vision, etc—and you’ve got a powerful system for developing an aware mindset.

While I wrote this article for a CCW-oriented audience, much of the information presented here applies to everyone, armed or not. Situational awareness may thus serve another purpose; it could be a good way to begin a discussion about personal protection and safety with loved ones who are on the fence about firearms. Just be polite and avoid forcing the issue.

And as always, stay safe out there.

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Michael Jenkins is a writer and editor based in Wilmington, North Carolina. He is a lifelong reader, gardener, shooter, and musician. You can reach him at
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