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Develop Situational Awareness

October 3, 2011 by  

Develop Situational Awareness

With time being limited and the economy being the way that it is, it’s important to identify as many preparedness and survival skills as possible that you can learn and practice quickly and inexpensively. One of the most important survival and preparedness skills that you can learn, fortunately, happens to be free to practice: situational awareness.

People tend to throw a lot of jargon around when they talk about situational awareness. One of the most common phrases is talking about always being in “condition yellow.” Oftentimes, people have heard the term so much that they simply nod their head in agreement without really understanding what it means or where the term came from.

Condition yellow comes from famed firearms instructor Jeff Cooper, who wrote the book Principles of Self Defense in 1989. More than two decades later, it’s still a great book.

You may know Cooper as the founder of the famous Gunsite Firearms Training Academy. Although the book is quoted often, few people have actually read it. It’s less than 30 pages, and it’s only $10. I’ll warn you now, if you judge the value of a book by its weight, skip this one. If, on the other hand, you’re like me and appreciate quality over quantity and fluff, it’s one you should buy and read soon.

Let me briefly tell you about Cooper’s color codes. He maintained that people walk around in one of four states, or conditions:

Condition White: This is the baseline in America. Unaware. “Tuned out” listening to music, texting, talking on a cellphone or just daydreaming. The belief in condition white is that everyone around you will look out for you and that nobody would have any reason to do you harm. People who walk into fixed objects like light poles, walls, etc. are generally in condition white. They don’t see danger coming and are surprised and confused when bad things happen.

Condition Yellow: This is the condition in which you are relaxed and aware of your surroundings. You observe people around you and look for exits, possible improvised weapons and environmental threats (like icicles hanging from a roof or a young child playing by a railing with 1-foot gaps in the slats). In this state, you’re also more likely to see opportunities, recognize friends and identify situations where you can help with information or by taking action. Being in condition yellow allows you to be proactive and avoid problems or create favorable outcomes that other people don’t see as possibilities.

Condition yellow is not necessarily being on edge, irritable, having a hair trigger and thinking that everyone is out to get you. In fact, simply “people watching” is a form of condition yellow. It’s simply about proactively observing what is going on around you. If you observe good things, that’s great. If you observe bad things, you’ll usually do it early on and have more time to plan and execute your escape or reaction.

More often than not, once you’ve trained your mind to observe your surroundings, you’ll start picking up things without even consciously looking for them. You will recognize bulges, know knife brands when you’re only able to see the clip from across the room and be able to identify someone who’s angry out of the corner of your eye by his clenched jaw, tense body and the way he walks.

These observations will pay off every day as you’re just going about your life. You will see dog mess sooner, recognize doors that open out toward the sidewalk, see people getting ready to open their car door in your path and recognize the potential for people to come flying around blind corners.

Condition Orange is the next stage. It happens when something has made the hairs on the back of your neck stand up.

It could be something that you consciously identified, or it could be something that your subconscious mind has picked up that your conscious mind hasn’t.

A radical example of this would be looking at a sociopath in the face who is showing a genuine smile, but who is also pulling his hand out of his pocket where there is the slight outline of a knife. Your conscious mind will want to focus on the genuine smile, and your unconscious mind will be screaming to focus on the knife.

In any case, when you’re in condition orange, it’s time to set concrete triggers for fighting, fleeing or capitulating. “If he comes toward me and asks for my money, I’m going to throw my money on the ground. If he tells me to lie down, I’ll eliminate the threat.”

A more ordinary example of condition orange would be spotting a concealed weapon holder whose firearm has become exposed. It’s probably nothing, but it’s worth watching.

An everyday example is when you’re around young children in a new environment where you haven’t had a chance to look for dangers. Or when you are introducing dogs when one or more are sometimes aggressive. Or when you are approaching an aggressive panhandler or see someone who looks like he just got released from 10 years in the penitentiary.

It’s important to set your triggers or have pre-determined triggers that you will use in condition orange. With introducing dogs, it could be: “If my dog growls, I’ll pull sharply on the leash. If the other dog growls, I’ll pick up my dog and walk away.”

With the robber, it could be: “When he leans down to pick up the money, I’m going to kick his head with my shin.”

In a holdup situation, it could be: “If he turns his back to me, I’ll draw my firearm, drop to one knee so I’ve got a safe backstop and order him to drop his weapon. If he points his firearm at me, I’ll shoot him to stop the threat.”

Most times, when you’re in condition orange, the stimulus will leave, you will downgrade your assessment or you will remove yourself from the situation.

If you find yourself in condition orange on a continual basis, it’s called “hypervigilance.”  It’s not healthy, and it’s something you need to seriously address before your body literally eats itself up by releasing too many stress hormones and chemicals.

Condition Red: When something triggers condition orange and running or giving in are not options, sometimes you will move into condition red, which is the fight.

This is simply the execution of the trigger that you decided on in condition orange. It’s actually running away. It’s actually giving in. It’s actually eliminating the threat because things have escalated to the point where the benefits of acting outweigh the risks.

How do you get better at seeing things around you?

It’s a skill. You’ll want to start simple and build on the basics. I’m going to give you some tips you can start using immediately to help you be more aware of the people around you. Simply put, it’s comparing people around you to yourself or someone you know well. When someone comes in a door, ask the following questions. They’re a fairly common set of questions that police detectives ask witnesses after a crime to help them to recall details.

Is the person:

  • Male or female and what is the person’s skin color?
  • Older than, the same age or younger than I am?
  • Smaller, the same size or larger than I am?
  • Thin, fit, fat or obese?
  • Taller, the same height or shorter than I am?
  • Less aware, as aware or more aware than I am?
  • Dressed casually, formally or for a purpose?

You can add dozens of additional questions and observations, but this is a great place to start. As you answer the questions, you will naturally start to see other things that help you start to form a picture of the person.

One easy thing to identify is clothes. People usually don’t wear clothes to show people what they don’t like; rather, they wear clothes that show their favorite teams, activities or causes.

Accessories such as watches, sunglasses and jewelry are also identifiers. Sometimes, they are just thrown on; but, often, they help tell the story of the wearer.

Tattoos are another storyteller. Are they a reminder? A tribute? A message to others? Some people want to look tough because they were victimized when they were kids. Some people want to look tough as a defense tool to prevent actual physical conflict from happening. Some people just want tough-looking tattoos so they can feel tough. Others want to look tough because they live a violent lifestyle, and they use the tattoos as a form of psychological warfare when they get into verbal and physical altercations.

Like I said, there are dozens of other questions you can ask and things you can observe. As you increase the number of things that you observe about others, remember to add on slowly. If you go immediately from being unobservant to trying to observe 20 different factors and profile people like a Secret Service agent, you’ll just get frustrated.

On the other hand, if you start by observing a few things until it becomes natural and then add on a few more, you will soon be able to make fairly accurate observations and judge whether someone is a threat quickly and almost subconsciously.

If you have other tips, tricks and shortcuts for being situationally aware, please share them by commenting below:

Until next week, God Bless and stay safe!

David Morris

Dr. David Eifrig Jr.

is the editor of two of Stansberry's best advisory services. One of his advisories, Retirement Millionaire, is a monthly letter showing readers how to live a millionaire lifestyle on less than you'd imagine possible. He travels around the U.S. looking for bargains, deals and great investment ideas. Already his average reader has saved $2,793 since 2008 (documented in each Retirement Millionaire issue). He also writes Retirement Trader, a bi-monthly advisory that explains simple techniques to make large, but very safe, gains in the stock and bond markets. This is a pure finance play and the reason Porter Stansberry loves having "Doc" on the team. Doc holds an MBA from Kellogg and has worked in arbitrage and trading groups with major Wall Street investment banks (Goldman Sachs). In 1995, he retired from the "Street," went to UNC-Chapel Hill for medical school and became an ophthalmologist. Now, in his latest "retirement," he joined Stansberry & Associates full-time to share with readers his experiences and ideas.

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  • FreedomFighter

    Fair artical, many could learn awareness.

    Remember: if you are vet, christian, believe in the bible, store food, exercise 1st or 2nd amendment rights you are considered by Homeland Defense a possible TERRORIST.

    Awareness can save your life.

    Laus Deo
    Semper Fi

  • Gael Mc

    Your article is great. In the KLM plane crash in the Canary Islands one of the survivors said many sat in heir seats waiting for instructions, they all died. The suvivors devised an escape plan and acted on it. Many, if scared at night, hide under their covers, whereas others get up and take action. The bed covers are not protective, we think we are hiding and wait for the danger to pass, instead we are victimized or we are aware of potential danger, devise a plan of action and act.

  • Outsider

    “…if you are vet, christian, believe in the bible, store food, exercise 1st or 2nd amendment rights you are considered by Homeland Defense a possible TERRORIST.” I don’t question FreedomFighter by any means, but when our own Government regards me as a possible Terrorist, then all bets are off. I’m supporting Texas Independence.

  • John Harvey

    A great article, everyone should start the young ones on what the fear means when you see it in them. The child that hides behind your leg when confronted with a strainers or runs when a dog barks. They seem to receive the fears automatically but don’t know what to do or how to handle it. We should teach them awareness. ” Decision Making; What If’s; What Can I Do; Pr-strike; Prepare To React ” Ive seen so many women say to a child it OK he not going to harm you; or that dog want bite. When they them self do have a clue whats is going on around themselves. You got to learn when your in Snake Territory or you could get bit.
    Vet and Hillbilly Survivor. I am a Threat to Socialism!

    • Don

      John H. ,, you need to read what you write , and fill in the blanks.

  • 45caliber

    The main thing about situational awareness is to know what is going on around you. Keep your head moving and watch more than the pretty girl coming toward you. She might be a decoy, after all. Know where you can leap for cover. What items may be used as a weapon? How could they be used? Who might be the person to start a fight? Who might be the most dangerous? (These are usually not the same person.)

    This reminds me of a line in the movie, “The Outlaw Josey Wales”, when he was asked how he knew which enemy to shoot first. That is ‘situational awareness”.

  • 45caliber

    Just a note.

    PREPLAN what you would prefer to do in any emergency. Then if/when it occurs, you can move instantly without stopping to think first. It shortens your action time and increases your likelihood of surviving.

  • JimH

    It’s the people who are in condition white, while driving that make us have to go to condition purple to avoid them.
    If you use the same alertness that “most” of us use while driving while being a pedestrian you should be OK.

  • FreedomFighter
  • Mac

    I almost didn’t read this article, thinking that the author was the person in the picture. Tattoos are a trigger, an instant irritation, indicating to my old-fashioned mind that the wearer is someone not to be trusted. It is too bad that so many younger people don’t understand this. Maybe when my generation is dead and gone tattoos will not be so irritating to the survivors.

    • 45caliber


      I’ve worked in a prison for a short time. The more heavily a man is tatooed, the more likely I am to suspect he is an ex-fellon. The only reason I wouldn’t believe this of this guy is that his tatoo is multi-colored. In prison they can’t really color them. But if you see someone with a lot of black and white tatoos, he more than likely got them in prison.

  • Andrea B

    “Tattoos are a trigger, an instant irritation, indicating to my old-fashioned mind that the wearer is someone not to be trusted.”

    My dad was in the military and had his name tattooed on his forearm while overseas. It was there before I was born, which is why I don’t immediately have an aversion to the people sporting them…but I know what you mean. I DO have an aversion to the people who pierce every part of their body that sticks out…yuck.

  • Randall Sargent

    Good points – I have found the best path is to be the observer. Let people make their noise – the survivors observe. A very important point left off your suggestions is to train yourself to listen to your inner intuition, the inner voice, or spirit or whatever you want to call it. This has been taught to selective special ops teams from time to time. It can give you awareness of an issue before the issue arrives. The Monroe Institute in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia is an excellent place to develop these skills.

    • 45caliber

      You are correct. Apparently your sub-conscious sees something alarming that your conscious hasn’t yet noticed. Pay attention if you feel uneasy about someone.

  • OSOK

    I see by the looks of this post that pretty much everyone here is in tune with the author’s point. That’s good. I am also aware that many of you have felt the ‘PINCH’ that was mentioned by Randall Sargent and 45caliber. My father was a lumber Jack in the early fifties and groing up working with him in the summer months I always remember him telling me to “Stay out of the BITE”. What he was refering to was the cable that ran from the yarder machine a quarter mile away to the tail stump and then back to the yarder. As a choker setter you worked in and around that cable all the time but if you got into a situation where you were standing inside the curve of the cable when the yarder engineer tightened it up, it could cut a man clean in two. Situational awareness was a real part of the job and the term “STAY OUT OF THE BITE” is tatoo’d on my brain.

    • bob wire

      Excellent story OSOK,

      stay out of the “BITE” It doesn’t care!

      mindful presence.


  • Christin

    Good Article, David Morris.

    Situational awareness and People awareness…

    One can tell if someone is friend or foe by: their disposition (agitated & angry), their body language (crossing arms & arms out blocking door), facial expression (scowl & fake smile), and tone of voice (negative tone & accusatory and rude put-down words )…

    A friendly person who does not wish to do you harm will be helpful, encouraging, pleasant, have a natural smile and not be physically or verbally threatening.

    Planning ahead when you are out of your comfort zone by being aware of people and your surroundings is definitely key to one’s safety.

  • bob wire

    Some people are quite simple born with the hunters eye and some are not. Some people might not be born with it but learn it early on as a child.

    I had a cousin that was born with it. It always amazed me what he could see that I simple failed to see on the game trail. He knew behavior and he was a predator at the top of the food chain. An avid game hunter in love with the gun and the kill.

    He ending up spending his final 18 years in prison dieing of natural causes. He killed his long time business friend for screwing him over on a business deal that he had invest his money and money stolen from family, placing him in a bad position. He hide the gun in a rack of home grown tomatoes and walked in his friends home bearing gifts. Getting into the kitchen he pulled the gun. Whitehead says, dWayne you don’t want to do this and then dWayne shot him dead. A young girl was in the back of the house, she was not suppose to be there, a girl from a broken home that had found life easy with Whitehead those he 35 years older. She came into the doorway holding a gun, dWayne shot her in the leg and left. Days later apprehended on foot to Mexico by the back roads.

    Myself, I learned from being the first born into a family of love with a father that resented me and hated my presence, keeping it a big secret to everyone but me.

    Between these two teachers, I learned these skills of survival at a rather early age. After a tour of Nam and seeing how easy it can be to die, becoming a county deputy sheriff was no large stretch but I was poorly suited for the work as it takes a criminal mind to be a good law enforcement officer. The kind of mind that I’ve never had in spite of my efforts.

    When your number is up it don’t matter what you know or how well prepared you are. You can live in fear and die a thousand deaths or learn to avoid situations, bad locations, bad people. Learn the way people “move” with clear purpose, agitated, menacing, uncertain, heavily burdened by their body or what they carry or conceal? Do you know them, their purpose for being there. Do you like them at first glance? Did they looked at you or your way or hide their eyes or face? All these little things come into play by the millisecond.

    We live in a world full of sorry people,hiding among wonder people. There is little rhyme or reason for it that might matter to you on any personal level. Avoid them if you can and if not, send them to Jesus and let him figure them out.

    Waste no time worrying why. Clear and present danger is to be acted on.

    • Carl

      Interesting thought about needing a criminal mind to be a good law enforcement officer. I concur. The problem is when the cop slips from enforcing the law to circumventing the law. Too many like this already.

  • Traci

    Bartenders, Beauticians and Bootmakers hear EVERYTHING!I would never get a tattoo and Id probably cry for a week if one of my 7 kidz got one but 4 out of 5 of all of my customers have them and xc is right! my customers range from holy roller looking people to 1% bikers on a daily adult kidz say Im a freak~magnet because I make eye contact with everyone and they swear that I know everyone at walmart and the life history of every employee at every store. Someone Ive never seen before rode up to my shop last week on a motorcycle and started browsing around and asking questions like: why do you have so much ammo and I said I make holsters and gunbelts I use it for the loops…etc ?s…then he asked if we could replace his heelcaps while he waited and I said of course…how long have you been with the FBI? he said I dont know what your talking about and I said I saw your tags when you got off your bike…he never admitted or denied but I learned all kind of interesting things Ive never even thought of before! watching and listening is essential! Dont be in your own little world. Im noticing so many strangers in my town in the last few weeks wearing backpacks, my first thought is homeless people? when they come towards my shop I meet them at the door with a friendly smile and say no backpacks aloud in my shop you will have to leave it outside. There is a lot of weird stuff happening. Its funny the tatted up bikers that use to terrify me so bad Id shake when I sewd on their raunchy or symbolic patches now actually make me feel safer when they walk in my shop and the self righteous tirekickers exit.

  • Cawmun Cents

    It is the law of the jungle.
    Why a leopard has spots isnt so important as that he intends to hide among the shadows until its the right time to attack.
    But for the most part,predators dont pick the ones who are healthy and aware.
    Lions have to be really hungry to attack a rhino.Humans are very much the same.If you dont appear to be easy game,you probably will get passed by for someone who is.
    Criminals dont like things to be difficult.
    If they did they would just get a job and struggle like the rest of us.
    Best advice is to be and stay alert and aware at all times.
    The three knows.
    Know yourself.
    Know your enemy.
    Know your environment.
    Of course….any deviations will be exploited.
    The stupid and the weak are much easier to intimidate.Dont count yourself among them and you will likely be too much to handle.
    Nobody likes to work hard for his criminal endeavors to come to fruition.Keep that in mind and if necessary,bluff your way out of it.Stay armed,stay unharmed.
    Let them know that you are short of give-a-damn this week,and you’d rather fight to the death than give up your stuff.
    99 times out of a hundred,that’ll discourage them.
    On that hundredth time… become comfortable with the prospect of pumping six into his chest and moving on to the next condition.Chances are if he is that intent on making war with you,he was a menace to society at large anyhow.


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