Levels of Awareness

The levels of awareness are highly important in deterring an attack and if an attack happens, surviving it. The awareness levels were pioneered by Marine Lieutenant Colonel Jeff Cooper and are commonly referred to as Cooper’s color code. In self-defense, utilizing the different levels of Cooper’s color code ensures you are aware of what is going on around you and allows you to respond faster if attacked.

Cooper describes four levels of awareness: white, yellow, orange and red. [1] The Marine Corps uses Cooper’s four and added condition black. Furthermore, Army Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman describes another condition level, gray, between red, and black. [2] There will be a whole post dedicated to condition gray in the future. For this post we will be discussing levels white, yellow, orange, red, and black. The website Stratfor, does a really good job of translating the color codes as: white = tuned out, yellow = relaxed awareness, orange = focused awareness, red = high alert, and black = comatose. [3] From this point on, we will be using the Stratfor translation. Let’s dig into the details.

Tuned out – In this condition, an individual is tuned out to everything around them. Maybe they are talking on their cell phone or wearing headphones while jogging. It could be any number of things. Have you ever driven home from work and not once thought about the drive? If so, you overlooked many details and were tuned out to what was happening around you. Criminals look for targets in this condition. People who are tuned out make easy, low risk targets. It is important to note that human predators have a likeness to animal predators. The likeness is that a predator will not attack someone if they feel they have a low risk of success or a high risk of injury. If the risk of injury is high and even if the predator was successful in getting the prey, there is a chance it will be their last. Which brings us to the next level, relaxed awareness.

Relaxed awareness can be described as general alertness. There is not a specific threat. You are using your eyes and ears to be aware of the areas and people around you. This is comparable to visiting the tourist area of your city. You can still enjoy being there, but you need to be aware of what is going on around you. This level can be maintained for extended periods of time as long as you have the discipline to keep from falling back into being tuned out to your surroundings.

Our next level is focused awareness. Imagine you are in Seattle, WA walking to the original Starbucks location. You are generally aware of what is going on but enjoying the scene unfolding around you. You see the fresh flowers at the market and the fresh fish on ice. Just ahead you hear a local musician playing his guitar. Then you notice three young men standing on the corner. It strikes you as odd that they are half in the shadows. You then observe that they are eyeing you. This is where your focused awareness comes in. You can obviously see there is a potential threat, so you focus your mind on that threat. This is where you tell yourself if X happens, I will do X (of course you have to actually follow through). You can remain in this state for long periods of time, but it is mentally taxing. If the threat has been validated, move to high alert. If it has been negated, move back to relaxed awareness and enjoy your walk.

The threat has been validated. Now you are in high alert. The three men followed you to your car and are trying to car jack you. In this level, X has happened and you are in the fight or it’s developing. You must respond with your X. At this point, your attackers have decided that your resource, in this case your car, is worth more than you are. Whatever you decide to do, run, fight, bluff, or hide, you must do wholeheartedly. If you hesitate or half ass it, you will fail, and failure in this case means death. It’s important to note that just because you have validated the threat doesn’t necessarily mean you are in the fight. For example, in the above scenario, you are a concealed carry holder and may draw your weapon but haven’t actually fired yet. Think of going from focused awareness to high alert as possible threat to possible target.

The final condition is comatose, catastrophic breakdown. If you hit this level you will have complete physical and mental breakdown. You may completely freeze, feel unable to act, or be stuck in a loop. For example, someone who has just been in a car accident that can only say, “Oh my God!” over and over. It may seem as if you are merely watching the event unfold. It is vitally important to understand that if you are frozen, that you must act. You need to make yourself do something, anything. Bottom line, you have stopped thinking, and you must make yourself start again.

The challenge is putting this information into action by finding the appropriate level for the given situation. For example, being tuned out while you are driving on a road that is badly damaged and riddled with pot holes is probably a bad idea. The reason that we need to find the appropriate level is that when your jump levels, it leaves you at a disadvantage. Let’s go back to the previous example. If you are driving on a really bad road tuned out, and you unexpectedly hit a big hole. So you jump from tuned out to focused awareness or comatose. Either way, it is bad. Your mind is trying to play catch up. You will either not be able to respond or you will have a knee-jerk type reaction which may or may not be the correct response. It doesn’t sound so bad for a pot hole but change the scenario to being attacked. You don’t want to play catch up in that situation or worse, not respond. Think of the levels of awareness as changing gears in a manual transmission. You wouldn’t want to go from first gear to fifth, because the car putters and stalls. It works the same way when you aren’t paying attention and are attacked, you jump from tuned out to comatose.

Being tuned out to your surroundings all day can end badly for you but staying in high alert or focused awareness isn’t good either. Your mind needs rest and staying in high alert or focused awareness can be very taxing. Staying in the relaxed awareness level allows for you to enjoy your day to day activities without burning your mind out. Furthermore, it helps you to move up in the levels so you don’t skip levels and stall out.

As you can see, the levels of awareness are a simple concept that can pay off right away for your safety. One way to make this a habit and increase your skill in it, is to consciously move up and down the levels throughout the day.

1. Jeff Cooper Principals of Self-defense, Paladin Press; Revised edition (January 1, 2006)
2. Dave Grossman On Combat: The Psychology and Physiology of Deadly Conflicts in War and in Peace, Warrior Science Publications; Third edition (2008), 33
3. Scott Stewart A Practical guide to Situational Awareness, http://www.stratfor.com/weekly/practical-guide-situational-awareness (March 14, 2012).

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