Situational Awareness

It does us no good to carry a firearm or other defensive tool if we don’t have our heads “in the game”. I am no super-duper-ninja by any means, but recent observations I’ve made have indicated that I’m far ahead of the curve compared with most of the general public.

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to meet up with my aunt, who I’d not seen in about two years, in our nation’s capital. I had the day off, so I drove part of the way and then used the subway (metro, in D.C. parlance) to get around. I was meeting her for dinner, so I took the afternoon to do a little solo sightseeing and people-watching. I was amazed at what I saw.


While the tourists were mostly looking at buildings and such, the hustle and bustle types were all walking around PLUGGED IN. So, on the one hand, we have the tourists that you see in any city or place of interest who are focused on monuments, buildings, famous people, etc. These people, while focused on their surroundings, are, unfortunately, not focused on that part of their surroundings that can cause them issues. On the other hand, at least 80% of the local jet-setters were strolling around with ear buds in their ears and their faces in their phones, treating their walks like they were starring in their own movies, complete with soundtrack.

I spent a lot of time underground on the metro that day, as I had to change train lines several times. I was greeted by the same behavior there. Tourists were stopping to look at every map and sign available, and the locals were invariably plugged in, virtually oblivious to anything that was going on around them.

Oblivious to his surroundings.
Oblivious to his surroundings.

What struck me the most about this is that this was all taking place in D.C. True, the touristy parts of D.C. are pretty safe in terms of general thuggery these days. But it is still a big city with big city problems, which include street crime. Coupled with that is the fact that D.C. is surely a prime terrorist target, so that those areas most safe from street crime are probably the most likely targets of terrorist attacks. Yet, as best I could tell, an active shooter could have been a block away and most of the people I saw on the street would never know about it! They either would not hear the shots (plugged in) or were not paying attention enough to notice a mass exodus of people fleeing something happening a block away. This disturbed me.

Color Codes

Chances are that, if you are reading this blog, you are familiar with the late, great, Colonel Jeff Cooper’s “color codes of awareness”.   If you are not familiar, Google can be your friend, but a quick version would be:

  1. White = You are essentially clueless about what’s going on around you. This might be you “zoning out” on the couch watching a movie or football game (or strolling through a city reading texts while listening to music on your headphones!).
  2. Yellow = Heightened state of awareness. (This is how you should be when outside of the house, though admittedly, this probably isn’t realistic for everyone all the time).
  3. Orange = Recognition of something specific going on that may require you to act (You see a group of people on the sidewalk ahead of you cursing/giving you the stare-down, etc.)
  4. Red = Mentally prepared for fight or flight (plan of action has been decided upon)

In his book, Combative Fundamentals: An Unconventional Approach, Jeff Gonzales gives some fantastic analogies, relating the color codes of awareness to situations that can arise while driving. I won’t plagiarize him here (but I will recommend the book!), but hopefully you can extrapolate and see the connection.

Do Your Thinking Ahead of Time/Risk-Mitigation

Visualization strategies are important in all aspects of self-defense (indeed, in all athletic endeavors….the best athletes know where they are going long before they get there). Not only is it important to start formulating contingencies (a series of “if this, then that” plans) when Condition Orange appears, but I would argue that it is also important to do a casual risk assessment before you ever leave the house.

  1. Where are you going?
  2. What are the most likely threats on the way there?
  3. What are the most likely threats while there?
  4. What are the most likely threats on the return trip?
  5. What can I do to mitigate those risks?

So, let’s look at a contrived event.

  1. I’m going to the grocery store with my kids (both under age 5).
  2. There are no realistic threats on the way there.
  3. Once there, there are some risks in the parking lot (street crime, especially while I’m helping them out of or into their car seats) and inside the store (a robbery, “domestic incident” that has spilled over, “workplace violence”, etc.).
  4. No realistic threats on the return trip.
  5. To mitigate risks, I can:

a.  go at a sensible time of day;

b.  park away from most other cars;

c.  keep my head on swivel while working with my kids and their safety seats;

d.  maintain situational awareness and avoid task-fixation while inside the store;

e.  scan parking lot carefully when leaving the store;

f.  get kids strapped in and groceries put in trunk as quickly as possible;

g.  get myself in, doors locked, and car in motion as quickly as possible after the above.

Of course, there may be other things I can do as well, but hopefully the above illustrates my point. By breaking down an event into its smaller components, I can isolate those periods during which I need to maintain my highest state of vigilance. Doing this, I find, also helps me to avoid task-fixation issues when dealing with the kids’ seats in the back (I view this as my most vulnerable moment, with my back turned to the “public” and my head inside the car).

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, you are already practicing good situational awareness. Obviously, we all have our moments of Condition White when we should be more alert. But if the above has you putting just a little more thought into how you go about your day, then I guess I’ve done my job. For further reading on these concepts, I would suggest reading Sentinel: Become the Agent in Charge of Your Own Protection Detail by Pat McNamara, which is a short, easy read and covers most of the above and much more.  Just remember that the best fight is the fight we avoid; maintaining our situational awareness is our best ticket to avoiding that fight.

9 thoughts on “Situational Awareness

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