Threat Awareness and the Condition Color Code

Last weekend, I had an experience which reminded me of an important lesson: Threats to our safety can come from anywhere, and they don’t usually come when we’re expecting them. This, of course, is why we employ firearms (and other weapons and techniques) to safeguard our safety. But it’s easy, despite our vigilance and training, to let ourselves forget this most important of lessons: Always be aware, always be alert to potential threats, and always have a plan.

In my case, the threat came an a crowded playground at a crowded, idyllic, rustic campground. I was with a friend whose three-year-old daughters were playing on a trampoline-like inflatable “jumping pillow“. A group of teenagers started playing rough, pushing the little girls down, throwing a football at them, and so forth. My friend asked the teens to stop jumping long enough for her to get her kids off the pillow. Words were exchanged between her and them, and before we knew it, a mob of about 30 people – the teens, their parents and friends – had surrounded us, a sea of threatening language and gestures.

Fortunately, we were able to defuse the incident without anyone getting hurt, but it was a near thing there for a minute. Thinking about it later, I realized my friend and I had made a serious tactical error: Thinking we were in a safe place – in a campground full of people – we’d let our guard down. Nothing tragic happened because of our lapse, but it easily could have.

The late Col. Jeff Cooper taught a “color code” for describing our level of awareness and response to the circumstances around us. Col. Cooper’s color code, which helps us recognize, evaluate, and respond to potential threats, looks like this:

Condition White
In Condition White, we feel secure (whether or not we actually are), and therefore we are unaware of our environment and its inhabitants. Predators look for victims who are in this state.
Condition Yellow
When we are in Condition Yellow, we are cautious and in a state of relaxed alertness. We have a peripheral awareness of people, places, and things which might represent a threat, but we are not keyed into a specific threat. Col. Cooper taught that we should strive to spend most of our time in this state.
Condition Orange
We switch into Condition Orange when we’ve identified a specific threat. In a state of threat evaluation, we are actively identifying friends and foes around us, looking for avenues of escape, and deciding to take action. We are focused on the potential threat. In Condition Orange, we make the decision to flee or to defend, so that if the situation escalates we can react without indecision.
Condition Red
We enter Condition Red when a potential threat becomes an actual one. In Condition Red, we are in active conflict, carrying out the decisions we made in Condition Orange about what actions to take to neutralize the threat. We’ve moved from decision to decisive action. Our choice in Condition Red may be to flee or to defend ourselves – this is what we evaluated in Condition Orange, and now it’s time to act.
Condition Black
This level of response was added to Col. Cooper’s system by noted firearms expert Massad Ayoob, and describes the condition we’re in when we’re actually engaged in the fight. We’ll talk more about making the deadly force decision in a future post.

Thinking about my weekend encounter through the lens of hindsight, it’s easy to see my mistake. Lulled by the idyllic and peaceful setting into a false sense of security, I was in Condition White when the threat arrived. We were lucky that things didn’t escalate beyond words, but if they had, I would have been struggling to play catch-up. When trouble arrives, being this far behind the curve is a dangerous place indeed.

Here’s a simple exercise you can use to practice the habit of staying in Condition Yellow: As you go about your day, notice all the people you can who are wearing black pants. Or, notice gray T-shirts. When you enter or leave a store, office or other building, find and take note of all the entrances and exits. If you had to run, where would you go?

When you’re out and about, take special note of places you find yourself where it would take you more than 30 seconds to reach a crowd of people. These are places you should be especially aware.

How often are you able to maintain a Condition Yellow state of relaxed awareness? What’s hard for you about cultivating that level of awareness on a daily basis? Sound off in the comments!


  1. Well said. I’ve been learning about all of these topics for the past few months and I have to say it’s a struggle to stay in ‘yellow’. Thanks for the tips.


  1. […] my expression was neutral, but my eyes said “I see you, and I’m watching you.” In Colonel Cooper’s color code, I was definitely in Condition […]

  2. […] to illustrate a brief after action review of a recent incident I experienced, which I talked about here. You can follow the link to get the whole story, but basically, I was at a campground with some […]

  3. […] this mindset, she’s surely less likely to see danger coming or to get out of its path. And Condition White awareness, fed by the false sense of security provided by her magic talisman, can assuredly be […]

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