The Color Code of Awareness: Developing a Combat Mindset

by Erich

Used by soldiers and CIA agents alike, The Color Code of Awareness will help you see danger before it strikes and may just save your life.

color_codeIn this article I describe a mindset used by our soldiers, special agents, and law-enforcement personnel that heightens your awareness and allows you to see potential threats to your safety ahead of time — providing a window of opportunity to prepare for or prevent potential conflict.

The Need to Pay Attention

Unfortunately there are not a lot of areas left in our world where you are immune to threats to your personal safety. With increases in crime such as theft, rape, and assault, it is in our best interest to pay attention.

In nature, predators seek out easy targets — the weak and the sick ones. Similar to the animal kingdom, human predators also seek out targets of opportunity — especially those who are unaware and oblivious to what’s around them. For this reason, it’s necessary to take on a state of mind that can help you stay alert to potential threats at all times and be able to intelligently react should you be faced with one. There’s no better metaphor for this state of mind than the Color Code of Awareness.

The Color Code of Awareness

The Color Code of Awareness has its origins in the U.S. Military but the adaptation as given here was originally put forth by the late Jeff Cooper, USMC(ret) and founder of Gunsite. This is not to be confused with the government’s form of color code which corresponds to the amount of danger to which you are exposed to at a given time. Instead, this refers to your current state of mind and willingness to take action regardless of real or imagined threats.

Condition White: the Unaware Masses

The Unaware

The next time you’re out and about take a look at the people around you. What are they doing and what do they notice? What you’ll begin to see is that most people are completely oblivious to their surroundings. This is Condition White. Whether they are sitting on a park bench completely engrossed in a book or walking with their gaze focused on the ground three feet in front of them, their attention is drawn somewhere else and they lose sight to what’s around them.

The Addiction of Thought

In fact the biggest monopolizer of your attention is your thoughts. Most people are addicted to thinking. You become a slave to the incessant ramblings of your own involuntary internal dialogue. In fact, the only difference between you and those ‘crazy’ people you see muttering to themselves on the street is that you are not muttering out loud.

The mind is a powerful and necessary tool when used in the right context. But like with any tool, we need to be able to put it down – or in this case shut it off – when we no longer need it. This is especially true in order to be aware and safe in our immediate environment. It’s those who are caught up in their thoughts that make perfect targets for potential predators.

Absolute Vulnerability

Condition White is where you will get surprised by your friends or a stranger that “happens upon you”. In white you are unready to take action to prevent injury or death. And it’s in this state that the only way you’ll survive a lethal attack is if your attacker is completely inept. Avoid this state at all times.

Condition Yellow: Relaxed Alertness

Learn to Always be Aware

Condition Yellow should be your normal everyday state of awareness. It’s in this state that you’ve accepted the fact that your life may be in danger at any time and you may have to do something about it. There is no specific threat but you are alert to any possibility.

You are relaxed and alert. You walk down the street with your head up and you’re looking around. You notice the late model blue Chevy pickup turning the corner, with an older gentleman driving. Your aware of the group of teenagers talking in a tight circle in front of the convenience store. You see a young couple crossing the street, heading your direction holding hands. When you leave for work in the morning you look around the neighborhood noticing anything out of the ordinary.

Lose Your Mind and Come to Your Senses

Most of all, your not caught up in your thoughts. Your mind is in the moment and although yellow is a relaxed state and you could stay in it indefinitely, it is still an active level of awareness — very different than white. You are actively taking mental notes of those things around you. In yellow you are aware of your surroundings and your mindset is such that “I may have to defend myself today”.

Condition Orange: Focused Alertness

Noticing a Potential Predator

If during Condition Yellow, something or someone triggers your attention indicating a potential threat you would immediately enter into Condition Orange. It doesn’t mean there is a threat only that there could potentially be one. The only real difference between the orange state and the yellow state is you now have a specific point of focus.

For example, you’re manning a store and in walks a guy who slips his hands in his inner coat pocket — your radar goes up, you enter Condition Orange. Or your heading to your car in the mall parking garage and you notice someone standing by a column up ahead instead of heading to his car or the mall entrance, you now have a point of focus and you are in an orange state. It need not only be a person that triggers this, it could be any indicator that is out of context with what is expected, such as a light being off that you know was previously on, or an environmental choke point such as a corner block or an upcoming side alleyway.

Perform Evasive Maneuvers to Determine Intention

When you’ve entered Condition Orange, you begin to make evasive maneuvers if possible. If someone in a car behind you triggered orange, you would simply turn at the next light. It’s as simple as that. If they are still behind you try turning at the next left. Then right again. If they are still behind you it is a strong indication that you’re being followed. In the case of the man next to the parking column, you would change your trajectory or give him wide berth. If it’s a dark alley up ahead, try to keep your distance.

Create a Mental Trigger and Formulate Your Tactical Plan

As you are performing your evasive maneuvers you’ll want to quickly set up a mental trigger and formulate a tactical plan. “If he does x I will do the following”, or “If x happens when I reach that alleyway, I’ll do this”. That ‘x’ is the mental trigger that springs you into action. Your tactical plan could be anything from more extreme evasive maneuvers to drawing your weapon on someone to a lethal response. If the trigger never comes (either because that person or indicator is not a threat) or because of your awareness they decided they better not do anything — you would deescalate to yellow again. Remember, most predators want to have the element of surprise. When they catch on that you’ve caught on to them, they generally seek easier prey.

Condition Red: Ready to Act

Locked and Ready

In Condition Red you’ve determined that the threat is real and although you may or may not be in the middle of a conflict you are READY TO ACT. You’re mentally prepared to carry out your plan.

The difference between Condition Red and Condition Yellow may at first seem unclear. In Condition Red, not only have you determined that the threat is very real, but more importantly you’ve made a mental decision to act if the trigger from Condition Yellow is tripped. It’s a very subtle but important difference. You not only have a plan on what to do and when to act (Condition Yellow) but you are prepared to carry out that act. This is especially important when the decision that you made requires a lethal response. Let me give you an example that illustrates the difference:

The Two Officers

There are two police officers on duty. Someone approaches them stating that around the corner there is some crazy guy waving around a gun. As they quickly move to the corner and yell “Drop your weapon!” in a flash the man begins to draw his gun on them and the first officer shoots him right away while the other is standing there looking surprised. What happened?

The difference is that the first officer mentally tells himself, “I’ll tell the guy to drop his weapon and show us his hands. If he complies we’ll arrest him, if he begins to draw his gun on us, I’m shooting him. End of story.” This officer is in Condition Red. The second officer makes a similar plan but is not quite certain of his decision to act on it. The plan was made, but the decision to act on that plan wasn’t set in his mind and therefore he was susceptible to suprise and hesitation. He was still in Condition Orange.

Condition Red is all about knowing that if your opponent steps over that mental line in the sand (your trigger) you know what to do and YOU WILL DO IT. No hesitation. No questions asked.

A Personal Experience

To illustrate the color code in action I want to share a personal experience. During my college days I would work the summers at my best friends pizza store as a delivery driver. Sometimes we were called to deliver pizza to certain “project” areas that were notorious for crime. Whenever I worked in those areas I would always be in Condition Yellow. On one particular evening I was called to run an order there.

After delivering the pizza to the house I was sent to, I was walking back to my car with the empty pizza bag. Now mind you, at that time we had these lit up signs that were attached to the roof of our cars for advertisement which stood out as a perfect invitation for warm food and lots of cash for the shadier elements of our society. Anyways, as I was heading back I noticed in the distance two guys walking toward me, barely illuminated by the poor street lighting. I entered Condition Orange.

I began to make a small trajectory change in my direction of travel that would lead me around them. They also corrected their trajectory so that we were again heading on a collision course. At that moment the transition from yellow to orange to red was very quick. I made a plan, by wrapping the pizza bag around my arm to act as a shield if they were carrying knives and I subtly pulled my knife out of my back pocket, flipped it open and hid it behind me. I had made the decision that if they jumped me I would stab them both, violently and quickly.

As they were nearly on me, I recognized the taller of the two in the light of the street lamp. Someone that I went to Junior High with. I said, “Jameal, is that you?” They both immediately stopped in their tracks, and Jameal recognized me exclaming, “Erich! You’re so lucky! We were going to jump you and take your money.” At that moment I showed them my knife and what I was intending to do. They were both even more surprised. The condition immediately went back down to yellow.


Because of the threats to our safety so prevalent in our day, the need to pay attention is huge. Martial skill is only half of the equation. Because if you’re not mentally prepared, you’ll be stuck flatfooted when required to act.

How do you win in combat? By being mentally prepared to win. And the Color Code of Awareness is the perfect tool to gaining a winning combat mindset.

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Comment by zam
2009-11-25 00:54:52

Excellent info, I will be going over this with my children, thank you

Comment by Tactical Intelligence
2009-11-27 15:22:48

Thanks Zam,

Awareness training is an excellent thing to teach our children.

Comment by Jeremy
2009-12-21 01:51:22

I’ve been very intrigued by your site and information you have available. However, I would like to mention that although your states of awareness are accurate with the action or mind sets taken, its actually, as far as an operative would go, more common to maintain the states of awareness but not with an obvious agenda at being aware. Often, if in a hostile area, someone looking around and suspicious of others actually makes them a suspicious and tempting target, with the mind set they would have something of value. Very much admire the rest of your site though, keep up the good work.

Comment by Erich
2009-12-22 11:06:28


Thanks for the comments. I completely agree with you in that you should not be “obvious” about being aware. Condition yellow (which should be normal everyday awareness) is a relaxed level of awareness where most of all you are not caught up inside your head but instead are aware of your surroundings in a relaxed (non-paranoid) state. This is easily done without looking overly paranoid and suspicious.

Comment by Ben
2011-03-10 21:33:47

I like it. I would like to take this and apply it to an article I’m writing for firefighting, if you don’t mind. You can really use this in every part of life. Thanks, Erich.

Comment by Jeremy
2009-12-23 16:50:10

I understand what you’re saying. I must’ve read your descriptions too literal. You’re obviously well informed. I would be interested to see you have some new information sometime. You’re on a roll with what all you have so far. Again, keep up the good work.

Comment by connor
2011-03-08 10:56:55

ive never thought about it like that.

once you read this i think youll always use it automatically.

thanks man

Comment by Bob
2011-07-01 00:44:25

This is exactly what I have always preached to my two sons and wife, but it is laid out in a much better understandable manner. I will be sure to show them. THANKS!!

Comment by Eric Pinola
2012-04-10 17:29:56

Great article – thank you, I will be sure to teach these simple principles to my family.


Comment by Tactical Intelligence
2012-04-11 03:06:46

That’s great to hear. Thanks for stopping by!

Comment by James Foy
2012-04-26 14:18:07

Very good article. I will share.

Comment by Dee
2012-05-10 15:10:30

As a survivor of child abuse, I am always on condition yellow. I think I speak for others that have survived childhood abuse too.

2012-05-10 23:38:43


Thanks for sharing.

Comment by Chilly
2012-06-19 14:43:44

I can tell you from experience that you are on the right track. After returning from Desert Storm I can tel yu that I lived in a condition red I always had my head on a swivel I checked my six and always had acess to at least two weapons. This is often called PTSD and it is not the ideal conditions to live in. But in the last 15 years I have survived two shootings and I ended up in the middle of a knife fight none were directed at me, but being aware of my surroundings and their weaknesses (usually a clear thought process) I was able to save at least three lives or at least three indivuals from great bodily harm. I don’t live in a bad neighborhood I was on the jobsite all three times. I have been personally attacked by persons on drugs and I survived. People you need to wake up and realize that no security guard, police or bodyguard is there when the poop hits the fan it’s up to you take some responsibility

Comment by JCTate
2012-06-19 18:00:56

Follows is Lesson #4 for the 12 year old girl I am raising this summer:


1. Read the lesson below in full.
The Color Code of Awareness: Developing a Combat Mindset

2. Reply to the e-mail and compose your answers below. It is allowed to reference the webpage again while writing.

Condition White:
A. Next time you are out take a look at the people around you. What are they doing and what do THEY notice?
B. Write the times it is safe for YOU to be in Condition White.

Condition Yellow:
A. When you are out somewhere practice being in Alert Yellow state. Write what you observed around you.

Condition Orange:
A. Now you know how to come up with a Tactical Plan instead of Panic And Run! Write how you think this is an advantage.
B. Can you think of a time when you came up with a a Tactical Plan? What was it that made you feel that was necessary?
Condition Red:
A. Explain the difference between Condition Orange and Condition Red Alertness.

Additional Information:
In TI’s last example he mentioned about calling out the name of the fellow he knew. ALWAYS REMEMBER to look folks in the face if you feel threatened.
If they have 1/2 a brain and think you will be able to describe them they will back off.
When they look for an easy ‘mark’ you have just let them know you are Aware and Confident (even if you are shaking in your shoes).
As a girl and a youth your best advantage is NOT to fight.
First: Use your brain. It is your best weapon! If they are within three arm spans of you, begin thinking how you can talk your way out of trouble.
Second: As a girl we have discussed many times where you strength lies. If at all possible, at any early break, use your LEGS and Run!
Third: If you can’t run – use your other God given tool and SCREAM! Sound loud and long.

Comment by Chad H.
2012-07-12 11:53:26

Another reason for looking at people in the eyes, is by observing (don’t fixate on one specific feature thereby developing tunnel vision) the facial area; head, eye, and shoulder movements will telegraph their intentions.

I disagree with the “don’t fight” advice. Victims fighting back can discourage an attacker and end the attack. Better advice would be try to avoid a fight, but if attacked fight back with violence of action. Eyes are a sensitive attack point. A person needs to see to carry out an assault.

You can find so much information on the web/youtube on how to break away from various holds. For example: if someone grabs your wrist to detain your hands/arms; make a fist with the hand of the captured wrist, turn your hand to line up your thumb with their grips’ weakest point-where their thumb and index finger meet (or the gap between them), and roll your hand out. Even smaller children/weaker adults can break free with this simple technique, and it’ll work if they use both hands to grap your wrist.

TI: I hope you contacted authorities about the near attack from Jameal, he or his friends could be potential unknown suspects in other unsolved assaults.

Comment by Joan Albright
2012-07-30 00:05:40

I always thought I was weird for going ‘orange’ and sizing up the people around me whenever I go places. It’s good to know that I’m not the only one who does it.

Comment by Proofreader
2012-12-17 11:13:00

In the description of Condition Red, the article refers back to Condition Yellow as being the one in which you have made a plan when in fact, this was described in Condition Orange. Additionally, there ought to be no confusion between Conditions Red and Yellow (as described under Condition Red) but there could be confusion between Conditions Red and Orange.

Comment by Dave
2013-02-20 16:16:45

I like how you said all this Ti. It’s very easy to understand.

Comment by Adryana
2013-05-07 16:05:53

I used to live in a place where most people feel safe enough to not lock their doors. I moved here a few years ago and have gradually gone from code white to yellow. I have a friend who doesn’t lock her doors or keep weapons because she doesn’t want to be “paranoid”. She said I was only “like this” because my husband is law enforcement. I proceeded to tell her: I have had experiences here that made me prepared. I also explained that she has a pool. She put her children in swimming lessons because she doesn’t want the worst to happen. More people are victims of violent encounters then the number of cases of people drowning. We have a plan that I go over with my child if in our home we are ever in code orange. Also I ask my five year old to watch and be on code yellow for me in parking lots when I have to buckle up my infant. He loves to help me with this. I also worked with a girl whose husband was in law enforcement longer than mine has been in it. She told me she doesn’t let her kids play with weapons because they have real ones in the house. I told her that we do too but we keep them in safes. Also we teach our children to be responsible with them. My husband has been trained as a child to be responsible with weapons before he was law enforcement. He knew this before he had a badge. He also has taken many styles of self defense. In martial arts the studios I love are the ones who make it clear that the belt shouldn’t give you a false sense of security.
If you don’t use it, you lose it. My husband was wrestling with someone once who had just moved in the area and he had collegiate wrestling training. He was skilled and fast. He was also overly confident when he went anywhere. When he wrestled my husband he was surprised by the techniques my husband used. My husband told him that people on the streets are going to use techniques that are illegal in competitions. That opened his eyes. I think confidence is very important but I believe being aware, prepared, and not putting yourself in bad situations is also VERY important. It is also important to realize their is a difference in being paranoid and prepared. Thank you for making these codes even my five year old understands!

Comment by Tactical Intelligence
2013-05-08 09:26:18

Thanks for your comments Adryana. Paranoia (in the layperson’s mind) and a survival mindset are not too far apart. You’re definitely doing the right thing.

– Erich

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Comment by Ralph
2013-08-25 15:33:12

As an EMT (though on light duty since June) this article is nice to read. This is something that I grew up learning hunting and fishing in the woods albeit in a different method.
It really came in handy when as a on the road construction worker I would often find myself in unfamiliar locations (never lost, always where I am at the moment) that this mentality of personal and spacial awareness developed.
Now as an EMT, going into the places the cops don’t like, learning how actual predatory people act, react, and move; it is an invaluable resource to use. This article should be a wake up to a lot of people, but at the same time a kind reminder for folks like me.
Thanks for the article, and I look forward to viewing more on the site.

Comment by Tactical Intelligence
2013-08-25 17:50:07

Thanks for the great comments Ralph!

– Erich

Comment by Thomas R.
2013-11-22 00:06:57

Erich..I never had a technical term for this type of thinking but I have lived this way most of my life…living in a seedy mixed race neighbor
hood as a kid and at times working in some very bad areas and being attacked a couple of time from a young age, I dont go anywhere without circulating my thought processes around my immediate and near distant area. You never know what is going to happen. The couple of times I allowed my self to be caught “flatfooted” as you put it…have forced me to take a different role in my own well being. I have a new focus in the last 10 years that can create some imaginary elements of danger at times but I do see the things around me that most other’s dont.

Good article!

Comment by Rose
2014-03-11 02:07:16

Situational awareness explained. The survival/prep sites talk about this often. Well done. The color system makes perfect sense.

Comment by John
2014-04-18 19:44:56

One of the biggest distractors I see out in public is the smart phone. I see so many people especially young people that are completely out of it because they are texting. Young girls need to be aware that predators look for prey that is clueless and blind to their approach and keep their heads out of their phones. I learned of the color codes when I got my CHP a long time ago and it has been taught to my family as a way to keep aware without being paranoid. Once you get used to living in condition yellow it becomes second nature and doesn’t require constant conscious thought. The key is being relaxed about it and not looking like you’re expecting something.

Comment by Mike
2014-10-30 16:11:50

I think we all need to be in condition white during some part of the day to reflect on the days events, etc. Maybe in the comfort of your secure home. Other than that, this is a great article.

Comment by Jack C. Perritt
2015-04-16 17:19:55

“I will tell you this categorically, preparing the mind is as essential as any possible skill you could ever learn or any weapon held in your hand. Your mindset is the dispenser and finisher of the battle you are engaged. When you are thrust into the combat vortex and are at the tip of the spear, your mindset determines whether you win or die!” ~ Jack C. Perritt, STRIKE – CMC

Comment by Alysha
2015-04-30 11:41:36

I’m one of those people who is constantly somewhat suspicious of everyone around me…. I very often find myself naturally in a state of yellow and sometimes orange without thinking twice. I think this happens because I was bullied and harassed so much when I was younger and I also believe that, in general, if people have the opportunity to screw you over, they will. I’m a small person with chronic back injuries from gymnastics so I’m assuming I would also be a very “easy” target…. Just let them try. I keep a knife on me at all times and never travel with more than $20 cash, just my debit card, and no valuables or jewelry.

Comment by Peter B Davitto
2015-10-21 19:37:06

Here is a short story and free corrections… You are… You’re. Not, …” Lose Your Mind and Come to Your Senses Most of all, your …… not caught up in your thoughts. Your mind is in the moment and although yellow is a relaxed state and you could stay in it indefinitely, it is still an active level of awareness — very different than white.

Again… Or your heading to your car in the mall parking garage and you notice someone standing by a column up ahead instead of heading to his car or the mall entrance, ”
Short story… I flew jet fighters (USAF) in the 60’s and 70’s. During down periods the pilots would discuss “what would you do?” We would talk about flying situations and how we would react, i.e., ‘You just broke ground and raised the landing gear and you had an engine flameout… what would you do? It got us thinking about bad stuff and what we would do in that situation. So that if it happened we wouldn’t have to think about what to do, we would react to our preplanning.”

Yes I was reading. What about the folks above who responded?

Need a proof reading drop me a line.

Good stuff by the way. Thanks
Pete Davitto – x-F100 driver

Comment by Frank
2016-01-02 16:11:24

Excellent info here. It sounds similar to Motorcycle Safety Foundation training I had years ago and which I always practice when riding: S-I-P-D-E — Scan, Identify, Predict, Decide, Execute.

Comment by Diana
2016-02-06 17:45:01

you should have stabbed Jameal and Pedro in the neck anyways….

Comment by Alpha
2017-05-05 11:51:42

Thanks it is a great article.
Blessings to you

Comment by Sarah
2018-01-02 11:19:51

I’m constantly fluctuating from yellow, orange and red. I always thought I was paranoid. But it’s necessary. I even look around me when putting washing out in the garden, you just never know. But just to ask how do you deal with the constant over paranoid state, it’s making me very I’ll to the point of isolating myself and hardly even going out. I have been attacked, I have had a lot of harassment. My partner was nearly beaten to death. He only survived because he was so tough or lucky. I’m in the UK, guns and knives are illegal, what means of self defence should I carry?

Comment by Chuck Hustmyre
2018-01-24 13:13:24

This is a very good article. However, I noticed a few mistakes, one of which seems important. First, just a quick note on some typos: your and you’re are different words and mean different things. You have “your” in a few instances that call for “you’re.”

Second, in the paragraph beginning “The difference between Condition Red and Condition Yellow may at first seem unclear. In Condition Red, not only have you determined that the threat is very real, but more importantly you’ve made a mental decision to act if the trigger from Condition Yellow is tripped. It’s a very subtle but important difference. You not only have a plan on what to do and when to act (Condition Yellow) but you are prepared to carry out that act.”

I think you mean Condition Orange where you have Condition Yellow. In your article, you say that the mental triggers are created in Orange, not yellow.

Otherwise, this is some good, solid information.

Thank you.

Comment by T
2018-09-09 15:19:38

The link to you book on this page is not working. Thanks.

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2019-09-04 23:53:01

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2019-12-07 00:25:20

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Comment by Leah
2020-01-05 13:36:58

Thank you. I currently live in a gated community so upon coming home I tend to relax completely. But when going out I am aware of my surroundings. My phone remains out of sight even in town. I will be printing out some quizzes on personal safety for both of my children to do.

And do you have any tips on personal safety for small children? Other than take a self defence class as we are a non violent family. My children are not allowed to walk or wheel too far ahead of me when we are out. Many thanks in advance!

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