Self-defense professionals often advise their students to “Live in Condition Yellow.” This terminology comes from one of the all-time great personal-protection teachers, the late Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper. He was the first to popularize the concept of color codes to describe levels of alertness and preparedness. In Condition White, Cooper explained, one was unaware of his or her surroundings and unprepared to swiftly react to sudden danger. Next up on the scale was Condition Yellow, a state of relaxed alertness. Condition Orange is a heightened awareness focused on gathering input when there is reason to believe that some particular danger is present. Col. Cooper’s continuum ended at Condition Red, when the danger had been located and identified, and it was conflict time. Some of us went with a fifth color code, Condition Black, delineating Red as the gunpoint situation with a threat clearly identified, and Black being “lethal assault in progress” upon us or other innocent people, the point at which we had no alternative but to neutralize the threat. In this article, we’ll focus on Condition Yellow, the cultivation of a constant “relaxed alertness.” We have long called it “situational awareness.” Let’s examine some of its elements.

It begins with knowing where we are and who is around us. Whether you’re driving or walking, ask yourself, without waiting to see the next road marker or street sign, could you tell someone exactly where you are right now? Without checking your driving mirrors or swiveling your head, could you describe the nearest vehicle or pedestrian and know how far they are behind you? The uninitiated think this is paranoia, or hyper-vigilance. On the contrary, it’s common sense. Leave self-defense out of it for a moment. Let’s say you’re driving on a lonely road, whether in the hottest desert or a snow-swept northern landscape, and you come across an overturned automobile, with multiple severely injured people inside. Suppose further that a working GPS is not available to you. Could you vector rescue personnel to the scene in time to save their lives? You are taking a late-night stroll through a park in a city you’re visiting and a jogger in front of you suddenly falls to the ground and stops breathing. Can you describe your location sufficiently to get paramedics there while there’s still time to save him?

Now, inject self-defense into the mix. It’s just another kind of emergency—not something most of us face every day, but something that any of us could face on any day. Take for example the importance of knowing who’s near you. Did you ever see a friend on the street and wave, and they appeared to look right through you and keep going? ( Click Here to read Neighborhood Watch ) Note that when we go about absorbed in our own thoughts, we fall victim to what is recognized as “inattentional blindness” and “inattentional deafness.” The definition is simple: If we are not looking for something, we very likely won’t see it even if it’s within our field of view, and if we are not listening for something, we may not hear it, even if the sound comes from nearby. Every detective in America has interviewed mugging victims or rape victims who said, “The attacker came from nowhere.” No, he didn’t. The victim simply didn’t see or hear the attacker coming in time to do anything to escape the attack or thwart it. The essence of Condition Yellow is to look and listen. It is to know that the attack is about to happen, and be prepared to either fight or fly. Alertness will give you a powerful advantage.

When discussing this topic I hear people say indignantly, “I don’t want to live in a world where I have to constantly be looking and listening for danger! I want to enjoy my life!” My answer is always, “These things are not incompatible.” Condition Yellow doesn’t make you paranoid; Condition Yellow makes you a “people watcher.” When you stay alert to your surroundings, you see the beauty around you. Today more than ever, the internet allows you to check out high-risk versus lower-risk travel routes and destinations. Remember the good advice of retired Marine officer and longtime survival guru John Farnam: “Avoid the ‘three stupids.’ Don’t go to stupid places or do stupid things with stupid people.” Whether it’s travel during bad weather, or having to go to someplace you didn’t really want to be, have an exit plan. It’s true of business trips, vacations, blind dates, and work assignments you had to accept when you didn’t want to.

Many personal safety advisors and security consultants recommend maximizing the alarm feature on modern electronic car key fobs by using its incessant “beep beep beep” sound as a panic button. Many have advised keeping the device in hand when walking to one’s car in the dark, and keeping it by the bed at night. The reason behind this is that it can distract your attacker, making him turn his head reflexively toward the sound and giving you a brief opening in which you can go for your own weapon, or attempt to disarm him if you’re sure you can bring it off. When using the button from inside a structure, test it beforehand to make sure it will sound when activated! Such fobs have a limited range, and obstacles may be a factor, too.

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