situational awareness survival guide tips tactics

Dealing with a lethal encounter is a multi-step process. It usually happens so quickly that you are not consciously aware of the process. In order to survive a threat, three primary elements need to work together. First and foremost, you need to become aware of the threat, otherwise known as situational awareness. Secondly, you need to assess the threat. And finally, you must decide upon and carry out the appropriate response.

Situational Awareness

To be able to identify a threat, you must maintain constant mental awareness and perception of the elements. Without awareness, the best gun, the most powerful ammunition, and all of the tactical training in the world will be useless. If you are unaware of your surroundings, you are unprepared to react—a recipe for the perpetrator to prevail. A “surprise attack” may not be a surprise if you are aware of your surroundings.

situational awareness mugger alleyway

While walking from the store to your car, are you oblivious to your surroundings, or are you alert to other pedestrians and cars? Did you see the person lurking behind the tree? Did you check inside the car before entering your vehicle? Do you look at the interior corner-mounted mirrors before entering an elevator? The following is a model of situation awareness to help you maintain the appropriate level.

Color Codes of Awareness

As with many other things, there are various levels of awareness—from a complete lack of awareness of your surroundings to the knowledge of a direct attack. The color codes of awareness, developed by Colonel Jeff Cooper, are used to categorize levels of awareness and action. It is useful to understand the levels, not only as a definition but also as mental models of what levels of situational awareness are appropriate for different situations. The color codes are:

  • White: Going about your own business in an ignorant daze. Since you are not alert to symptoms or signs of violence, you are unprepared to react to it. Many car accidents happen because drivers are in Condition White, completely oblivious to their surroundings.
  • Yellow: Relaxed alertness. Not tense or nervous but maintaining situational awareness of your surroundings and possible intent of others. Alertness to real world surroundings would include such things as listening for confrontations, looking at elements in the environment, noticing who is present as you walk down the street and knowing lanes of egress in every location that you find yourself in. This also means pay attention to potential cover and concealment and create a mental plan of escape if things were to turn violent.
  • Orange: Perception of potential threats, but of an unknown nature. An example would be the sound of glass breaking, which could indicate a burglar or just something getting knocked over accidentally. This heightened state of alert causes your body to react. Your pulse, blood pressure and breathing will increase. Ready your weapons if needed and take immediate note of concealment, cover and lanes of egress.
  • Red: You perceive an immediate danger to you. With a direct threat, immediately take cover, draw your weapon, control the lane of egress and leave if possible. The fight is on.

The Benefits of Situational Awareness

Several main elements of Situational awareness include: looking for potential attackers, knowing the locations of cover and concealment, finding exits, and seeking lanes of egress.

Awareness of your situation and surroundings can benefit you threefold:

  1. You can escape dangerous situations by simply avoiding them. If you are watching your surroundings and you see what looks like trouble ahead, stay clear.
  2. Knowing about trouble ahead of time can give you time to prepare a plan, seek out cover and concealment, and ready your weapons (retrieve pepper spray, open your knife, place your hand on your gun, etc.).
  3. If the assailant knows that you are aware of his presence and possibly prepared for an encounter, he may simply decide to find an easier victim.

Criminals most often don’t select a victim at random. They seek an opponent they can beat readily. They would rather take $10 from an easy victim than fight with a victim over $50. In the 1960s, street thugs would often seek out hippies to victimize since they would surrender their valuables without a struggle and would not report the crime to the police.

Things remain the same today—criminals seek victims who are unaware and unprepared. They seek those living in Condition White. Natives of New York City call people who look up at the skyscrapers “tourists”—criminals call them “victims.”

Living in Condition Yellow

All too many people exist in Condition White. I also refer to this as “ignorant bliss.” It is best to be aware of your surroundings at all times; remain vigilant and alert taking a regular situational assessment. You can live your entire life in Condition Yellow without any psychological harm whatsoever.

situational awareness cell phone criminal
Criminals seek those unaware and unprepared. Don’t let yourself fall into Condition White. Try to stay off your phone when you’re walking.

Condition Yellow tells the stalking criminal that you are aware of your surroundings and are probably aware of his presence. The assailant will get a sense that you are not the easy victim he seeks.

Staying alert does not mean that you are paranoid. Wherever you are, be aware of others. Look for indications of their intentions. Are they simply walking to their car, or are they looking inside every car they pass?

Widen your vision. Don’t concentrate on just what is in front of you, but also what surrounds you. Note possible concealment and cover. If someone were to burst out shooting right this instant, what would you do? Where would you hide? How would you escape? What would you do to stop the attack?

Assess The Threat

Before you can determine your response to a perceived threat, you must understand the level of jeopardy facing you. Threat assessment can be the most difficult survival element, both because the attacker may mask his true intentions and because the severity of the potential harm may not yet be evident.

An assailant might threaten you with grave bodily harm but point a water pistol. A mugger may say he won’t hurt you if you hand over your wallet, but then stab you as you reach to give it to him.

situational awareness robber pointing gun
“Wherever you are, be aware of others. Look for indications of their intentions.”

As difficult as it may be to determine, your response needs to be appropriate to the perceived threat level. If you overreact, you could land in jail. If you don’t react or under-react you could land 6 feet under. Start your assessment by determining if the danger is a direct threat to you. Your response will differ significantly depending on the circumstances.

If threatened directly with gunfire, take cover, draw your weapon and return fire if appropriate. If you hear a random gunshot and are not in direct danger, take cover, then get out of the area.

Keep in mind that drawing a weapon in this situation may put you in mortal danger. Law enforcement or a concerned citizen may see you with a drawn gun and assume that you are the criminal. Remember, the purpose of the firearm is to get you out of trouble, not into it.

Determine the Appropriate Response

Presuming that you are facing a direct threat, the question remains, is it a lethal threat? Does the perpetrator want to simply punch you or beat you to death with a baseball bat? In order to respond with lethal force, you must be facing an imminent threat of death or grave bodily harm. Generally, the law allows equal force; you can only use the same force level that threatens you.

Does the perpetrator have the ability to carry out the threat, and is the threat imminent? Are you being threatened with a knife from across a wide street, or is the attacker just 20 feet away and closing?

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A knife threat from 50 feet is not a lethal threat, while the same threat with a gun could be considered a lethal threat. If you are being threatened with a gun, is the gun being drawn, or is the threat not viable because the perpetrator does not have the gun in his hand?

Are you just being verbally threatened, or is a physical attack in progress? If the threat is only a means of intimidation, you do not have the right to use lethal force. This is because you are not in immediate jeopardy of losing your life or suffering grave bodily harm. Understanding the justified use of force is absolutely imperative.

How To Respond

Most shooters that I have come in contact with are far more concerned about the choice of gun, caliber, and cartridge than they are with tactics. In reality, the type of gun and ammunition are almost unimportant. How you use what you have is far more important.

The elements of response in order of importance are proper tactics, skill with a defensive weapon, and the proper choice of weapon. The order of importance is very telling. Tactics (what you do) are more important than how you do it and what you do it with.

Additionally, tactics mean awareness of your situation and surroundings, knowing what skills to apply and how to apply them. Likewise, tactics mean understanding such things as knowing where you are in relation to cover and how to get to the closest door.

It means understanding how to traverse a doorway and how to flank your opponent. The ability to hit the 10 ring of a paper target is not important if you are dead before you can get your gun out.

Tactics also include avoiding a situation when you perceive a threat. If you see a threat on the sidewalk ahead of you, why not just cross the road and place yourself out of the person’s reach? It is far better to avoid trouble than to deal with it after it starts.

Proper Skill Application Ensures Survival

Once you have applied the proper tactics, skill in the use of your chosen weapon (shooting in the case of a firearm) is the next most important element. While I dislike repeating clichés, a few are appropriate, including “A hit with a 9mm is better than a miss with a .45” and “A slow hit is better than a fast miss.”

Simply stated, shot placement is far more important than what caliber or gun you’re using.

What is lost on many people is that the choice of gun and ammunition is actually the least important element of survival. The smallest gun in the hands of an aware, prepared and skilled person is much more effective than the largest gun in the hands of a person who is unprepared to present a proper defense.

The number one element of survival is situational awareness. Once an attack has commenced, proper use of tactics will give you an opportunity to survive. A series of well-placed rounds should stop the attack.

This article was originally published in the spring 2017 issue of “Personal & Home Defense.” To order a copy and subscribe, visit

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