Survival Situational Awareness

One of the scientific definitions of Situational Awareness is “The perception of elements in the environment within a volume of space and time, the comprehension of their meaning and the projection of their status in the near future.” 

In simple terms, Situational Awareness is the process of knowing what is going on around you at all times and having a tentative plan to respond to an abnormal occurrence.  Many people consider individuals who practice situational awareness as overly concerned, paranoid, insecure or just scared, none of which are true.  Being cognitive of your surroundings and having a tentative plan to respond to abnormal situations is the key to survival and gives you a tremendous advantage when things go bad.

Johnny O Doomsday Preppers
“Am I nuts or are you?”

Situational awareness was first explored when researchers studied the successes of American pilots in Korea and Vietnam.  When the best dog-fighting pilots were asked what they believed contributed to their success, they all had the same answer.  Based on their past experiences and observations, they were able to anticipate the next move of the pilot they were chasing.  Thus, they maneuvered into a position of advantage by correctly anticipating the enemy pilot’s next move, which resulted in them winning the dogfight.

That research led to the development of a complex but concise logical pathway of decision-making that leads to success.  John Boyd Survival Situational Awarenessdeveloped the Observation, Orient, Decide, Act loop (OODA loop).  It diagrams an organized process by which successful decisions are formulated.  It appears very complex; however, once broken down, it is a very simple means of preparing yourself for the possibility of an event.  The original decision making information is obtained during the “Observational” phase. Based on the information acquired, it is applied to “Orienting” one’s self to anticipate the next event. With this information, you begin to “Decide” your “Action”. Once you are properly informed, positioned correctly, and have a tentative plan, you have the advantage when it is necessary to act.

Even though you may not have time to study the Boyd Loop, you can apply the concepts as part of your situational awareness procedure. The practice of applying this process to all aspects of your life can improve your performance in everything from driving, work, and hobbies to family and relationships.

Two of the important aspects of situational awareness are:

1)  To determine the environment around you
2)  Whether you are alone or with others.

These are important considerations when planning your actions.  For example, are you alone, with friends or with your family?  In each of these cases, your response to an abnormal situation will be entirely different.  Obviously, if you are solo, your actions do not need to be coordinated with anyone else.  This will give more options and fewer restrictions when determining your action.

On the other hand, you may be with your family, including children.  Clearly, your response to an abnormal situation will be considerably different.  In this incidence, you need to predetermine your actions and you may need to inform others in your group of possible actions.  Considerations in this environment include how fast they can move, how they will need to be protected, and whether or not they understand directions.  This is a far more complex set of action plans, so your situational awareness and prepping need to be implemented earlier rather than later.

For example, if you enter a restaurant with your wife and children, you should choose your seating so you can see the door and see the largest area of the facility.  Secondly, you should choose to be as close as possible to an exit in case you need to carry your children out.  Finally, you and your wife should be sitting on the outside of the booth or table in case you need to maneuver quickly.

In light of all the above, situational awareness is a state of mind.  Thus, it must be practiced constantly to become fluent in its use and application.  In addition, understanding the various states of mind is imperative to understanding situational awareness and applying it daily.  Jeff Cooper adapted a military concept of combat mindset into a color-coded definition of human awareness and response to critical situations.  It is vital to understand these conditions.

Color Codes of Awareness

Color Codes of Awareness

White: Completely unaware of your environment and surroundings.  This is clearly the most dangerous condition to be in because you are the most vulnerable.  This condition occurs while you are driving, day dreaming, talking on your cell phone, texting, and managing your children.  Naturally, there are many many more instances that could be mentioned, but these are a few to reflect condition White.  Again, this is the most dangerous condition to be in – the condition that bad guys like to find you in so they have the advantage.

Yellow: Relaxed but alert and acknowledging your surroundings. This is the first stage in the OODA loop.  This is your observational phase.  You are looking around, noting where there are exits, watching who is entering the door, getting the lay of the land and considering action plans.  This can be conducted in a casual manner without anyone knowing you are observing your surroundings. This level of awareness will allow you to notice normal and aberrant events quickly. This is the phase when you will begin to notice things you have never noticed before.  This is a good thing.

Orange: Alertness has increased significantly, something is not right, action maybe required, and more formal action planning is required. Examples include people arguing, someone acting inappropriately, someone moving into your personal space, or an actual bad event taking place. This is an action level of awareness. You need to make decisions at this level. You could decide to leave the area and be non- confrontational.  You might decide to gather your children. Seriously, consider you personal protection action. If you have practiced level Yellow well then this phase can be managed easily.  However, if you have not implemented condition Yellow, you will be caught off guard, confused and disoriented when an untoward event occurs.

Red: Immediate Action is Required.  This does not necessarily mean “intervention” action.  It could mean leaving the scene, finding the fastest exit.  On the other hand, intervention such as actively protecting yourself and family members with the use of some form of personal protection device could be necessary.  Red is implementation.  This is the time when fear, reservation, confusion and lack of planning can place you in greater danger.  It is imperative that you be assertive at this level.  If you have managed level Orange well, then this phase can be seamless since you know what you are going to do.

The final condition is controversial. It is Black.  In this condition, you may be in a state of shock or confusion.  What just happened? This is the level where you must regain your conscious state of mind, organize your thoughts and focus on the situation.

(See Book Review – Jeff Cooper: The Art of the Rifle)

Be Prepared

What can help you be better prepared should an untoward event occur?  The best way is to have your Every Day Carry (EDC) tools with you and readily available.  Your EDC tools should include keys, cell phone, flashlight, knife, multi-tool and personal protection device.  This small compilation of tools gives you tremendous ability to manage multiple possible scenarios that might occur.  Naturally, having your keys close by enables you to get into your car and drive away if you can.  A survival flashlight enables you always to have light should the electricity go out, or to exit a location at night.  A knife can be used in many cases, from personal protection to cutting material.  The multi-tool is useful if you are separated from your transportation and you need a tool for any job.  Finally, you will need your personal protection device, whether it be a firearm, pepper spray, or a taser of some type.

We have discussed the basis of preemptive decision making, the psychological states of mind in which you may find yourself and, finally, items that you may need in an untoward situation.  The next two steps in this process are of the utmost importance: Training and Practice.

I, along with all other professionals in the firearms, personal protection and safety business, cannot stress enough how important training is when it comes to operational success.  Thus, to perfect your skills you must train constantly.  That means you need practice making methodical decisions based on good information.  Practice situational awareness all the time, no matter where you are.  Finally, learn how to use your EDC tools effectively and quickly.  Practicing these skills is the key to success and positive outcome.  It is imperative that you do this.

Here are some examples.  Let us start with decision-making.  Try to train yourself to not make any decision while you are angry or emotional.  Learn to slow yourself down, look at the facts and then make a solid decision.  Another practice scenario is more complex and engaging.  When at an event, observe what is going on around you and try to anticipate the actions of the people you are observing.  An example: a man and woman walk into a restaurant and, as they sit down, the man pulls the chair out for the woman.  My guess would be that when they leave he would pull the chair out for her as well.  This is great observational practice.


Next, learn to plan as you observe.  As you enter the restaurant, take a minute and determine the following:   Where are the exits?…. Doomsday PreppersWhere can I sit so I can observe the door?….  Where is the least crowed area of the restaurant so that I can have space?….  Can I see my car from the restaurant?….  As you walk to your seat, observe the people eating and what they are wearing…  Finally, make a quick plan:  If this happens, I am going out that door…  or if that should happen, I am moving to that location.  Then enjoy yourself and keep a watchful eye on your surroundings.

The next step in this series is to learn how to use your tools very well.  Make sure your phone has a quick button for calling 911.  Practice opening and closing your knife, to the point that you can do it in the dark safely.  Finally, and most importantly, make sure you know how to use your personal protection tool very very well.  I cannot express how important this is.  This tool may save your life.  You need to know how to use it without reservation when the need arises.  Hesitation in using your personal protection device can mean the difference in being a victim or a survivor.

In summary, Situational Awareness is a mental state of alertness that enables you to be actively aware of your surroundings in the event an untoward incident should happen. In that case, the proper application of Situational Awareness will enable you to respond quickly and intelligently so you can properly address the aberrant event.  Having the necessary EDC survival tools with you and the comfort and knowledge of their use will enable you to feel secure in your actions. The ability to respond quickly and affirmatively and the sense of security come only from practice, practice and practice.

Also read Captain Bart’s take on Situational Awareness (Click Here).

Photos by:
Doomsday Preppers – NatGeo
Il Vicino

Written by Dan C

Dan is a life long experienced and avid firearm enthusiast, hunter and outdoorsman. For ten years, Dan functioned as the team leader of a critical care medical team that conducted world-wide medical evacuations. He participated in over 300 medical missions worldwide at times in very remote and hostile environments, including Haiti, Nicaragua, the Middle East, Russia, and South America. Read his full interview here. Read more of Dan's articles.

15 thoughts on “Survival Situational Awareness”

  1. First off, great article Dan! You have put a lot of good information in this that can be practically applied.

    With my experience with the color conditions through various military training (combatives, combat pistol, urban ops…) there are important physiological processes to know about with the different states of awareness.

    What is described as ORANGE (some charts have white, green, yellow vs. white, yellow, orange and no, that doesn't really matter) full cognitive and reasoning abilities are still present. As you progress up to RED and BLACK the ability to reason decreases. Training and conditioning take over… and if there is none, often panic is what you get.

    One of my favorite phrases to my trainees… "when you corner an animal, human or otherwise, they become predictably unpredictable." That is true here if training is not a part of the equation.

    In addition to restricted cognitive abilities, there are also changes in physical abilities. With surges in stress hormones, abilities relating to strength can be increased. There is a trade-off in the form of decline in fine motor abilities. Also, with the amount of blood shunting from the outer extremities to the inner major muscle groups and organs, being able to feel what your hands are touching will be decreased. This means precision shooting in condition BLACK ain't happening.

    There is an upside to this that Dan mentioned. With training and conditioning you have actions available for you to use should you get into situations where you need them. Those who practice situations that routinely cause conditions RED and BLACK notice that over time it is harder to get their body to reach those states and they remain in ORANGE or up to RED instead.

    As a last note, someone is most likely to react the way they were first trained. It takes a lot of effort to unlearn a conditioning and relearn something else. So whatever you learn, learn it right the first time.

  2. Great article. I have heard about OODA loops before but have never really gotten a chance to put them into practice. I have a few friends who used to play games with one another to develop it, seeing how many light bulbs were in a room, what color are the doorknobs, etc. Little things like that to build up the memory and right now they're at a point where they have awareness about any situation they are in. I might try it myself

  3. Thank you all for the comments…. Thank you Dr. Preoper for your input… you are totally correct….as I mentioned practice is of the utmost importance in preparing for a untoward event……. and yes the other commentors are correct …….the OODA is complex but a great foundation for making decisions…..but it takes practice…

  4. Very good article Dan! As a retired Police Officer and former military I can attest that I wouldn't be around were it not for situational awareness! Keep up the good work!

  5. Outstanding Dan C. Bravo! This is the most important element of survival.

    Due to our relative level of safety in the U.S. most of our society operates in the white. Those who are trained or grew up in high treat areas very seldom go below yellow.

    Another important part of survival is post black or stand down. Confirm threats are neutralized, reload, re-holster / sling, assist wounded, evacuate, maintain situational awareness. Leave the area if possible. Move to a known safer place or more easily defended place.

    If you are being followed don't lead them to your home, cache or other family. Instead, lead them to an area where you can channelize their movement and set up a hasty ambush.

    Immediate action drills can be done anywhere… Even in your mind. These drill will help you to react better when the time comes.

  6. Great article..also a retired police officer..and believe most people operate in the white..I am always amazed at the people that will cross the street in traffic and not even look to see what is coming…the basic rule..they just figure they can do it without the possibility of any harm…I think some people are foder for the predators..they seem to be in a fog all the time..not aware of anything that is going on around them…I see above Dave H is also a retired police officer and can attest to the fact some people just do not have a clue. Tom

  7. You speak of Being Prepared. I found this on another site and have to share.

    Great article. learned all of it in the Military and in Police work. Practice it everyday. Maybe follow up with SNS (sympathetic nervous system) if you go into condition black, the narrowing of the senses. What happens when it's over and you SNS relapse, the need to eat sugar & feed the brain.

  8. GREAT article. Very important to everyday life.

    Regarding the self defense tool. If you can't carry a handgun make your first choice a tactical flashlight (with the strike bezel). I practice with mine regularly (quick and accurate beam placement) and on a cardboard wrapped heavy bag. I prefer it to a knife in a "hand to hand" scenario. A quick hit in the eyes with that bright beam and the advantage is ALL MINE. I also have a few moves where I can use it a keboton. It's my AtT (All the Time) carry, even on my nightstand next to me.

  9. Even though site is very importent, but how alert are you if you can't see? Being blind for eight years has tought me a lot about being ready for anything. I like what was said, but try to be alert in another way.


Leave a Comment