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What color code (awareness level) are you today?

AwarenessColorCodesBasic self defense articles explain the value of being more aware of your surroundings, but few teach how to develop awareness. After 9/11, Americans heard about the need to be more vigilant, but no one I know was offering “How to Increase Your Vigilance” lessons.

One of the best ways to gain an increase in cognizance is to understand states of awareness as color codes. These codes often used by law enforcement, martial artists, and the military. Jeff Cooper, an American combat pistol instructor, created the original coding system as a way to size up threats, assess situations, and help avoid conflict.

Awareness Color Codes

Code White
Clueless –– offers the ideal victim to a criminal

People in code white are oblivious to their surroundings:

  • A mother fully focused on getting her three kids into the car after grocery shopping
  • A school kid waiting for a bus with eyes closed, listening through ear buds to loud music
  • Someone whose eyes and hands are busy texting a message
  • Anyone in an extremely emotional or self-centered state, leaving them too absorbed in their own mind or issues to be consciously aware.

In each of these situations, the mind is directed at a specific activity so that no awareness is used to scan nearby surroundings and activities. As far as predators go, people in code white might as well have the word “Prey” written in marker across their foreheads.

Code Yellow
Alert, but relaxed – a warrior’s default mindset

This state of awareness is common for:

  • Law enforcement officers
  • Emergency response personnel
  • People in high crime or war zones
  • Martial artists
  • People in the security field, including Homeland Security
  • Those trained by the military
  • (Unfortunately) Criminals

This state is not one of paranoia, fear, terror, or suspicion. It is the lack of an assumption that everything is safe and normal.

A person in code yellow is relaxed, scanning the area, but ready to take action if necessary. This state can be compared to a computer sub-routine running silently in the background at all times, pulling input and watching for patterns.

It is similar to how we drive our vehicles through our daily route. We don’t panic at every car that passes, honks, or brakes too fast. We keep “the big picture,” nonchalant but ready to stop at the slightest sign.

Code Orange:
Threat assessment – see it coming and get out of the way.

When a person goes into code orange, they see potential danger developing and take stock of the situation. In this state, a person assesses options such as:

  • Calling 9-1-1
  • Running or walking calmly to an exit
  • Moving into a more public or better-lit place
  • Looking for places of concealment (hidden, but not safe from bullets)
  • Looking for cover (behind something that can stop bullets)
  • Changing your body language to match your plan of action

Being in code yellow allows you to move to code orange quickly, whereas being in code white prevents such action.

Code Red:
Action must be taken – defend, defuse, or depart by any means necessary

In code red, the attack is happening and you must immediately deal with someone’s violence, road rage, verbal abuse, manipulation, or anger. This is the time when the fight or flight instincts kick in and your Inner Warrior revs up for a response.

Having been in code orange, you would have had time to see the danger and generate a plan of action which you will now implement.

Code Black:
Frozen in fear – deer in the headlights

In code black, the body and mind freeze from the threat of danger or the actual assault, unable to take action. This results in total panic and complete paralysis. About the only thing that might work is the releasing of a person’s bladder or bowels.

Obviously, the best place to normally function is code yellow. Code yellow allows you to slip into code orange and out of harm’s way while leaving you better equipped to handle code red.

A criminal, however, would prefer to startle victims from code white directly to code black, because targets are easier to control and intimidate if they are not mentally ready to deal with an attack. Imagine how easy it would be to startle the preoccupied woman loading her car with groceries and tending to her kids, or shock the teenager listening intently to music with eyes closed.

So, what color code are you in today?


Thank you for visiting and learning about self defense.
If you think others can benefit, please pass it on!

Lori Hoeck


Photo: Kent Nguyen

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • vered | blogger for hire November 2, 2009, 9:52 pm

    I’m not sure what color I am but wow, this was fascinating. I’m sure I’m often white – and I like to think that I live in a very safe area so that’s OK. back in Israel it was very different.

  • Davina November 2, 2009, 11:47 pm

    Hi Lori. I’m pretty much yellow, though it’s a tricky balance to keep with so many distractions. Seems when a person is keen on what’s going on around them (from my experience), they’ve really got to keep scanning and not become preoccupied with things. Vered is right, this is fascinating.

  • Lori Hoeck November 3, 2009, 8:35 am

    Hi Vered,
    I’m glad you live in a safe area, but code yellow is the better way to go. Look for an upcoming post on just how safe, “safe areas” are.

    Hi Davina,
    True. It is hard to keep the wary eye up and running, but we do it all the time when driving familiar routes. For those who learn to stay in code yellow most of the time, it’s almost like a psychic ability running on low power underneath all you do. Some are so good at it, they can “feel a disturbance in the Force” before anything pops up visually.

  • janice | Sharing the Journey November 5, 2009, 8:42 am

    Fascinating! I should have read this before I posted my last comment about texting teens!

    One of the hardest things when training coaches is to encourage them to get used to being what we call “charge neutral” so they don’t get sucked down a client’s rabbit hole or caught up in their emotions. It doesn’t preclude empathy etc, but it means we can operate on a lot of levels at the same time, listening with our instincts as well as our ears, noticing things that are incongruent as well as repeated patterns, sighs, smiling thoughts and the comparative lengths of silences.

    I now spend a lot of my time at yellowy-orange and the orange bit is exhausting; pre teen-raising and menopause, even when the kids were younger, I was a calm capable yellow most of the time.

  • Lori Hoeck November 5, 2009, 10:41 am

    Hi Janice,
    I gotta do a riff off this comment in a future blog. So many people stay in orange or red too much because of fear. Kids or adults who are bullied find themselves exhausted from it and can make unhealthy choices.

  • Liz October 18, 2010, 2:34 pm

    I’m pretty sure I’m Code Yellow. 🙂 And, this means most of the time. xD