Five Ways to Improve Situational Awareness

Editor’s Note: The following is a post by Mark Kakkuri, a nationally published freelance writer who covers guns and gear, 2nd Amendment issues and the outdoors. His writing and photography have appeared in many firearms-related publications, including the USCCA’s Concealed Carry Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter @markkakkuri.

Read Mark’s previous articles in this “Top Five” series:

We all know how important situational awareness is in the overall scheme of personal defense. In fact, the whole point of situational awareness is to avoid trouble if you can. Yes, trouble sometimes comes to you even when you’ve been as situationally aware as you could have been. Nonetheless, it’s good to be reminded of the levels of situational awareness and what you can do to improve on them.

I recently read a copy of Jason Hanson’s book, “Spy Secrets That Can Save Your Life.” In it, Hanson, a former CIA officer, discusses Colonel Jeff Cooper’s Color Codes:

For more information on “Spy Secrets That Can Save Your Life” by Jason Hanson’s, visit  You can purchase it for around $8.

White — Totally oblivious or not paying a lick of attention to the circumstances around you. Think of people you see walking around with their mobile devices in hand, heads down, staring at the screen.

Yellow — Alert and aware. There’s no specific threat, but you’re keeping an eye on your circumstances; you’re generally aware of what’s going on around you and you would notice things or people that don’t look right. This is not ongoing paranoia but simply active awareness.

Orange — Specific threat identified. In this case, you go from general to specific; a peculiar thing or person has caught your interest because something is out of the ordinary and directly posing a threat to you. This isn’t focusing on a single person to the exclusion of everything else, but a specific person demands your keen awareness and readiness to act.

Red — Taking action to escape or defend. Here the threat has materialized in such a way that you have to respond to it. This might mean drawing a gun or other weapon, taking advantage of an escape route, dialing 911 or otherwise signaling for help.

These color codes and their associated actions should be familiar territory for you. If not, look them up and study how to make them a part of your everyday life. As you grow in familiarity with them, take note of the additional advice Hanson offers in this chapter of his book.

1. “Get off the X.”

Hanson says people who move live. His point is that not moving in an emergency situation is likely the worst thing you can do. If an attacker is nearing you, move away. If a weather threat is bearing down on you, get out of town. If an unruly mob is nearby, put distance between you and them. Even if an attack starts to play out, remembering to get off the X could be what helps you create distance between you and danger, thus saving your life.

2. “Recognize pre-incident indicators.”

Hanson says most attacks come with indicators that can be seen or noticed well before the attack actually happens. And if we’re watchful (Condition Yellow or Orange), we can detect them and get off the X to avoid the situation altogether. Hanson says to watch for the following: 1. Staring, 2. Pacing and 3. Distraction. If someone is staring at you, that’s weird, yes, but it might be that person is sizing you up for an attack. Same for pacing. If a person matches your pace while you’re moving about an area, an attack could be in the works. A distraction is exactly that — an event meant to get you to focus on something or someone else so another person can initiate an attack you’ll be even less prepared for.

3. “Beating normalcy bias.”

Hanson explains that normalcy bias is a way humans cope with a difficult situation or a disaster. A person might witness or experience a disaster situation and yet will do nothing or not think any differently because they simply want to believe that the situation is not actually happening or won’t affect them in any way. According to Hanson, ways that normalcy bias works out include the following: 1. Not taking a disaster seriously, 2. Not preparing for a disaster and 3. Believing that because something has never happened before, it never will.

4. “Establish a baseline.”

Hanson says a baseline is an informal measure to determine what is normal and what is not, because knowing what is not normal is the key to knowing how to evaluate a situation and how to respond to it. It’s closely related to being in Condition Yellow and Orange, or watchful for things that don’t look right — generally or specifically. Hanson advises to know your norms and keep them consistent. In other words, you should know what is normal for your home, your workplace and other places you frequent. When something is out of the norm — not following the baseline — you’ll then know you might need to act. At home, Hanson advises to always be consistent in locking doors, closing and locking windows, closing and locking the garage, and turning on (and off) exterior lighting. These establish a norm for your home and to find anything out of the ordinary could be cause for alarm or action.

5. “What does experience tell you?”

Related to establishing a baseline and beating normalcy bias, Hanson advises listening to your own experience. If something doesn’t look, sound, feel or otherwise turn out right, it’s likely that something is wrong. You’ll need to be prepared to act; in fact, experience will grow the more you actively stay in Condition Yellow, observing your surroundings and circumstances.

And here’s a sixth item: Human behavior. Hanson applies these skills specifically to evaluating the behavior of others for potential problems or threats. Some key questions to help with this include 1. Is the person dressed inappropriately for the weather? 2. Is the person displaying odd gestures or mannerisms? 3. Is the person somewhere he or she is not supposed to be? 4. Is the person paying too close attention to you or someone else? 5. Does the person appear to be following someone? 6. Is the person looking around nervously?

All of these tips come from Chapter 2, “Situational Awareness,” in Hanson’s book and are healthy reminders of how to maximize what Hanson calls the most important thing he learned in the CIA.

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  • kane June 2, 2017, 10:51 am

    One of the issues I always try to consider is whether a highly alert person should conceal their level of “situational awareness” or sometimes indicate a certain level of observation skill to a potential threat. I usually try to observe without displaying indicators that I am aware of who and what is around me and perhaps alerting a threat to my awareness which might then cause some disadvantage for me. On the other hand, it might sometimes be advantageous to display a certain level of awareness and discourage some possible threats. This is an topic that could be explored further with the different types of threats and circumstances.

  • SuperG May 24, 2017, 10:55 am

    Listening is also paramount. Often times, when they have set up an ambush, they’ll use whistles to alert their buddies that they have selected a target. A perfect victim has their face pointed into their cell phone and their ear-buds in place. The attack will come from behind and it will be savage and brutal.

    • ArvadaDude May 26, 2017, 2:20 pm

      I agree with the previous comment and have experienced the group whistle signals first hand. I would add (all joking aside) inappropriate laughter immediately prior to an assault, primarily when encountering a group of males teens to young twenties. Smirking, pointing at you (intended victim), walking towards victim then abruptly turning away only to return yet again in approach…. sometimes a predatory assault can be spotted when violence is the goal. Not robbery, rape, carjacking…. sometimes the goal is simple violence against a victim. Similar to a beat-in in gangs where a new member is beat up by the gang, some groups will initiate a member or even just dare a member to assault a random victim with robbery being an afterthought or opportunistic when the primary goal of assault is successfully completed. Normalcy Bias can assist in ignoring these pre-violence indicators especially when it comes to inappropriate laughter…we want to believe they’re having fun but it can be the egging on of a group member to assault someone. Laughter is used to hide fear and embarrassment, but can also convey aggression. This has happened to me, and I’ve always remembered it.

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