Situational Awareness: The Color Code Model

Situational Awareness: The Color Code Model

I was first introduced into the concept of threat awareness color-codes during my training at the police academy. Although that was in 1995, it still has purpose today. It was a process I applied on the street, throughout my careers in law enforcement and EMS. I even found I used it and in my day-to-day life.

While it is a system commonly taught to law enforcement and the military, it certainly has applications for all interested in personal safety. The premise of this color-coded model is to help one recognize “where” they might be with situational awareness, a level of it, at any given time.

Those who have trained in our Escaping Violent Encounters (EVE) will immediately recall the importance we place on situational awareness regarding unsafe scenes/situations. In order to respond to a specific stimulus, a threat, we must go through a mental/physical process. How we fair at the end, is determined of level of awareness. You can see more about the reaction process be checking out R.A.C.E.

First we will give a brief explanation of each color-coded level, while applying them to a common scenario of triaging an intoxicated “patient.”

WHITE:  Daydreaming/Distracted


White is a level characterized as being completely unaware of one’s surroundings. Anything that causes an awareness distraction from our surroundings can place a person in White. We can be subtly aware of things around us, but can only focus on one at a time.  Sometimes this is purposeful and others it is not. Anything that shifts the focus from the task at hand can be considered a form of White.

Distraction Purposeful Examples:

  • Replying to a personal text on your smartphone
  • Daydreaming about an upcoming recreational activity

Distraction Non-Purposeful Examples:

  • Co-worker, another patient, or bystander asks you a question causing you to R.A.C.E. in order to answer
  • Paged to come to another location



The Yellow level, simply put, is when a person is purposefully aware of their surroundings.  It is the preparation for, not paranoia of, some form of danger/threat. Yellow is THE key to being able to perceive a threat. Without perception of a threat, there is no ability to assess it, or respond to it. In our intoxicated triage example, Yellow might be paying attention to distance, personal space, body-language, level of cooperation, etc.

ORANGE: Possible Threat

Your Human Animal (gut-feeling) tapped you on the shoulder and asked “Hey, what’s that?” Something has captured your attention. Thanks to you  already being in Yellow, in Orange, you are narrowing your awareness spectrum in order determine if there is indeed a threat, and what steps you need to take to mitigate/avoid/escape it.  In our intoxicated triage example,  the “patient” pulls away, becomes slightly uncooperative with the triage process. It is in that moment, you went from Yellow, to Orange. The “something” was the behavior exhibited by the supposed patient. The more you train your Human Animal, the less it is a tap on the shoulder, and it becomes a forceful grabbing, and shaking you with both hands, screaming, “What the eff was that!?”

RED: Actual Threat


In RED, you have no doubt you are engaged in danger. You are focused solely on the perceived threat. This is where the CAVEMAN, the fight or flight/sympathetic responses to danger kick in. Here our formally labeled intoxicated “patient” grabs you aggressively and states he is going to, “Kill you!” This, now formally turning him into a criminal attacker, changes the nature of the relationship. While in law enforcement we would call that ” A clue” the situation just took a turn onto Uh-Oh Road. Ask anyone who has been attacked by surprised, and they will attest, that jump to finding yourself in RED, sucks.

BLACK: Sleeping/Incapacitated/Dead


Black is pretty much self-explanatory. If the danger was real-enough, and you were operating in White, Black is quite possibly were you will end up, or just…end.

Putting it all together

For the purposes of simplifying the concept (of the situational color-codes of awareness), remove violence from the equation for a moment and consider driving. It’s a task you most likely do daily. Imagine you are driving in moderate traffic, at highway speeds. An application of the color codes might be:

White: You are distracted from driving by responding to texts on your smartphone.   

Yellow: Focused on driving. Noticing vehicles, roadway, signage/signals, and other driver’s behaviors. This would include using your mirrors to observe behind you.

Orange: A vehicle passes you at a high rate of speed. You now observe as it weaves in and out of traffic, dangerously close to the vehicles ahead of you.

Red: The aggressive driver has caused an accident in your direct path. Tires screeching, as vehicles are crisscrossing, some spun out of control, and even a rollover.

Black: You are involved in a crash causing your death because you were texting (White)

Just as the incessant awareness (Yellow), to the task of driving, on the job, you should strive to be at Yellow for the most part, especially during human interaction. WHITE/BLACK is to be (obviously) avoided.

There is one caveat that affected me… learn how to not stay in orange. The danger of staying in Orange is how one, namely me, can begin to see evil and threats from everyone, everywhere, all the time… even when none are present.

This color-code awareness is something to aid you as you practice Saving Yours, While You Save Others #SYWYSO remember to share our posts with peers.