by John Muscat, Khiron Security Ltd

Situational awareness is often mentioned as a cornerstone requirement for higher-skilled security roles within the private security industry such as for counter-surveillance officers, security drivers and executive protection officers. But perhaps not enough importance is given to the topic when providing basic training for security officers carrying out more fundamental duties across the industry.

Training in ‘situational awareness’, or our guards’ ability to maintain the correct level of mental focus in line with the situation around them, can play a big part in developing a more pro-active security posture.

Jeff Cooper, a former US Marine, devised a colour-coded system for escalating degrees of mental preparedness. This allows us to continually check our actual mental alertness level and compare this with what it should be in view of factors such as the activity that we are undertaking or even just the area that we are walking or driving through. The system is taught to many law-enforcement and military forces in the western world.

The following is a top level view of this colour-coded system:

WHITE: The levels start at the lowest condition ‘white’. This is where we are completely relaxed and ‘zoned out’. In reality we should only find ourselves in this state when we are inside our homes or somewhere equally secure.

YELLOW: The next step up is condition ‘yellow’. We remain relaxed but this is the minimum state of awareness that we should adopt when we leave a secure zone. In this mental state we would be constantly aware of who and what is around us. How long has that vehicle been following us around as we have been driving our client to work? Why has that vehicle remained parked with people inside it for such a long time just outside the facility that we are guarding? We should constantly be asking ourselves that critical question “What If?” to come up possible response actions and eliminate the possibility of being surprised.

ORANGE: So what happens once something has caught our interest? Have we identified a potential hazard or threat? Our senses are now tingling because there is a possibility that something around us may cause us harm. We are now in condition Orange and we are assessing whether there is a threat to our well-being and what response options we have if the threat materialises.

Being aware of your surroundings

Keep in mind that we cannot operate in condition orange for extensive periods of time – this would be too stressful and physically draining – our ‘normal’ state should be at level yellow until something in our environment gives us reason to escalate our mental condition.

RED: Should the potential threat that we identified and took us to condition orange turn out to be a false alarm then we can easily ease back to level yellow. If, however, that potential threat that we were monitoring suddenly transitions into an active threat then we need to move into condition red. This is where we must quickly decide on one of the courses of action that we had mentally identified at condition orange when we asked ourselves ‘WHAT IF?’.

BLACK: Failure to be able to adapt our mental condition to the situation developing around us means that, if that potential threat or hazard had to materialise then we would very likely freeze and be unable to react effectively to get ourselves safely out of the situation.

An analogy that is commonly used when speaking about levels of awareness is that of using the gear shift when driving a vehicle.

Changing gear

If we move up and down the gears in line with our vehicle’s speed and terrain (similar to shifting our level of awareness in line with our environment) we can get the optimal performance from the car’s engine. If, however, we try to shift the engine from first gear (or condition white) immediately to top gear (equivalent to our condition red) then we are very likely to end up with a stalled engine, equivalent to finding ourselves in condition black and unable to react to get ourselves and / or others out of harm’s way.

The key thing is to be aware that you need to take control of your situational awareness and manage your mental level of alertness throughout your day to keep you safe as conditions around you change.

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