The first rule of personal defense is you are responsible for your own safety. That means several things; you are responsible for seeking and applying the knowledge to defend yourself; you are responsible for identifying, purchasing, practicing with, and maintaining your kit; and you are responsible for instilling in yourself the mental attitude and toughness that will allow you to win the fight.

The mental aspect of personal defense is probably the most elusive - training and gear may require time and money, but the mental attitude to identify, deter, or defend against a threat requires a change in lifestyle. Unfortunately, our ancestors' heightened senses that allowed them to survive in a more brutal world have been dulled by a cocktail of relatively easy living, constant information immersion/distraction, and an unhealthy dose of Kardashian culture.

Enter LtCol Jeff Cooper, USMC (Ret.) and his color code of awareness. LtCol Cooper was the organizing force behind the early development of combat shooting near Big Bear, California during the late 50's and early 60's.

Hat Plant Gesture Waist People in nature

(LtCol Cooper firing from the holster. Photo credit: Gunsite)

Cooper continued to develop the art, becoming a world-renowned expert in all areas related to firearms and personal defense. The Gunsite Academy in Paulden, AZ is a testament to his competence and vision.

The color code boils down to four states of personal readiness:

Colorfulness Font Rectangle Electric blue Parallel

1. White - unaware and unprepared, much like most of us are while watching our favorite team on Sunday afternoon.

2. Yellow - relaxed alert, you are not focused or aware of any particular threat, but you acknowledge and are aware that it is possible.

3. Orange - specific alert, something or someone has your attention and you are focusing and preparing for that particular threat.

4. Red - you are in the fight. We all live our lives somewhere on a sliding scale between "unprepared" and "in the fight." The goal is to avoid either end of the scale whenever possible.

I won't pretend to know more about personal defense than LtCol Cooper, but there's an inherent difficulty in trying to stay out of White. Unless you are actively aware of your alert level, you are almost guaranteed to slip back into White. No doubt, with enough training, an individual can become habituated to maintaining a relaxed alert state. But think of your own life - how many times have you walked down a street, driven your car, or been sitting at home when someone or something has jolted you back to reality? Most attacks occur when the victim is unaware of danger until the attack is imminent or in progress. This makes sense since you would otherwise avoid or prepare for an impending fight if you recognized the developing situation. What you need is a way to minimize the risk of lapsing into an unaware state.

I was first introduced to the concept of risk management while serving as a Marine aviator as a way to increase effectiveness with less risk. Let's cover a few terms first. What is risk? Risk is present with both opportunities and threats, and is represented not only by the probability that it might occur, but also the consequences when it occurs. For example, there's a very small chance that your house might catch fire, but the consequences are quite high, so you mitigate that risk as best you can with smoke detectors and fire extinguishers. Risk mitigation is the process of establishing some means of minimizing, a particular risk. The goal of applying risk management to your personal defense habits is to minimize your exposure to potential threats. That way, even when we slip into Condition White, we will have established a buffer of reaction time that will allow us to regain Condition Yellow before an incident occurs.

It is possible to view risk management in levels. For the purposes of this discussion, I will use the following terms: Guiding - these are risk mitigation measures we put in place which govern our general behavior. One such measure might be "no alcohol or similar substances while carrying a weapon." Planning - these are measures you put in place to mitigate risks that might affect a particular day or activity. For example, you need to go across town to a friend's house so you choose a route that steers clear of a violent neighborhood. Acting - these are the mitigations you implement as a situation changes - you have to stop for gas in an unknown neighborhood on a business trip so you maneuver to a well-lit gas pump directly in front of the clerk.

Guiding principles can include anything that pertains to your overall philosophy of personal defense - getting to the range on a regular basis, observing safety precautions when you dry fire, not carrying a new pistol for self-defense until it has proven itself with training and self-defense loads - basically the overarching rules that guide your self-defense training and attitude.

Planning mitigations can be assessed and accounted for in advance. For example, while stopping for gas as in the previous paragraph, your mitigation could be bringing a non-descript cover garment to help you blend in rather than stepping out of the vehicle in your business suit and tie.

Acting mitigations are heavily influenced by our Guiding and Planning mitigations. The choices available to you will rely heavily on your past experience and resources at hand. Training and habit patterns are critical. When I first entered jet training in Kingsville, Texas, an instructor told me that under stress "you turn into Caveman. And Caveman only knows what's instinct or habit." Put another way, you are going to regress to your basic proficiency, not rise to your best performance. Although Acting mitigations are put in place as the situation develops, study and realistic training are the key foundations.

Remember, your risk management plans must relate to your own life - no one can make the assessment for you. However, borrow any good ideas you find, whether from friends, books, articles, or training courses. Also, keep them simple. If you want to mitigate your daughter's risk during a roadside vehicle breakdown, a fully charged cell phone and AAA membership might be perfectly appropriate and plenty versatile.

Is there a problem with LtCol Cooper's color code? No, I think it's both accurate and helpful for understanding the mental shifts that need to take place to be ready to fight and win. However, I also think it's realistic to face the fact that most of us don't operate in Condition Yellow as much as we'd like. By taking a little time to evaluate your risks and implement mitigations, you can increase your odds of success in all conditions, not just when you lapse into Condition White.

Bio - I am a 20 year veteran of the Marine Corps; served as an infantry officer as well as an aviator. I have 2500 hours as in instructor pilot in various aircraft including a tour as a tactics instructor in the AV-8B Harrier in Marine Aviation Weapons and Tactics Squadron One. I am an avid shooter and hunter and member and volunteer in several pro-second amendment organizations.