Situational Awareness and Sneaky Booze

I’ve been a first responder for nearly a quarter of a century, two decades of which have been spent as a law enforcement officer. Early on in our training, we are introduced to a color coded threat awareness system, a mental process which has been taught to police, military, protective details, other public safety and security related occupations and martial arts practitioners for many years. After training and exposure to life threatening situations, it’s not really something we have to consciously do, but more a subconscious mental program that is running in the background of the trained and conditioned mind.

The premise of the color codes is that, situational threat awareness can be broken down into four different escalating colors. The lowest level is known as condition white…this is where many people who don’t deal with life threatening events reside on a daily basis…in theory, peace officers should never be in this condition unless they are asleep or in a completely relaxed state in a safe environment. If someone were ambushed in this state, they would lose as they are not mentally prepared to respond physically to defend themselves.

Condition yellow is the next escalation of awareness…this is where officers are conditioned to be always aware of who is behind them, or their positioning inside a location with a wall to their back, eyes scanning crowds for potential weapons or threatening movements. It is the elevated awareness level that we operate in 10-12 hours a day during our shifts and many times have difficulty deescalating when we are off duty.

Condition orange is an extremely heightened sense of awareness…this would be a situation where perhaps the officer is alone with a car full of occupants on a dark street with no assistance nearby, or searching a building after a break in. This is where your heart rate and blood pressure are elevated, your senses are tuned to detect imminent potential threats and you are focused on dealing with the situation at hand. It is unhealthy to remain in this hypersensitive phase for extended periods of time, but out of necessity, officers go in and out of this phase several times a shift, multiple times a week for decades of a career.

The final condition is condition red…this is the “fight or flight” response that we experience when there is an immediate deadly threat…it doesn’t mean we use deadly force in this situation, it just means we are at a mental level where we are prepared to do so…the associated physical stress that comes with life and death situations applies and this is not a condition anyone can stay in for more than a couple minutes.

Conditions yellow-red are what can be associated with long term detrimental health effects and reduced life spans, but ironically, they are also the mental states that keep an officer alive and able to go home at the end of their shift.

These color conditions apply to the work I do every day and I have learned techniques over time to deescalate my situational awareness to lower levels as quickly as possible after an event or hazardous encounter. The condition I am never in during work hours is condition white, but I believe over the years I have been pretty successful in getting down to that level when I am at home in a relaxed condition.

You may ask why the lengthy intro on this post? What insight into recovery could this escalation of awareness comparison possibly have?

While driving home tonight on a Friday night after a long shift I had a new level of awareness about my sobriety. I realized for the first time in 19 days, I actually felt 100% normal. My mind began to wander…I crept from that condition yellow that I normally operate in down to condition white where everything is ok and laid back. As I sat at a stop light in my comfortable happy condition white, I thought to myself…Friday night…beer sounds so good. I began to think about drinking, I could literally taste it in my mouth, feel the carbonation, anticipate the buzz. I had a very brief daydream about beer, and how nice it would be to crack open a cold one the minute I walk in the door. I realized in that moment, where all the unpleasant side effects of detox had finally worn off, that I was vulnerable to a new threat. I was in condition white and the threat of alcohol crept right back into my mind. It occurred to me that I cannot allow myself to relax and I cannot find myself in a situation where my guard is down, because there is a very lethal threat to my wellbeing that comes from my old fermented friend. When it comes to alcohol, I will need to stay in condition yellow from now on, and be prepared to go to condition orange or higher if necessary.

I came home, took a hot bath and chugged (2) la Croix waters like I was shotgunning beers at a block party. I have not made it through 21 years as a cop, to let some barley water kick my ass!

Hope everyone has a great sober Friday night and weekend.


Being new to sobriety myself, and in L.E., the threat perception of alcohol is always on. I had the same feeling yesterday, it was my Saturday, and I was out for a drive and thought how easy it coukd be to “Nip and Rip”, instead I picked up some cranberry juice and seltzer water, and that brought my level down. Always do the next right thing pal. Thank you for that post.


Colonel Jeff Cooper would be proud of your application of his color code system to something completely new. I too as a matter of conditioning function every day at minimum yellow.

You made me realize that when I was drunk, I was in condition white. Unaware if threats and dangers. Kind of tough to deal with an emergency when you are passed out.

Never again, Brother. Never again.