The Color Code of survival: A situational awareness tool


CarolinaFireJournal - Capt. Brad Maness
Capt. Brad Maness
01/23/2014 -

Earlier this year, I completed a police reserve training course that spanned five months. While there was a massive amount of information to absorb, some of it stood out above the rest. As I mentioned in a previous article, law enforcement and military personnel have spent a great deal of time learning what goes on in the mind of those who serve and protect. Firefighters and police officers have always had that unspoken rivalry and we both feel like we are superior to each other. Today and in the future we face many of the same challenges. First responders have become likely targets of a troubled society. We continue to see LODDs increase from ambushes and attacks when we respond to what we think are normal emergencies. Our mindset and training will need to change and we must understand that shared knowledge will benefit us all.

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With so much to cover, only a short period of my reserve class was dedicated to Officer Survival, but the information shared really stayed with me. The mentality of a police officer is essentially that of firefighters and other public safety workers. We report to duty and expect to do our job to the fullest and if all goes as planned we go home when our shift is complete. We all know something bad can happen in an instant, but we try not to dwell on it because we feel as though we are prepared to handle most situations. As I listened to our instructor speak about the different mental states a police officer can find themselves in, I related it to my work as a firefighter. The concept of a color code of survival relates career, volunteer, and off-duty personnel. The color code of survival, introduced by Lt. Colonel Jeff Cooper (USMC), emphasized the importance of having a combat mindset throughout your day. In his book, “Principles of Personal Defense,” Cooper mentions that our primary survival tool is our mind. This method of thinking is on point with most public safety employees. We must be able to think, adapt and perform in all aspects of our job. Rarely are our calls the same; therefore, we must have a combat mindset each time we roll out the door. The color code of survival utilizes four colors: white, yellow, orange and red. These colors illustrate our mindset as we go about our normal day or when we have been called to duty.

Code White

In condition white, you are relaxed and unaware of what is going on around you. Naturally when we are asleep we may be in code white, but many times we drop our guard when at home or in some other environment we feel is safe. If we are honest, we have all found ourselves in this state before. Complacency sets in when we run that same fire alarm, food on the stove or medical call several times a shift. We have the tendency to let our guard down and maybe not dress out properly or we don’t complete a full patient assessment to a frequent flyer. If the situation is dramatically different upon arrival, we are not prepared and the call doesn’t usually go well. What about the firefighter that just wants to earn a paycheck or play video games on duty? This individual is in a constant code white and they can be your weakest link when facing a tough challenge. As a volunteer, or off-duty firefighter, code white can present unique circumstances. You may be working another job, out to eat with the family, or driving through another jurisdiction when you happen upon an automobile accident or structure fire. Will you be mentally prepared to help even though you are not in your normal routine? The goal is to never be in code white. This will help you be in a more prepared and ready state and help you run the incident, rather than it run you. If we ever find ourselves in code white hopefully it is because we are unaware and not unprepared.

Code Yellow

In condition yellow, you are relaxed, but aware of who and what is around you. Your head is on a swivel and you’re constantly monitoring the area around you. This merely means that you are paying attention to the sights and sounds that surround you whether on duty or at home. This condition, or state of mind, doesn’t require you to be fearful of everyone you come in contact with, but your senses are heightened so you will not be surprised if something happens. This is the condition we should always strive to be in. As firefighters, or other public safety servants, we shouldn’t be surprised or caught off guard in our respected professions. Your mindset as a firefighter is to be prepared that day for the worst call that you could face. We should be training our minds and bodies to avoid the “surprise attack.” Being in Code Yellow will allow us to identify those potential hazards we face while in the station, responding to and from calls and when on the scene of an emergency. Having knowledge of your district from pre-plans and previous calls will increase your awareness and help you predict future incidents. Our training should also keep us in a state of awareness, or readiness that promotes the mindset: “I will survive this encounter and win the fight.”

Code Orange

In condition orange, you have identified a potential problem or situation and you’re prepared to make a decision. This sounds much like when you gain information while responding and after a size up we can then formulate an action plan. Until we determine the true nature of the incident we are involved in, our mental radar is concentrated on the threat (condition) until it no longer exists. This relates directly to firefighters operating on the scene of any emergency. We maintain our situational awareness throughout every incident until the fire is out, patients have been loaded or the hazards have been removed and we are safely back at the station. In condition orange also helps you set a mental trigger like the “if this/then that” concept. Think of it as, “if fire conditions don’t improve, then we must exit.” Also, “if a mayday is called, then RIT will deploy. These are things we plan to do, but if we aren’t in the right mindset, or expecting it to occur, we will not be prepared to handle it. On the emergency scene we are constantly in danger, but in condition orange we are aware of the threats that exist.

Code Red

This condition is intended to carry out the plan you have formulated in code orange. Your mental triggers (established in condition orange) have possibly been tripped. In short, the color code helps you “think” in a fight. For us, fight can mean being lost or separated from our crew or performing a rescue in hazardous conditions. As the level of danger increases, your willingness to take certain actions increases. One important factor here is the decision has already been made, but code red converts that decision to action. In this condition we remain ahead of the game and our situational awareness helps us to think on the move. In condition red there are no hesitations. We have prepared in our mind and with our skills to complete the task. Here we know what to do and then we carry it out.

The color code of survival is an awareness tool that can be deployed in our everyday life. As public safety personnel, our citizens and colleagues expect us to get it right the first time. Second chances are not always in the equation. Having a combat ready mindset will help us prepare for the worst case scenario and accomplish the mission. I challenge you and your crew to think about how you prepare each day when at work and home. Make it a point from this day forward to improve your situational awareness — because in order to win the fight, we must be in the fight!

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