Surviving in Public with Situational Awareness Training

** This article was a contribution from guest author: Greg Leimone, and will remain in its original state: first written in 2012, after the tragic events that took place in Aurora, Colorado. We thank him for his service and his valuable insights into situational awareness.

Crowd in public

In light of the recent tragic events of Aurora, Colorado, this article is sensitive but is also not meant to "Monday morning quarterback" anything that was done or not done on that fateful day. In fact, our assessment of the event has revealed some very heroic and impressive decisions made by those in the theater; some of which ultimately led to the death of those making them. Several victims were killed or seriously injured because of their decision to act as a human shield for their loved ones, a sacrifice that is beyond most people's comprehension or capabilities.

So, before we discuss what you can do to stay safe in a similar scenario, let us begin by saying that our thoughts and prayers go out to all who were affected by this terrible tragedy. As practitioners of security, workplace violence prevention and similar subjects, we constantly read and study events such as these but the stories still hit close to home and it causes us great pause when we are home with our own loved ones.

As a former law enforcement officer, I had to make split second decisions that defense attorneys and the public could take years to assess, analyze and pick apart. Since police and military do not have the luxury of taking extra time in violent or disaster scenarios, much more emphasis is put on training and preparation. We undergo drills and scenarios so that we react instinctively and almost subconsciously, utilizing training and experience to respond effectively and successfully. The goal of this article is to share some of the basic components of situational awareness training so you can increase the likelihood you will survive in a mass shooting or similar violent event.


We plan a lot of things in our life, but unfortunately we usually neglect to take this step in a scenario where it may save our lives. This doesn't mean you have to create a 40-page disaster response guide before going to the coffee shop, but do give consideration to the route you take, time of day, crime in area, current events and/or other factors which can increase your risk of victimization. You already do this on a much smaller scale; surely you occasionally avoid a certain road at a certain time because you know the traffic will be terrible or there is that one stoplight that seems to stay red for eternity. Just take this same time and attention to consider other factors and do it every time you walk out the door. Your chances of being the victim of a violent incidence is low, but at a minimum this type of planning will definitely save you time and/or other frustration because you took the time plan ahead.


I won't let this article get on the gun debate topic; it is simply too heated and will surely get off tangent (although I do have a fairly strong opinion on it). However there are other items that I always carry with me and they can serve a multitude of purposes:

  1. Knife - whether to cut an apple at lunch, cut someone out of a seatbelt or use as a weapon; this is one of the most functional items to carry. PS - it doesn't have to be a Rambo bowie-type knife, just get a small-to-medium locking knife and only carry it where legally allowed.
  2. Flashlight - A small tactical flashlight is also a great item to have close by. It can be used as a device to temporarily blind an assailant, as a light impact weapon for self -defense and there is one other thing (if I can only remember); oh yea, as a flashlight.
  3. Cell Phone - I carry my iPhone everywhere and try to keep it charged up. Anyone with a smartphone today knows what they are capable of. It's my camera, flashlight, communication device, note pad and among other things, it is a babysitter for my 4 year old when he gets impatient. While you are at it, go ahead and download the following apps as they can be very useful in an emergency:
  4. NOAA/Weather - You may consider getting one that is appropriate to your geographic area such as Earthquakes for California, but regardless make sure you have a basic weather app with radar and alert functionality.
  5. Flashlight - Don't worry about the cheesy one that has a strobe function for those Rave parties; just on/off will do the job.
  6. American Red Cross: Shelter View - Displays local shelters in the event of a disaster
  7. Emergency Radio - Basically a scanner that will allow you to hear information as it dispatched rather than waiting for the local news to pick it up.
  8. Disaster Readiness - apps like this will give you advice on what to do in each disaster scenario and can provide extremely valuable knowledge in a crisis.
  9. iTriage - This app is one of my favorites. It provides information on symptoms of many health problems, conditions, medications, procedures and also provides GPS coordinated services to find the closest hospital and doctors. You can also load all your medications and medical conditions for convenience, but also so that others will know what how to help you if something should happen.
  10. First Aid/CPR - This one can literally save a life, so while there is no replacement for getting certified; at least download one of these so you have a cheat sheet


It isn't enough to just conduct the planning and preparation when at your home, because circumstances and situations change constantly and it is very critical that you create contingency plans along the way.

Situational awareness training is one of my most favorite topics to share with people and it is explained in many ways but I think that "Coopers Colors" is the best way to understand the concept:

Coopers Colors
  • WHITE - A person who is in white is unaware, oblivious and pre-occupied. They can be described as daydreaming and what I call "living in a bubble". You will often see them looking down while they walk, they can often be unresponsive when you try to get their attention and are often not prepared for their actions in daily life. This is a very dangerous state of mind to be in, regardless of the threat level that you live in.
  • YELLOW - Someone who is in this stage is relaxed, but alert to their surroundings. They are not focusing on any specific person or thing in particular but are difficult to surprise because you are assessing the world around you. This is a very good level to live daily life at, as it does not induce the stress levels commonly associated with orange, red or black but you can respond quickly and efficiently because you have already formulated thoughts about what may happen.
  • ORANGE - This is a heightened alert level, generally associated with a specific threat or focal point. The only real difference between yellow and orange is the specificity of threat being assessed. In yellow, you are simply analyzing everyone and everything, but here you are now focused on one threat and are already making decisions about how to react. This is a good level to take action at because it can allow you to avoid an engaged altercation beforehand. The primary reason that yellow is a better day to day level is because you are not tunneled in on just one potential threat as you are here in red.
  • RED - This is the Fight or Flight stage. At this point you are either engaged in a struggle or taking action to (either mentally or physically). It is important at this point that you take the physiological effects of the adrenaline dump into consideration. Ensure that you diligently avoid common reactions such as auditory exclusion, tunnel vision and other physical responses that occur in high stress incidents. Some of this will be unavoidable, but with proper training and preparation it can be minimized.
  • BLACK - Blind Panic/Psychological Shutdown and sometimes in a state of comatose. You have succumbed to the panic and stress of the incident to the point that you cannot react or respond to stimuli. This paralysis was most likely brought on because of a lack of mental preparation in any other state of awareness discussed previously. The most likely of scenarios is that there is someone nearby who can save you or that the conflict will end without harm to you, but this feeling will forever have a lasting impact on you psychologically.

It would be sheer opinion for me to say which mode you should be in and during what activities. And, there would be others who would dispute my thoughts. However, I stay between yellow and orange the vast majority of my daily life. I have spent plenty of time in red, mostly as a law enforcement officer, but I rarely am in white and have never been in black. The important thing to remember is to find a level that allows you some piece of mind, but protection from what could happen.


My wife is very accustomed to my "quirks", so much so that she is often my spokesperson when needed. She has learned that no matter what, I have to sit with my back against the wall facing the entry points at any public place. At first she thought I was just being weird until she noticed how completely uncomfortable I am during an entire meal if made to sit otherwise. So now she will ask our dinner companions to move to the other side if they get to the table before we do; now is that a great wife or what? Of course, not everyone can sit with their backs against the walls, so just make sure you get this prime location before someone else does.

Some helpful tips for conscious observation

  • Immediately upon entering any public place, you need to scan the area and identify the exits, and take notice of any obstructions or obstacles that would be in your way if you needed to egress quickly. Determine the best place to sit, stand or otherwise congregate that will give you the best advantage if there were to be an incident.
  • Also, take time to look at other people in the area.
    • What are they wearing? A trench coat in July would be odd, but it may not always be that obvious. Look for any imprinting around the bottom of someone's shirt which may reveal a concealed weapon. They may be licensed or even a cop, but that is useful information to know too.
    • Take note of people's behaviors and be prepared to act if you feel others in the room could get hostile towards one another. There have hardly ever been fights that I witnessed in which I didn't see plenty of advanced warning through their body language, gestures, volume and pitch of their voice and other clues.
  • Identify objects in the room that can be useful to you. Often referred to as "weapons of opportunity", there are many things in our environment that can be utilized to defend ourselves or others. There are plenty of funny and inspiring videos of grandmas beating off robbers with handbags, shopping bags and even a handheld scanner. However, there are many other items which may be more efficient such as rocks, branches, a fire extinguisher, umbrellas or other objects which generally serve a separate and completely unrelated purpose but can be very effective to defend yourself.
  • Know your limitations and consider them when assessing your potential response to a situation. As a police officer, we used to train to shoot from our patrol car in the event that we were attacked. Part of that scenario training involved exiting through other doors, out the windshield or other openings. But, at 6'4" tall and 210 lbs., I realized quickly that this would be more difficult for me than others. As part of the training, I mentally made a note to tilt the steering wheel first and practiced it to the point that it was instinctual. While my height can be seen as a handicap for getting out of a car, it is also an advantage too. With 37" arms, I can utilize my reach for climbing tall objects, defending myself against an offender who is further away and other tactical advantages that this trait can provide. So, know your strengths as much as your weaknesses.
  • Follow your gut instinct. So many people ignore the clues and "leakage" that is right there in front of them, maybe because they want to believe in the greater good of mankind. Of course, just like there are weather conditions that reflect a pending hurricane or some other natural disasters, there are often clues present which tell you a violent incident is about to occur.

Thankfully, mass shootings do not occur often although they do happen with more frequency than most people realize. However, with good planning, preparation and assessment you can be more responsive to yourself and others regardless of whether you are caught in a mass violence incident or any other emergency scenario.

Sentinel Consulting Group, LLC is a full service security consulting, investigative service and executive protection company headquartered in NC but with an extensive network of agents across the United States and abroad. The management team is comprised of former law enforcement officers with prior experience in disaster response, personal safety, corporate & criminal investigations, & crime prevention. Learn more about their service offering by visiting:

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