Cooper divided our levels of awareness into 5 stages. When threatened and aware, we will progress from one stage to the next. The rate of that transition will depend on the threat and accompanying circumstances, as well as our level of preparedness.
White: This is the state of being totally unaware of your surroundings. It might also be described as "sleep." Being caught by a surprise danger at this point means we are essentially defenseless. Think of being startled awake at night by a noise in the house. There is a moment of confusion before our minds are able to process the events.
How do we avoid being caught in condition White? Simple, don't go there. Don't walk down the street with your eyes focused in your cell phone, or your ears filled with music from your iPod blasting away. There are times you must be in condition White. We all must sleep, but we don't have to do so without a secondary alert system in place. When you are relaxing in your home or before you go to sleep lock all the doors. Make it a system by checking that all doors are secure before you retire; don't just assume they are. Set the alarm. Have a dog. Anything to give you some advance warning of a possible threat.
Yellow: This level of awareness is best described as "relaxed alert." This is the minimum level you should be in throughout the day. At this stage you are aware that a threat might present itself. You know who is around you. You are aware of exits and routes of escape. You aren't ready to fight but you will not be surprised by any threats.
To the uninitiated this may seem to be a stressful way to live, or even a bit paranoid. In fact, it can become a fun and relaxed way to go about your day. You can be confident that you probably won't be face danger without warning. You'll be more aware of the pleasant things around you too. By being observant, you'll see things you might otherwise have missed. It's taking time to smell the roses so to speak. When you enter a room do a scan and note where the exits are. When you enter a store, do you know how many people are there? Play a game as you walk down the street by making a point to see anyone you know before they see you. If they greet you before you see them, you weren't aware. Can you find other concealed carriers in the store with you? Living in condition Yellow will soon become second nature. It's something you do without thinking, and it does create a new level of relaxation. Maintaining diligence in condition Yellow will help avoid the need to rise to the higher levels.
Orange: At Orange you have identified a potential threat. You have not yet decided to take action, but something has your attention. You are focused on that possible threat and have a course of action in mind. Perhaps the person crossed the street when you did, or you've noticed them glancing around nervously. At this point you are formulating a plan of possible action — if the person does a certain action next or continues a suspicious activity you have a plan in mind. That could be heading for the exit, or looking for cover. However, you must not focus on this one potential threat to the exclusion of everything else. Wolves travel in packs.
Being on alert at this level is tiring and can only be maintained for a short time. Your decision factor between dropping back to Yellow, or moving the next level should be definite and quickly reached.
Red: At level Red your decision factor set in condition Orange was reached. You have identified a real threat and you are mentally and physically ready to fight. You have a specific plan of action. You now have a mental trigger in your mind that will kick you into action. The decision to defend yourself has now been made. When the trigger point is reached you will react, without hesitation, and with all your training and preparedness brought into full play.
By moving to this level of readiness you have a jump on the fight. You don't waste precious seconds making decisions and formulating a plan. Obviously this level of readiness can only be maintained for a very short time frame. Your focus is solely on the threat and your defensive actions.
Black: This is the actual fight itself. Some have described this stage as "potential death." You are now dealing with a life threatening situation. At Black there are no longer any decisions to be made. You are fighting with all your ability and training. At this point you must be automatic. You must be determined and unrelenting. Cooper didn't include this level designation in his original training, but the designation has been added as the system has developed over the years.
The next time you find yourself wandering about in condition White, stop and take note, and make the correction. Learn to live "relaxed but alert." It could be the most valuable life skill you learn.