The Color of Conflict
By Jim Wagner

After September 11, 2001 (the infamous terrorist attacks on the United States) a new government organization was created called the Office of Homeland Security managed by Director Tom Ridge, an appointee of President George W. Bush. This organization is responsible for the protection of the United States by coordinating law enforcement, military, and other emergency services through one centralized command. "Our efforts will lead to something the USA has never had before: a comprehensive multiyear national homeland security strategy" Director Ridge announced on May 29, 2002.

One of the first programs that was implemented by the office was a color-coded system called the Homeland Security Advisory System, which according to Director Ridge, "has proven its worth by providing a common language to communicate the recent terrorist threats." The system is designed to provide graduated "Threat Conditions" (warnings) to Federal, State, and local authorities. It also provides corresponding "Protective Measures" (things to do) to reduce the nation's vulnerability and to increase response capability during a designated alert stage. Everyday a Threat Condition is issued from Washington D.C. per Homeland Security Presidential Directive - 3.

The Homeland Security Advisory System has five Threat Conditions. Each condition has a color assigned to it. The levels and colors are:

1. Low Condition (Green)
2. Guarded Condition (Blue)
3. Elevated Condition (Yellow)
4. High Condition (Orange)
5. Severe Condition (Red)

Upon issuance of a color government agencies have specific protective measures they must follow. For example, in Condition Green first-responders, such as police and fire departments, should conduct training exercises and assess vulnerabilities in their communities. In Condition Blue agencies are responsible for checking communications systems, updating emergency response procedures, and providing relevant information to the public.

In Condition Yellow protective measures may include surveillance on critical locations, coordinating emergency plans with nearby jurisdictions, and implementing an emergency response. In Condition Orange additional precautions are taken at public events, such as alternative venues or even cancellations, restricting access to threatened facilities, and coordinating security efforts with other agencies. In Condition Red, the highest level on the alert scale, a severe risk of terrorist attacks exists. Protective measures include closing public and government facilities, emergency control of transportation systems, redirecting personnel to critical areas, etc.

Police Color-Coded System

A similar color-coded system, like that of the national system, has existed for police officers for almost two decades now. Instead of the system being applied to an entire organization the system serves to remind the individual officer of various threat levels on a personal level. It is modeled after a street light signal color system:

1. No Threat Level (Green)
2. Alert Level (Yellow)
3. Danger Level (Red)

When I first started my career as a police officer my Field Training Officers (FTO) always told me that there was no such thing as "being in the Green," because a police officer on duty needs to be alert at all times, even in the police station. An attack on an officer can happen at any time, even waiting at a stop light.

So what do national or officer safety colors have to do with you - the martial artist? Nothing, but they should. One day you may have to use your fighting skills to defend yourself or others. A color system serves to prepare you mentally for a conflict. You may want to adopt the color-coded system that I developed for civilian martial artists, and adhere to myself.

The Wagner Personal Safety Color-Coded System

1. Secure (White)
2. Caution (Yellow)
3. Danger (Orange)
4. Conflict (Red)

Secure (White) - at this level you are in a secure area, such as your home, work, family gatherings, etc. You are not concerned with an attack. However, to be truly secure you must have emergency plans already in place: security measures for the home (proper locks, outdoor lighting, etc.), a designated emergency route, and a safe room (a room you can secure yourself in that has a cell phone and a weapon for self-defense).

Caution (Yellow) - this is the level you should always be at when you are in public. You should be alert to your surroundings (people, escape routes, likely ambush sites, etc.), but you should not be overly paranoid.

Here is an example of being at Condition Yellow. When you are seated inside a restaurant, airport or bus station you should have your back to a nearby wall and be in a position to observe all of the activity around you. In a movie theater, classroom, or anywhere else there is a crowd of people you want to stay to the sides, and not in the center of the room. A terrorist, gunman, or anyone intent on doing harm to a group, rather than to a specific person, will almost always initiate the assault towards the center of a group of people (center mass). If you're off to the sides you have a better chance of escape.

Danger (Orange) - at this level there is possible danger directed towards you, and you are distinctly aware of it. It may be a stranger approaching you, you heard someone trying to force open the front door of your home or hotel room, the men sitting next to you in the restaurant or bar are drunk and becoming aggressive. Any clue that may indicate conflict should be a "warning flag" in your mind, and you should start preparing for it if you have time. Also, don't just have one plan in mind, but always have a back up plan as well.

Conflict (Red) - this means that you are actually engaged in conflict or moments away from it. At this level your training and experience is what you will rely on to survive. You will never be better than what you have trained yourself to be. If your training was realistic, demanding and very physical, then you will be better off at the "moment of truth." Practicing a technique a million times may not get you through a real conflict if it is an ineffective technique to begin with. You have to practice simple, effective, hard-hitting techniques that are likely to succeed in an actual combat situation. We have an expression in the American police and military, "Perfect practice makes perfect" as opposed to the old proverb, "Practice makes perfect."

Pre-conflict conditioning

Once you adopt this color-coded system you can pass it on to co-workers, friends, and family. For example: when I am out with my wife and I want to warn her that something is wrong (Condition Orange), but I don't want others to understand my warning to her, I might have a coded sentence I will say to her like, "I am thirsty for orange juice" to indicate Condition Orange.

Although including the color-coded system into your martial arts training may not be as exciting as practicing kicks and punches, these pre-conflict steps prepare you for what you are training for - actual conflict. If it is a vital step for the American police and military, it should also be for you as well. Stay safe.


About the Author
Jim Wagner is an American police officer and Defensive Tactics instructor who teaches globally. This year he is also offering civilian courses to martial arts schools who wish to host seminars. You may contact Jim directly by writing to