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The Science of Fear: Understanding Your Body's Response to Threats

As a security professional, you are expected to be prepared to handle various kinds of threats that could significantly impact the property you are responsible for, the people around it, and your personal safety.

To understand how to respond to these threats, it's essential to have a good understanding of the different stages of mental awareness. Your ability to respond to any situation depends entirely on your brain's ability to interpret the event at hand.

A standard model used to develop threat awareness is the Cooper Colour system. Although initially designed for the combat mindset, it is transferable to the security industry for pre-event preparedness.

The Cooper Colour system is divided into five levels of mental awareness or five colours.

Threat Response with Cooper Colours

  1. Condition White: Unprepared and unready to take action

  2. Condition Yellow: Prepared, alert & relaxed. Good situational awareness.

  3. Condition Orange: Alert to probable danger. Ready to take action.

  4. Condition Red: Action Mode. Focused on the emergency at hand.

  5. Condition Black: Panic. Breakdown of physical & mental performance.

Let's look further at each Condition.

Condition White

Often, I observe security staff who seem to be in a state of complacency. Their body language and engagement with the people and environment around them reflect this. This is commonly called the "It won't happen to me" attitude.

I'm not suggesting that you can't socialize or have some mental downtime. The purpose of this article is to remind us that there is a time and a place for everything. It's essential to take your downtime during scheduled times so your team knows when they can rely on you or when you're taking a moment to yourself. If you're in Condition White, you won't be prepared and may forget to inform your team.

Condition Yellow

Condition yellow should be your normal working state. This doesn't mean you should be paranoid about every possibility, but you should be mentally aware of the more likely events that may occur. For instance, if you know it is icy outside, you should be mentally aware that someone might slip and fall and feel confident about responding.

Whether on foot patrol, vehicle patrol, or monitoring through CCTV, condition yellow will help you identify concerns in advance.

Training and education are the best ways to increase your awareness of condition yellow. You can achieve this by attending formal courses or being aware of trade articles within the security industry. The more knowledge you have, the more prepared you will be.

Condition Orange

Condition Orange is the next level of alertness after Condition Yellow. It means you have already identified a potential threat and have a higher chance of taking action. By relying on your training and experience, you can feel more confident in building a mental response plan and preparing any necessary communication.

Condition Red

In Condition Red, the threat is imminent and requires immediate action. It is crucial to assess the environment, identify potential bad actors, and assign clear roles and responsibilities for the response.

During such situations, the stress curve tends to break down, which we will discuss later in this post. Not all action plans will play out as expected due to factors within and outside your control, which can affect the outcome.

The best way to prepare and respond to Condition Red situations is through well-structured mock training scenarios. Unfortunately, this area is rarely given enough attention in the security industry despite it being where the industry is expected to perform.

Condition Black

Condition Black refers to an unproductive response during any threat situation. This state is often reached when one is in the Condition White mindset. If you are in a mental state of shock due to being caught off guard, you will either overreact or underreact to the situation.

What does this mean to you as a security professional?

Often, you hear the term professional deportment. Department is more than just what you wear and how you wear it, even though your ritual of getting ready for your shift can help you enter condition yellow at the start.

When talking with someone with a customer service mindset, the department is about your mental attitude. When responding to a threat, being in a cooper colours mindset, and managing challenging behaviour, the verbal defensive continuum mindset.

This is where self-discipline plays a vital role in your professional mindset. Self-discipline is part of your mental "self-talk." If you find yourself being distracted or changing priorities, you mentally remind yourself to stay on task, or you can self-identify what you need to help you stay on task.

Self-discipline is a skill that takes time for you to develop and sharpen. Often, you hear the phrase, "If you don't use it, you lose it." Discipline is no different.

If you have a shift with some downtime, how do you choose to use your downtime? If you want to develop your career path, what do you do to invest in yourself outside of working hours? If working with a team, do you discuss scenarios and plans to test and build each other's response plans?

Understanding your stress curve is essential for threat response and pre-threat preparation.

Your Brains Stress Curve

To make use of your stress curve, it's essential to be aware of how you perform under stressful conditions.

Stress is a natural part of life, and not all is bad. The graph shows an ideal zone where stress and performance intersect, allowing you to achieve the best possible outcome.

stress curve for threat response

You can leave the curve when your stress level is too little (condition white). This is when you see yourself trying to fill your time. This is often when security staff are on their phones, making idle talk with each other or walking around without purpose.

The start of the curve is where your self-discipline is required. To self-identify when you need to increase your productivity without being told to do so.

Once you are in the optimal zone, you can consider the cooper colours of yellow, orange and red within this zone.

You will be able to better identify and respond to threats and get a sense of satisfaction and purpose as your brain will better compartmentalize your work experience.

If you move outside of the optimal zone to the right (condition black), you find yourself in the too much stress stage. Your cognitive ability to rationalize and problem-solve is impacted, and fatigue and exhaustion increase, thus resulting in overreaction or under-reaction.

The Real Challenge We Face As Security Professionals

One of the biggest challenges we face in the Canadian security industry is building up experience. Experience is not about how much time you have worked; experience is the level of exposure to different scenarios and situations.

This is where you would invest in practical training as a security professional or a high-quality security company/department. There are many training methods, and they all have their purpose. For this article, we want to discuss the element of experience. This rules out lecture-based learning and online learning.

Mock Training and tabletop exercises go a long way toward building an experience that can be efficiently debriefed.

Mock training does not have to be overly complicated. This can be very simple:

CPR Mock Scenario

In your building, in an area that will not disrupt the public or tenants, set up a hoodie with two pillows inside and a pair of pants with some pool noodles to fill the legs (about three noodles in each leg). A clipboard to measure relevant information and a laminated card that explains the scenario to the testing staff member.

Also, ensure you have set up the required communication to prevent misunderstanding. Inform management control room operators and other stakeholders that training occurs at a specific location and time.

The goal is not to inform everyone, only the required people.

Once everything is in place, have the pre-identified staff member dispatched to a medical call in the designated area. The security staff member should be under the impression that this is a real scenario. Once the staff member arrives on the scene, the observer, using the clipboard, documents the arrival time and any equipment that came with the staff member. The observer then informs the testing participant to read the laminated card and follow the instructions. The observer should be making regular notes the entire time to add pressure. The observer is also not allowed to give directions other than the card.

From this point forward, let the scenario play out. If the security staff member is unsure what to do, this results in whether they perform well or any other outcome to the purpose of the activity. If you have a control room operator, have them participate in the scenario as discussed in advance.

Once the scenario is concluded, have a structured debrief to identify what worked well, what did not, and where there was confusion.

Moving Forward

The goal of this article is to help improve security response and confidence. If you are very experienced in your role, try not to get so confident, and you are in condition white without realizing it. If you are new to the security role, ask more questions and find mentors in the positions you seek.

Too many people have opinions about the security industry yet are not in the position to demonstrate the experience of which they speak.

It's ok to make mistakes; take time to learn from them and adjust moving forward; this is how professional and personal growth help you become more resilient during high-threat situations.

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