What should you do in an active shooter situation? It’s a question I never seriously considered until Aug. 3.
On Wednesday, it was the topic of the Better Business Bureau of El Paso’s “Lunch and Learn.” The guest speaker was an FBI special agent who provided some advice on what to do – and what not to do – if the unthinkable were to happen. And I thought it might be helpful to pass along some of the highlights from his hour-long presentation.
Admittedly, it’s a grim topic for a column and the chance of being in an active shooter situation is remote. Even so, because they have become more frequent and deadly, the agent said it’s important to be prepared – to think through how you would respond before it happens.
“It’s unfortunate we have to have these kinds of trainings, but society has been changing. And as you can see from the statistics, (active shooter situations) are increasing dramatically,” he said.
Nationwide in 2017, there were more active shooter incidents – defined by the bureau as one or more individuals actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area – than any year on record. Thirty shootings left 138 people dead. In Texas, church congregations have been the target of mass shootings twice in the past three years. (More on that on page 10A)
In his presentation, the agent stressed that there are no universal rules for how to respond. Two things he said often: “There are no guarantees” and “It’s going to be a personal decision at that place and time on how you handle it.”
He broke his points down into three categories: run, hide and fight.
The first response should be to get away, which can be easier said than done. When a sudden, unexpected event occurs, it can be challenging to overcome your body’s natural reaction to freeze and shift your brain into action. Denial is one obstacle, he said. You might think that it’s just fireworks, a prank or a fake gun.
“We have to avoid being in denial,” he said. “Those seconds are crucial for us.”
Hopefully, you already have a plan. You’ve considered where the exits are, where you could hide and what could be used as a weapon. “We need to react. We need to move. We need to get out,” he said.
He added, “Whenever I go into a location, I’m always looking at exits.”
While it’s not uncommon for people to play dead during active shooter situations, he cautioned against playing dead as a strategy. Shooters sometimes circle back and fire at people on the ground and if you’re lying down playing dead, you “are a sitting duck,” he said.
The second option, hiding, means going into lockdown and making it as hard as possible for the shooter to find you – lock the door or block the entry, turn off the lights, silence cellphones. Shooters are trying to maximize the number of casualties, so if they come across a locked door or dark room they often will move on.
Hiding under a desk is generally a bad idea. There, you can’t run and you’re not hidden. Huddling in the corner of a room is also generally a bad idea. Next to the doorframe can be a better option and a good place to launch a counter-attack because “the shooter is most vulnerable when making entry into the room.”
The third option is fighting.
“What are you going to do when you’re fighting? Are you going to fight fair? You are going to do whatever you have to do to stay alive and protect your family,” he said.
It’s also important to consider how law enforcement will respond, he said. Their No. 1 goal is stopping the shooter. That means their focus is not going to be clearing the building or stopping to help the injured. So it’s important to know basic first aid.
“Stop the Bleed,” a national nonprofit initiative, offers tourniquet training in El Paso, he said. Find classes at StopTheBleed.org.
Make sure law enforcement can see your hands; don’t keep them in your pockets. Officers are looking for anybody with a weapon. That means if you manage to take the weapon away from the shooter, don’t have it in your hands when law enforcement arrives. If possible, secure it.
He said active shooter drills are a good idea, but people need to be able to differentiate between a drill and the real thing. So surprise drills that can terrify people and have unintended consequences are not a good idea.
There’s a lot I’m not including here, but the FBI has detailed active shooter resources online, including an 83 page guide on “identifying, assessing and managing the threat of targeted attacks.” Find them by Googling “FBI active shooter resources.”
“My goal is not to make you scared and paranoid,” the agent concluded. “But we do need to start thinking about these situations because we don’t know when they could occur.”