After every school shooting, school administrators across the country pledge to review their lockdown plans. However, most people never learn the recommended response to active shooter incidents.
In October 2008, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) developed training for the public regarding how to respond to active shooter incidents. The training was developed following the Virginia Tech massacre in 2007. The concepts behind the DHS-recommended active shooter responses are easy yet are all but unknown to most of the public.
If you hear shots fired, you have a quick decision to make to save your life and the lives of those nearby. You must decide to do one of three options: (1) evacuate, (2) hide, or (3) take action.
EVACUATE: If you can safely leave the area, you should do so. There is no need to hide or stay around an area where there is a shooter if you can immediately evacuate the area. IT IS OK TO RUN!—you don’t need to stay in harm’s way to see what happens. Always take note of any exits or stairwells and have a plan of escape in mind. If you hear shots fired down the hall or in another area of the building, you may be able to immediately escape. Time is of the essence and you must make the decision to evacuate after listening to determine where the shots are coming from. As you leave the building, if you see law enforcement, make sure to show your hands and drop anything you may be carrying.
HIDE: If evacuation is not possible, you must hide. Barricade yourself in a room, if possible. Close and lock all doors and windows. Close any blinds or curtains and turn off the lights. Find a hiding spot that will conceal yourself. If possible, take cover behind items that can stop a bullet. In the military and law enforcement, anything that can stop a bullet is called “cover.” Types of cover include: four feet of dirt, a yard of wood (such as a large tree), 7 inches of concrete, and 1-inch of steel.
A car door is not cover—but the engine block would stop a bullet. Also, walls in a building are unlikely to stop a bullet. Steel reinforced cinderblock walls may stop a bullet (as opposed to just cinderblocks—which will not stop a bullet) but may fragment and cause further injuries.
While hiding, silence any cell phones or pagers. You do not want to draw attention to yourself. Do not choose a hiding place that traps or restricts your options for movement. If police officers bang on the door and tell you to come out, you have some decisions to make. How do you know they are law enforcement and not the shooter? Some officers are trained to put their badge under the door so occupants know it is actually the police nearby. You may not want to yell back at law enforcement because that could give your position away to an impostor. Ultimately, it is your decision to make regarding whether you remain hiding or if you observe enough signs to reach the conclusion that it is safe to come out.
TAKE ACTION: Finally, as a last resort and only when your life is in imminent danger, take action against the shooter. Use whatever you can, such as a fire extinguisher, chairs, vases, or anything else to try to incapacitate the shooter. If possible, work as a team with others to stop the shooter. Act with physical aggression and do not stop until the shooter is unable to continue firing.
The City of Houston recently made a training video called “Run, Hide, Fight” to demonstrate the techniques I described above. Although I recommend that adults watch this training video, I must warn potential viewers that the video is graphic but not gory. The video shows an actor shooting several people at close range with a shotgun but there is no blood shown. Ideally, the video would be able to accomplish the same educational message without being gratuitously violent. I would NOT recommend this video for children to watch.
Additionally, when you make contact with law enforcement during an active shooter incident (either because you run towards them while you are trying to evacuate or they enter the room in which you are hiding, etc), ALWAYS SHOW YOUR HANDS. Police officers and sheriff deputies do not know that you are not the shooter. They do not know if there are multiple shooters. Do not be surprised if you are searched or questioned. Sometimes shooters have been known to hide among innocent victims in hopes of escaping capture. Law enforcement may be brisk and may run right past you without stopping. Remember, they are trained to respond to the sound of the shots being fired so that they can engage the shooter. Do not stop evacuating just because you see law enforcement. Always follow any instructions given to you by law enforcement.
Notice how none of those options is “lockdown”? Lockdown procedures originated in prisons. If there was a disturbance or prison riot, the guards would lockdown the prison, extract any remaining guards, and wait for reinforcements to arrive to quell the riot. The lockdown procedures were not intended to protect inmates—but, rather, to safely remove the guards and wait for reinforcements. It is common during prison riots for the guards to form a perimeter and wait for back-up.
During the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, law enforcement across the country changed their tactics for responding to active shooter incidents. In 1999, the best practice for any type of hostage situation was to form a perimeter and wait for reinforcements to arrive (ideally a special weapons and tactics team—or SWAT). Columbine changed everything, though. As patrol officers formed a perimeter, the two active shooters in Columbine never stopped firing. For many, Columbine was the first tragic introduction to active shooters. Rather than a hostage situation, where time is on the side of law enforcement and there is a standard operating procedure for bringing in trained negotiators, active shooter incidents are rapidly evolving situations with an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a conﬁned and populated area. Often, there is no pattern or method to their selection of victims—the active shooter just wants to kill.
Now, law enforcement officers are trained to immediately enter wherever the active shooter is and move to the sound of gunfire. They no longer turn to the old tactics of setting up a perimeter and we should all re-evaluate whether lockdown tactics are best for our schools, businesses, etc. Please understand that in some circumstances, lockdown procedures are appropriate. For elementary schools, it is unlikely that teachers may be able to herd young children out of the school if they hear shots fired (however, teachers should be trained that evacuation is an option). In hospitals, it may be impossible to move many patients quickly away from a shooter and the best solution for hospitals is often lockdown.
In conclusion, everyone must think about what they would do during an active shooter incident and talk to your friends and family about it as well. Ask if they know about “run, hide, fight” and if they know what to do if they hear shots fired. This information just might save lives.
Todd Jasper is a federal emergency manager and has been happy to call Chevy Chase home since 2008. His emergency management blog is www.toddjasper.com.