Yesterday, after working a 12 hour shift over at the dispatch office, I had the opportunity to participate in an armed intruder / active shooter training put together for county employees. Technically, it was part of my required training so I was required to be there, but I learned a lot from the presentation and scenarios.
I want to take a moment to share some thoughts, some notes, and some reflections from those four hours of training.
The normalcy bias is a mental state people enter when facing a disaster. It causes people to underestimate both the possibility of a disaster and its possible effects. The assumption that is made is that since a disaster never has occurred, it never will occur. This bias can result in the inability to cope with a disaster once it occurs. People will have difficulties reacting to something they have not ever experienced or prepared for. (Definition was taken from Wikipedia.)
The normalcy bias is the fatal thinking that since it (whatever ‘it’ may be) has never happened here, why do we need to prepare for it. Most of us (myself included) have never experienced an active shooter or armed intruder incident. But most of us have also never experienced a structure fire (though a lot more common).
Did you know that the last student fatality caused by a fire was back in 1958? When Our Lady of the Angels School in Chicago caught fire on Monday 1 December 1958, 92 students and 3 nuns lost their lives.
We learned in school and still teach our students what to do in the event of a fire. We hold fire drills every month to train for and reinforce our response so that in the event of a fire, we know what to do. We know to evacuate. And we take this with us for the rest of our lives.
But what do we teach our kids about active shooters? Do we teach our students what to do in the event of an armed intruder?
When I was in High School all those years ago, we had a single active shooter drill where we went into lock down. But other than lock the doors, we did nothing else. I learned to hide behind a locked door. And pray that the bullets never found us.
Four years and only a single active shooter drill? But yet we held fire drills every month. I knew more about what I needed to do in the event of a tornado than what to do in the event of an armed intruder! And I lived in northern Virginia where the likelihood of a tornado was slim to none.
Seven years ago, a student walked into Norris Hall on the campus of Virginia Tech and opened fire. The result was five faculty and 27 students were killed. Another 16 were injured by gunfire and six from jumping out of second floor windows to escape.
During the training, we were shown the statistics of each classroom: Room 206, where the first shots were fired, had 13 students and a single professor. The shooting left nine dead and two wounded. The next room across the hall, Room 207, five dead and six wounded. In the next, Room 204, Professor Liviu Libreschu, a Holocaust Survivor, held the door closed while his students escaped through the second floor window. He and a student were killed by shots fired through the door. The next, Room 211, where a professor and student barricaded the door, the armed intruder was still able to gain entry and kill 11, wounding another six. The individual went back to Room 207 to find it barricaded, but managed to injure another two students who held the door closed. They were not able to get into Room 205 after the students and professor inside barricaded the door with a large table, nobody inside was wounded. The assailant shot and killed himself 10-11 min after the first round was fired, just as officers got to the second floor of the building.
The national average response time for law enforcement personnel is 5-6 minutes. Police arrived at Norris Hall within three minutes of receiving the first 911 call, but were slowed upon entering the building as the armed intruder had chained the three main entrances shut.
NOTE: Like the instructors in the training, I refuse to share the name of any armed intruder. They are not the ones to be remembered. The heroes that day are the professors and students who took action to save those around them, like Professor Libreschu, Instructor Jocelyn Couture-Nowak and student Henry Lee, Katelyn Carney and Derek O’Dell, and substitute professor Haiyan Cheng, along with countless other unnamed heroes that day. The ones to be remembered are the lives that were lost.
I had friends who were attending Virginia Tech. I still remember that day as a Freshman at Anderson University, returning from observing at one of the local high schools.
Five to six minutes. Think about that for a second.
While you wait for law enforcement to arrive, who takes care of you?
According the the statistics that they shared in the training, between 2000 and 2013, 486 students were killed by armed intruders in the United States.
In a study of 160 armed intruder incidents in that time, only six of those were carried out by female assailants (3.8%). 40% ended with the intruder taking their own life. 60% ended within the first five to six minutes, before or upon the arrival of the first law enforcement personnel on scene. 10% of those incidents occurred in government buildings. 24% occurred in schools. 46% occurred in areas of commerce (stores, malls, etc.).
Laws will not prevent these incidents. Safe spaces where weapons are not allowed will not prevent someone from entering with the intent to kill. If someone is intent on hurting others, stricter gun control will not prevent someone from walking in with a knife. Or a bomb.
Yes, a majority of these individuals are mentally ill. Just look at the interview with John Ladue, a teenager who was prevented from carrying out his plan by someone who called in suspicious activity (they saw him carrying several bags and backpacks into a self-storage facility multiple times and called 911).
“I think I’m just really mentally ill. And no ones noticed and I’ve been trying to hide it.” When speaking about his plans to kill his parents and sister; “They did nothing wrong.”
These events will happen. And will continue to happen. And unless we prepare for them, they will just continue to get worse, because each one is learning from the last and trying to outdo the others. Trying to make a name for themselves.
Vigilance can prevent these events before they ever happen. If you see something, say something. If you hear something, you could be the one who saves others.
One of the instructors stated that “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun, is a good guy with a gun.” We’ve seen plenty of youtube videos of individuals with concealed weapons preventing or ending events within moments, long before law enforcement gets on scene. But I’m going to be honest, I do not have the training or qualifications to be carrying around a weapon. But there are things that every citizen is capable of.
The acronym that they taught us is A.L.I.C.E.; Alert. Lockdown. Inform. Counter. Evacuate. It’s a non-linear reminder that everyone can use to prepare themselves. Remember those five to six minutes it takes for law enforcement to respond? You are the one that responds. You are the one to take care of yourself.
When we say Alert, it means to be aware of what is around you. In the world of Wildland Firefighting and Disaster Response, it is referred to as Situational Awareness. Be vigilant in knowing where you are at all times. Where your exits are. Who is around you. What hazards are in your immediate area.
We, as a society, have a tendency to be oblivious to what is going on around us. We have our heads buried in our smart phones. We become focused on our objectives and we forget to watch where we are walking. Challenge yourself to be more aware of what is going on around you. In your life. Your immediate area. Your community. Where you work. Where you live. And when you see something out of place, make note of it. It could save your life.
We have been taught to go into lockdown when an event happens. If you are unable to escape, make yourself a harder target. Deny the intruder access by locking doors, barricading yourself in. Not just hiding, but denying access to yourself.
Realize that walls do not always stop bullets. Random bullets will still kill. Yesterday, we were taught that this should be a last resort. But once you do, do NOT go out. Wait until law enforcement personnel evacuate you.
When an incident takes place, we have a duty to inform others around us. Don’t just run, but help others. Let them know what is happening. Call 911. Remember where you are and give as much information as you can. Let them guide you. Answer their questions to the best of your ability.
But remember, when an incident takes place, sometimes the phone lines will fail. The cell towers may become overloaded. Jammed. Or busy. Once you get out, text your family. Let people know where you are.
As a last resort, if all else fails, counter the intruder. Commit to fighting for your life and the lives of those around you. Improvise. Anything around you is capable of being used as a weapon. Throw stuff. Disarm them. Incapacitate them. Hold them down. Two or three people can easily over power a single intruder, even if they do have a weapon. Secure the weapon. Throw it in a trash can, out a window, get it away from the intruder. And don’t give up.
But if you remember anything, run. Escape. Evacuate. Leave everything behind and run. If you freeze, you are an easier target. Only 2% of armed intruder incidents have more than a single assailant, so run the other way.
Fun fact that they shared with us: almost 70% of shots fired by law enforcement personnel are misses. The reason for this is due to movement. A mobile target is harder to hit. Active shooters are looking for that body count, so they will focus on the easier targets. The best thing to do is to run. Make yourself a harder target.
Run. Hide. Fight.
When faced with danger, you must do something.
The instructors shared a quote with us that has stuck with me. One of the students who survived the Virginia Tech shootings was interviewed afterwards and she recalled that when the shooting started, she realized that she was just waiting for her turn. She had given up and was waiting to die.
We will never know how we will react until something happens. And then we will see how well all of our training and preparation comes back to us. But the first thing that needs to change, our instructors reminded us, is our mindsets. Act. Do something. Anything is better than nothing. Don’t wait to die. Tell yourself that it is not your time to die.
Have a plan for yourself and those who you are responsible for.
In the moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.
– Theodore Roosevelt
If your community has an Active Shooter / Armed Assailant training, I highly suggest you take it (check with your local emergency management director or law enforcement office). If you are a teacher or a supervisor, I believe this training should be required. As well as emergency medical training.
Be prepared. Knowledge is power. And having a plan will save lives.
And as a final note, I want to give a shout out to the men and women who respond, from the law enforcement personnel to the emergency medical services, dispatchers to firefighters. Their service saves lives. If you get the chance, thank them for their service.