What would you do if someone walked into your building and started shooting?
Threat assessment experts say you should consider the situation ahead of time, because a little forethought may save precious seconds and allow you to act when your instinct is to panic.
Every situation is different, but here are the basics, according to law enforcement agencies such as the FBI and other organizations that teach survival skills.
1. Run if you can
The first — and best — option is to get out if you can. People have been shot a few steps from an exit door because they froze in place, said Scott Zimmerman, CEO of K17 Security, a Washington-area personal protection company. Leave belongings behind and encourage others to go with you, but don’t let their indecision slow you.
- Choose a route carefully. Move, but don’t run willy-nilly or blindly follow a crowd. If possible, pick a route that provides cover between you and the shooter. Pause to look before you enter choke points, such as stairwells and lobbies, to make sure you can get through them quickly and not be stuck in the open.
- Think unconventionally. Know where exits are, and remember that doors are not the only exits. Open a window; if you have to break it, aim for a corner. Is there a drop ceiling? See whether it conceals a stable hiding place or a way to get to another room. You may be able to punch through drywall between rooms.
- Look down. If you’re trapped on a second floor, consider dropping from a window, feet first, ideally onto a soft landing area. Hang onto the windowsill if you can and lower yourself to arm’s-length so the drop will be shorter. However, if you’re above the second floor, the drop could be fatal.
- Be stealthy. Try not to attract a shooter’s attention. Step on the edges of stairs because they are less likely to creak than the centers. Stay low and duck when you pass windows inside and outside the building. Exit the building with your hands empty and raised. Don’t stop until you know you’re in a safe place, then let people know. “Distance is your friend,” said JP Guilbault, chief executive of emergency preparedness company ALICE Training.
2. Hide if you can’t get out
If you can’t immediately leave, you want to buy time — time to plan another way out, time to figure out what you’ll do if the shooter approaches, time for law enforcement to arrive. Put whatever obstacles you can between you and the shooter. You want to make your immediate area appear to be unoccupied and difficult to access.
- Block doors. Don’t just lock doors, barricade them with desks, bookcases — anything big and heavy. Wedge objects underneath at the farthest points from the hinges. Prop something under handles to keep them from turning all the way. Tie hinges with belts. A shooter doesn’t want to work hard to enter a room.
- Turn off lights; silence phones. Make sure someone has alerted 911 with details about your location and whatever you know about the shooter’s whereabouts. Then, silence cellphones and any wearable devices that can emit noise. Cover windows if you have time; if not, make sure you can’t be seen through them.
- Choose a hiding place. If you have to stay hidden, don’t count on particleboard furniture to stop bullets. Get behind something made of thick wood or thick metal if you can, or stack several layers of thinner material. Make yourself as small a target as possible, either curling into a ball or lying flat on the ground.
- Make a plan. Don’t just get under a desk and wait. Keep thinking about other ways of escape and figure out what you and any others with you will do if the shooter comes into the room.
3. Fight if you have to
Attempt to counter the attack, something you should do only if you have no other choice. People have stopped shooters by attacking them, but people have also been killed trying to stop an attack. Different situations call for different strategies, but all turn the element of surprise against the shooter.
- Create chaos. Try to distract and disorient the shooter by making noise and throwing books, coffee mugs — anything you can grab — in their direction. Keep moving, because a moving target is much harder to hit than a stationary one.
- Swarm. A group can work together to startle and overwhelm the shooter. At least one person can go for the arm that holds the gun, another can wrap up the legs, and others can push the shooter down. Even several small people can hold a shooter on the ground with their body weight.
- Attack. If your only option is to directly attack a shooter, choose what you’ll use as a weapon and aim for vital areas such as the head, eyes, throat and midsection. Be aggressive and don’t quit.
- Move the weapon away. Separate the gun from the shooter and cover it with something such as a coat or trash can. Check for any additional weapons, as many shooters carry more than one. Don’t hold a gun, because incoming police officers may mistakenly think you are the shooter.
Ways to prepare for emergencies
Some preparation and familiarity with the places where you spend a lot of time will serve you well in many kinds of emergencies. The experts interviewed for this story had these tips:
- Know the location of exits in buildings you use often, including doors that are less visible. For example, most grocery stores have exits behind their meat or fish counters.
- Keep comfortable shoes at your desk that will allow you to run or walk quietly.
- Know how to call 911 from your building. Does your cellphone get adequate reception? If you need to use a landline, do you have to dial out first?
- Plan informative public announcements without code words. They should be straightforward and informative, such as “A man with a gun is in the library” or “There is a fire in the third-floor utility closet.”
- Practice deep breathing or some other calming strategy that can help you stay focused and in control if you begin to panic.
- Learn first aid, especially how to use pressure or a tourniquet to stop bleeding. Law enforcement officers’ first priority will be stopping an attacker, not providing medical aid. Zimmerman recommends “Stop the Bleed” or CPR training courses for basic lifesaving skills.