How to Survive an Active Shooter Scenario

By Christopher Lotito

In just a week, we will have reached 1 full month from the school shooting at Newtown, CT.  It seems like longer, with so much press coverage, so many angles taken on the story, and so many attempts to politicize this tragedy.  So why write about Newtown now?  Why after so many others have gone into so much more detail and so far off-track should we bring it up again?  As a member of the press and simply as thinking, compassionate, human beings we have a responsibility to encourage intelligent discourse about mass shootings and the ways that we can work to prevent them.  -- Personally,  I think that when we face unfathomable tragedies such as this, we can turn away and refuse to relate to the victims to insulate ourselves from the sorrow... but for those who remain shocked and who do feel empathy for the victims, it can often seem as though there is nothing, no words, which will be effective or bring comfort.  After about a week of researching on and off, this article represents the best I can offer, not to derive false meaning from senseless violence, but to offer hope of a future of violent acts aborted.

Understand the Threat

Unless we can find characteristics which make school shootings inherently different from mass shootings which occur in office buildings and other public places, there is no reason to differentiate between school shooting threats and other mass shooting threats.

What is different, which we do need to account for, is that school children of various ages will react differently to a threat scenario than college students or adults in the workplace.  For example, evacuation might be practical on a college campus, but not at a middle school where sheltering might be the preferred method of safety.

Some other considerations are obvious:
Q: Are gun crimes different from knife crimes?
A: Yes.
Q: How are gun crimes different from knife crimes?
A: Guns have range and require little physical prowess.  They can also operate through barriers and out of line-of-sight.
Q: Do the motives for gun crimes differ from knife crimes, club crimes, or any other weapon used in a violent crime?
A: There is no evidence to support this at this time.

I will not provide an in-depth analysis here as I am neither a child psychologist nor a social psychologist and cannot speak to the particulars of each, but the point to be taken is that these are some of the ideas which call for consideration when businesses, schools, you, and me are making our action plans for such a disaster.

There are highly experienced professionals in law enforcement and in the private sector who have advanced threat-modeling mechanisms which they can employ to help you or your organization decrease your risk.  It's advisable to secure the services of such a firm or individual and combine your specific knowledge about the threats you're concerned about as well as your building and situation with their specialist knowledge about threat-modeling to come up with a really solid plan of action.

Create an Action Plan

"There are known knowns; there are things we know that we know.
There are known unknowns; that is to say there are things that, we now know we don't know.
But there are also unknown unknowns – there are things we do not know we don't know.
United States Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld

When getting your information together to speak with an expert, you'll need a few basics for a plan of action:

  • Considered Threats (what we're preparing for)
  • Criteria for Shelter-In-Place vs. Evacuation (What factors make that decision?)
  • Evacuation Routes (also, clearly marked, multiple, unobstructed exits)
  • Method for Compiling Contact Information (spouses, parents, etc.) for Those Effected
  • Method for Keeping a Roster (for who's working / studying / evacuated and who is not)
  • Procedures for Evacuation (everything from signal to evacuation to where to meet to how to approach law enforcement and not be mistaken for the perpetrator)
  • Methods for Keeping This Plan Up to Date

The quote listed above is from US Secretary Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, though it's been said by others over the centuries.  In short, it posits that in any planning scenario there are 3 categories of knowledge:

  1. That which we know.  (McDonald's sells burgers)
  2. That which we are aware that we cannot CURRENTLY quantify. (How much IS quarter-pounder?  I can't remember.)
  3. That which we do not know and are not aware that we do not know. (Since when does McDonald's  sell apple slices?!)

Any planning scenario would do well to start by writing down known information and breaking it down into categories of Known Knowns (X number of employees or students, hours of operation) and Known Uknowns (when an attack might occur, who the perpetrator might be, what weapons may be used).

Unknown Unknowns are the primary reason to contact an expert who might be able to fill in some gaps, to hold training scenarios to find where the knowledge gaps might be, and to have multiple contingency plans in case one plan is not effective.

Lessons Learned from Mass Shootings

Notice / Signal - There has not been a mass shooting where victims declared afterwards that they received ample notice and failed to act.  For the sake of compassion, it's not necessary to discuss the numerous real world examples here, but suffice it to say: having a clearly defined, LOUD, technologically basic, and redundant signal is essential to surviving an active shooter scenario.  One option, an air raid siren which does not go off by accident during a power outage and which can be operated with an absolute minimum of human interaction (huge switch, easy to reach, pulls downward).  An excellent system would combine a gunshot detector (as used in cities around the world) to deploy this automatically with a manual backup switch.

Speed - Most mass shootings tend to be over before law enforcement can form a cogent response.  Why?  Law enforcement like to go home to their families too and instead of rushing in headlong and being ineffective they assemble SWAT responses which are quick, but take longer to engage than the time it takes a perpetrator to pull the trigger.  We can work to speed up law enforcement response, but frankly these heroic individuals already have some of the hardest jobs in the world, they do a great job, and there is only so fast they can do it.  A better option is to focus on security procedures at the target facilities which ensure that in a lockdown, victims can survive until law enforcement arrives.  That means lockdowns not only have to be effective against considered threats, in this case active shooters, but have to occur more quickly than the shooting itself takes place.  Basically, high risk targets (and what ARE high risk targets?  Another topic worth researching.) need to operate in a near lockdown state at all times and do so in a way which does not compromise their usefulness and day-to-day activities.

Egress - Most classrooms across the board including colleges, as well as offices in both the private and public sector, have but a single entrance and exit.  Many older facilities, even those only 1 story tall, have no egress windows (only the flap out kind) and many newer facilities have central air conditioning and windows that do not open at all!  Worse, despite the prevalence of dorm fires, many universities (including my alma mater) opt to refurbish dorm buildings with non-egress windows to increase control of the occupants.  Public buildings, especially schools, need to begin to be designed with multi-corridor layouts so that occupants can evacuate to a secured area within the school (thus not providing an unsecure access to the school on a day-to-day basis, such as an unguarded exterior door can do[what we do not need is exterior doors on individual classrooms]).  This is challenging when upgrading a building, but not when building a new one.

Security / Redundancy - Is access to the building controlled?  If an attacker breaks down a door, can he/she get through reception?  If they get through reception can they access inner hallways?  Will the elevators work?  If they get to the offices / classrooms will they be able to gain access?  If the receptionist is injured, who will call the police?  If there is an intercom system who will make announcements in an emergency?  Who's 2nd in charge if that person is out to lunch?  Who's 3rd in charge in an emergency and so on and so forth.  In multiple cases, attackers have slowed police response by controlling communications systems (or personnel) as a first step in the commission of their crime.  For evidence of this, look no further than every bank robbery movie made in the past 30 years.  A deadlock is no good if there's a floor to ceiling window next to it and an attacker who doesn't care about making a racket.  Equally, a direct line to the police is no good if it's screwed to the wall of an office and no one is able to reach it in an emergency.

Things You Can Do Right Now

Co-Locate Law Enforcement - New Jersey for example has over 500 municipalities, most with their own police force and many with their own school system.  That equates to the need for a very efficient use of space, as New Jersey is also the most densely populated state in the nation.  In the case of school security, security is improved by having police on-campus and security is decreased by allowing the public into the school during the school day.  You can let your public officials know that you would like to see all administrative offices at your local schools moved offsite or accessible only by a separate door from the school (with a door between school and administrative area which remains bolted through the entire schoolday, or even better, a brick wall).  Police can also move some of their administrative offices into the school building so that there are always armed officers on site for a quick response, which decreases the school's attractiveness as a target, speeds up response time, and even reduces costs for some municipalities.  Having police working in school offices is also excellent in a disaster as this provides additional security to any shelter which might be housed in the building as well as a redundant working location for officers if their department's building is disabled without power.

Audit Security Procedures - The biggest problem with security procedures is that few follow them.  Secure doors are propped open for convenience, alarms are disabled, and systems are not tested on a regular basis.  Individuals also need to be tested periodically to ensure they remember their role in an emergency.  None of the advice in this article will help much if your personnel fail to implement it on a day to day basis.

Train / Educate - In many organizations, from schools to colleges to private corporations, even when there is an action plan in place for reacting to an active shooter scenario, the majority of occupants are not trained in that action plan.  For businesses, this may be because it is not cost effective.  For schools, it may be that the administration is afraid of damaging the reputation of the school or else scaring young students.  Ignoring the threat will not make it go away and educating individuals on what they can do to remain safe in such a situation is the best way to empower them and help them to act effectively despite fear.

Understand the Weaknesses of the Threat - Fires have an innate weakness: they're easily smothered by water or whatever else is present.  Wolves can't open doorknobs, fists are slow and non-lethal, knives have no range, but what about guns?  All threats have weaknesses which can be used to defend against them.  It is inadvisable to attempt to physically stop an aggressor when egress is an option, but it is always valuable to have additional knowledge about that aggressor's weaknesses and strengths.  -- Guns for example require a line of sight to accurately hit their target, so while a curtain provides no physical protection from firearms, it is less likely that an aggressor will fire on a target he/she cannot see (which is why windows on classroom doors need blinds).  Equally, guns must fire in straight lines, which is why soldiers may serpentine (bob left and right) if they have to run under fire.  Guns must be reloaded, which is a time at which the shooter becomes very vulnerable very briefly.  Guns are also very loud and can be bright in darkened spaces, reducing the shooter's sense of hearing and sight, a disadvantage.  Perhaps most importantly, guns are difficult to conceal.  Guns can be concealed with a bit of effort, but it is much harder to hide a gun than to hide a knife.  This is important to remember when constructing security procedures to address this threat.  -- Do I expect you to plan to stop a gunman?  No.  I expect that by thinking critically about these topics, by quantifying the strengths and weaknesses of any threat in a logical and reasonable manner, you and your organization will construct better and more effective action plans for many different emergencies.  This article is not the be-all-end-all on mass shootings, it's a call to straightforward planning and logical thought processes.

...and About 5 More Things

It would EASY, ridiculously easy to say that these crimes would not happen if guns didn't exist, but it would be inaccurate: other, similar crimes would still no doubt occur.  Newtown, CT has been politicized by many groups to a disgusting amount and there is no other way to describe it.  It is important to keep in mind the importance of being prepared for a variety of threats throughout life rather than becoming hyper-focused on a single vector of attack.

  1. For example, China has been plagued from 2010-2012 with a spate of largely school related hammer, knife, and cleaver attacks which has killed 25 and injured about 115:
  2. In Pakistan and the Middle East, "Honor Killings" have become a serious issue reaching epidemic proportions:
  3. Another article lists 19 known examples of "Internet Murders," obviously only since the Web has gained prominence:
  4. As an aside, "Internet Murders" used to be "Want Ad Murders," so you can see things change with the times.
  5. Here is a list of 20+ "Axe Murders":

When we, as a society, start to categorize a type of crime by the weapon used or by the venue at which it occurred  rather than by using real statistics which indicate a fundamental difference between one category of crimes and another, we shortchange ourselves by gaining a false sense of security.  Banning a specific weapon type may or may not reduce the number of crimes which are committed with legally obtained weapons of that type, but it is unlikely to stop those same crimes from being carried out in a slightly different way.

In Conclusion:

Stay safe.

Christopher Lotito is a member of the Pequannock Historic District, Open Space, and Flood Control Advisory Commissions as well as the author of  "Torrent," a book about flooding in the region.  Lotito's personal mission is to reduce new taxes, drastically reduce flooding, and preserve more green spaces for our children.  Christopher Lotito Profile

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