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Training Civilians to Respond to Mass Shootings

By Andrew Bell, faculty member, Criminal Justice with American Military University and Bruce Razey, 35-year police veteran

In most cases, citizens retreat from danger and law enforcement officers are responsible for protecting the public. However, during an active shooter situation it often takes time for officers to respond to the scene. The actions citizens take in the minutes or seconds before police arrive to an active shooter scene can be the difference between life and death for many people.

Following several recent active shooter incidents, we heard stories about the impact of citizen response and incredible acts of heroism by average citizens. The shootings this year at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the STEM School Highlands Ranch in Colorado both involved students who engaged the shooter and ultimately gave their lives, but likely saved the lives of many others. These incidents demonstrate that citizens must be prepared for mass shootings and know how to respond.

[Related: How the Virginia Tech Shooting Changed Campus Security Forever]

It’s the responsibility of law enforcement agencies to offer training that can help the public be as prepared as possible to respond to an active-shooter scenario. This can be done either as an agency initiative or in conjunction with local businesses who want to train their employees. Such training should cover the following points.

If You’re Not at the Scene—Don’t Go

Even if loved ones are involved, if you’re not already at the scene of an active shooter, do not go there. Going to the location will not only put you in danger, but likely further burden first responders who are actively responding to the event.

Responding agencies will set up a staging area in a safe location away from the scene where families and loved ones can reunite and get more information. Agencies often use social media and local media outlets to communicate with the public about the location of these staging areas.

If You Are at the Scene—Run, Hide, Fight

Those who are at the scene should employ the run, hide, fight concept. Training citizens on this concept will help them understand their options when involved in a mass shooting or other dangerous incident.

If you hear gunshots or are advised of an incident nearby, the best option is to run away from the threat and call 9-1-1. One way to practice this is to always note where exits are located. Whether you’re in a classroom, office building, store, or restaurant, make it a habit to actively look for escape route options. Remember, the best escape option is likely not the same way you entered. For example, if you’re in a restaurant, the safest exit route may be out through the kitchen. When running away from a situation be sure to run with your hands up to show law enforcement, and others, that you are not holding a weapon.

[Related: Preparing the Public to Respond to Any Emergency]

If running away to safety is not an option, the next best option is to hide. If possible, find a room with a door that can be locked or barricaded, cover the windows, and turn off lights. Mute cell phones and other electronics that could ring or otherwise alert the shooter to your location. In the room, hide behind large objects like overturned desks or shelves. Try not to hide in large groups of people—large groups are an easy target. This is also the time to try and locate potential weapons such as scissors, fire extinguishers, or even a chair to use in the event that you need to defend yourself.

If running and staying hidden are not possible, fighting back against the shooter may be your only option. If you find yourself in the path of the active shooter, you’re going to have to try to take out the aggressor. It is best to find a place to conceal yourself and attempt to take out the aggressor by surprise using anything that can be used as a weapon.

Register for Mass Communications

You can take steps to prepare for an emergency situation right now. Nearly everyone has a cell phone these days, so take the time to sign up for mass communication alert systems. Many government agencies, school systems, and employers have notification systems that will provide real-time information about what to do and where to go in an emergency.

When I worked as a civil servant, I (Bell) found it odd that people would not want to participate because they didn’t want to provide their private cell phone number. According to our legal department, it was not required, but I would always encourage individuals to participate by asking, “Do you want to be the only one in the hall with the shooter while the rest of us shelter in a locked room? It could be a matter of life and death.”

Learn Basic Medical and First Aid Skills

Another important component to active shooter training is teaching people basic medical care. Officers are trained to engage the shooter immediately and therefore may bypass injured individuals in order to stop the shooting. If citizens don’t know this, they may expect officers to stop and assist those who are injured. Similarly, during an incident medical staff may not be able to immediately enter an active shooter scene.

It’s critical that individuals know how to assist the injured in the moments after the threat is gone and before rescue teams arrive. Therefore, it’s imperative that individuals know how to provide basic medical care to help the wounded as quickly as possible. Basic first aid includes applying pressure to wounds, creating tourniquets to stop bleeding, and performing CPR. Learning basic first aid skills can be the difference between life and death for those injured.

[Related: Preparing for the Unthinkable: The Value of Citizen Responders at the Las Vegas Shooting]

If you are at the scene of a critical incident and have formal medical training, identify yourself to responding medical teams and, if you’re able, offer to continue assisting them if there are many injured people. Always follow the direction of medical personnel.

Look for Signs of an Insider Threat – See Something, Say Something

Agencies should also provide training about how individuals can identify and report suspicious individuals at work or school. The person could be a disgruntled employee, a mentally ill co-worker or student, or the spouse of an employee during a separation.

Many active shooters open fire in the organization they work for or in a location they have first-hand knowledge of. For example, the mass shooting in Virginia Beach where an employee opened fire despite not having any clear motive demonstrated that the insider threat is real.

After active shooter situations, employees often report that they noticed something “off” about the perpetrator or something suspicious about their intentions. As part of the training, organizations should tell employees that “if they see something, say something” and have very clear protocol about how to report threatening activity or issues to management.

Unfortunately, mass shootings will continue to happen. It is the responsibility of law enforcement agencies and citizens to be as prepared as possible to respond to these incidents. Despite how important citizen training is, many departments do not consider conducting it due to logistics and cost. However, the cost of conducting training will likely be minimal compared to the potential benefits and the goodwill that can be generated by showcasing how dedicated the agency is to protecting the public.

About the Authors:

Andrew Bell has more than 20 years of law enforcement experience and 25 years in the U.S. military and civilian service. He served as a patrol officer, detective, patrol sergeant, community-policing supervisor, school resource supervisor and detective supervisor. He was called to active duty with U.S. Army Reserve after 9/11 and completed a tour in Afghanistan. Andrew also worked for the U.S. federal government in Army intelligence, Army capabilities unit and emergency operations. He holds a master’s degree in public administration and a bachelor of science degree with a concentration in criminal justice. Andrew has been a faculty member with American Military University since 2004.

Bruce Razey began his law enforcement career in 1975. During his 35-year career, he worked for three diverse police departments. Bruce served in patrol operations, special operations and the investigative division. His assignments included field training officer, air unit coordinator/observer, field training supervisor, community policing supervisor, detective supervisor and committee chairman for internal affairs review unit. He served on numerous hiring and promotional boards; authored and co-authored policies and procedures; created lesson plans to instruct new and veteran officers in a variety of topics; and established policy and guidelines for an improved method of conducting police lineups and eye-witness testimony. Bruce holds a bachelor of science degree in criminology from the University of Saint Leo, Florida. He graduated number one from the Regional Police Academy and from the West Point Leadership & Management Training Course.

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