5 Ways to Survive an Active Shooter Event

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Q&A with Former Secret Service Agent and Firestorm Chief Security Officer, Jason Russell

You’re watching the evening news and a story flashes across the screen indicating a dangerous intruder penetrated a school or business. You think to yourself, “Another one?” What would you say if it was your organization or child’s school?

Are you prepared?

Firestorm Chief Security Officer and Former Secret Service Agent, Jason Russell, travels the country to train schools and organizations on how to prevent, prepare and respond to tragedies. In this interview, he provides five key steps individuals should take to survive an active shooter event.

1. What actions can be taken before a situation occurs?

Jason Russell, Firestorm Chief Security Officer

Jason Russell (JR): The first action to take falls under the planning stage. Upon entering a venue, assess the area. Take a few moments to identify exit points and barriers. Recognize areas that can act as cover and concealment locations. By assessing the area, you are gaining situational awareness just in case a violent act does take place and you do need to escape an area quickly.

2. Situational Awareness is a key aspect of Preparedness. We know that practicing situational awareness does not mean living in a state of constant fear and paranoia. Fear and paranoia are in fact counterproductive to good personal security. Given the many unknowns of how terrorism and targeted attacks happen, what exactly are we looking for “in the moment?”

JR: In general, human beings are not accustomed to being involved in emergencies, and danger to our well-being. Therefore, in the rare case we experience a potentially life-threatening situation it takes our brain and body a while to process the information and decide on a course of action. As a natural reaction, those who were present during the Las Vegas shooting in October 2017 did not immediately recognize the sounds of gunshots, so they did not react.

Sense Danger: Before we can ever begin to respond to the situation we must first sense the danger that is occurring. This sensing of danger can occur in several ways. We can be alerted to danger via others, think fire alarm, or we can experience the danger via one of our five senses. The problem is there are many barriers to sensing this danger that can slow us down and therefore delay our immediate response.

Evaluate Response Options: Once we have sensed the danger we must choose what course of action is best for us to take given the potential danger. The problem is this should be done before the incident via training, mental scripting and being aware of our environment. The human brain is not capable of coming up with new concepts when under extreme stress. It has been said about emergencies that “humans don’t rise to the occasion under stress they sink to the level of their training.”

Commit to Action: Once we have decided on our course of action we should commit to that action and carry it out as efficiently and effectively as possible. If circumstances change we can adjust our response but we must commit to each action and perform it with vigor. If you ever find yourself in an active shooter situation, remember the two C’s: cover and concealment.

Cover will prevent a bullet from striking a person; whereas concealment will provide a hiding place. Both, however, are difficult to find when one does not know where the gunfire is reining from.

While this process should seem simple, there are barriers at each level and these barriers can delay or degrade our response and cause us to be more likely to remain in danger or make poor choices.

3. What happens if someone cannot find cover or concealment?

(JR): Instinctively, many people fall to the ground and cover their heads. That method will not work in all situations. If you cannot find cover or concealment, you need to ‘get off the X.’ Physically remove yourself from the attack zone as quickly as possible and try to escape. In most situations, people tend to run in the same direction. A wise decision is to run in the opposite direction of the crowd. Someone who is targeting masses of people will follow the mass of people. Consider non-traditional escape routes and avoid assembling with large crowds within the attack zone as these are attractive targets. If possible communicate with emergency services for information on ways to escape or evacuate.

4. What should we do if trapped within an attack zone?

(JR): Humans make better decisions when we remain calm. While this is difficult under stress one technique used is to practice tactical breathing. This allows an individual to reduce their heart rate allowing them to have more access to the critical thinking and problem-solving areas of their brains. If trapped in an active attack area be careful not to fall victim to social proof, like following a crowd. Since human beings like to be part of a group we tend to frame our response to match what others around us are doing. During emergencies, this can prove dangerous as many times the group does not make wise decisions.

In addition, terrorists use this group movement dynamic to set up secondary attacks that can cause additional damage. If trapped you should attempt to find a way to escape while maintaining situational awareness for a secondary attack.

Related: Download the Brief – Are You Prepared to Respond to an Active Shooter?

5. Contingency planning is a cornerstone of the Firestorm PREDICT.PLAN.PERFORM.® methodology and can be complex depending on the type of threat or crisis and organization involved. If there were only one piece of advice to give to people who find themselves uninjured in an attack zone of an incident, what would it be?

(JR): Do Something! The worst choice in an emergency is to freeze. We suggest you make a decision based on the information you have and pursue that solution with vigor. Be aware of possible secondary attacks as they are the hallmark of a terrorist methodology.

How to Prevent Violence

Prevention of violent situations is a combination of awareness and assessment. Educating employees, students, staff and others on situational awareness and actions to take during situations will increase survival rate. Assessing threats will mitigate future acts of violence and identifying people who display warning signs before they act is imperative. Often times people exhibit warning signs prior to committing acts of violence. These warning signs can include mental breakdowns, a change in social behavior, a life-altering event like a divorce or death, among others.

Situational awareness and planning will help save your life in an active shooter situation. Tragedies like the Parkland and Las Vegas shootings, coupled with other attacks, should motivate organizations to properly plan and prepare for like situations. Jason and his team are highly trained, former U.S. Secret Service Agents empowered to assist all staff, design customized, dynamic plans, and respond to critical incidents for organizations. They strive to provide presidential protection to all clients. 

Learn more about Jason. 

Watch interviews with Jason Russell:

Firestorm Chief Security Officer Discusses How to Prevent Incidents of Violence

Ex-Federal Agent: Have a Plan if Something Goes Wrong
Former Secret Service Agent Breaks Down Vegas Mass Shooting

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