A Q&A with Former Secret Service Agent – How to Survive an Active Shooter Situation

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This past summer, Firestorm Partner, former Secret Service Agent and Founder/CEO/President of Secure Education Consultants (SEC), Jason Russell, conducted a training course on how to respond to an active shooter. The training was conducted across the street from the Mandalay Bay Resort in Las Vegas, Nevada – the location of the deadly October 1st shooting that took the lives of more than 50 concert-goers. Following the shooting, Jason discussed key actions to take if you ever find yourself in an active shooter situation.

Jason Russell, President/CEO and Founder of SecureEd

What actions can be taken before a situation occurs?

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.

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 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 5 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.

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.

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?

What should we do if we fear a loved one is trapped within an attack zone?

(JR): While our natural reaction when we have a loved one who is in danger is to try to save them or protect them in some way this might not be the best solution during an attack. The reality is we have hopefully taken some pre-incident steps to prepare our loved ones by discussing situational awareness and some decision-making skills that can help them navigate being in danger. We should communicate as much information regarding our loved one to emergency services including last known location, clothing descriptions, medical issues, and any known injuries or disabilities. We should not, however, go into a dangerous situation to attempt to save someone as we may become a victim ourselves or degrade the emergency services response efforts. While this is a difficult concept, becoming a casualty or victim will not help the loved one you are trying to save.

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 can organizations, whether businesses or schools, share self-protection orientation information with new employees during the on-boarding process? What types of information should be included?

(JR): One problem with emergency plans and procedures is they are too long and too complicated for people to understand. Another issue is when we share information, just when a new employee starts with us, we are giving them so much information they tend to remember the near-term things that affect their new position and forget things they think are not likely useful in the near term. I suggest first making response protocols simpler. Most emergency response actions funnel into four primary responses: Evacuation, Shelter in Place, Lock-Out, and Lock Down. Rather than asking employees to learn procedures for each individual emergency, ensure they know the basic steps for those four primary protocols. Consider revisiting the training for newer employees after six months once they have had a chance to settle in and learn the facility and organization better. They will better retain the emergency information once they aren’t learning other things at the same time.

How do we prevent these shootings from occurring?

(JR): 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. The tragedy of the Las Vegas shootings coupled with other attacks throughout the year should motivate organizations to properly plan and prepare for like situations. Jason recently joined Firestorm during a Virtual Exercise that focused on responding to an active shooter situation. If you would like to schedule a time to view the 2-hour exercise, please contact Firestorm and mention the August Virtual Exercise with Jason Russell.

Watch interviews with Jason Russell:

Ex-Federal Agent: Have a Plan if Something Goes Wrong

Former Secret Service Agent Breaks Down Vegas Mass Shooting

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