Strategies for Safety and Survival in Vehicular Attacks

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The Firestorm team is pleased to share this article by Steven M. Crimando, MA, CTS, CHS-V. Steve is an internationally known consultant and educator specializing in the application of the behavioral sciences in homeland and private security, violence prevention, crisis management and disaster response.

Behavioral Science Applications is a leader in the integration of human factors into violence prevention, crisis intervention and emergency management policies, plans and exercises.

While this article is focused on personal safety and survival in deliberate vehicular ramming attacks, many of the same principles apply to accidental crowd strikes involving motor vehicles.

Vehicle Ramming Attacks: The Poor Man’s Weapon of Mass Destruction

Steve Crimando, MA, CTS, CHS-V

Steve Crimando, MA, CTS, CHS-V

Twelve students were injured, three critically, in the city of Gulf Shores, Alabama, on Tuesday, February 28th, when a large SUV taking part in a Mardi Gras parade plowed into the marching band it was following. Police regarded the incident as a tragic accident after the 73-year-old driver suddenly accelerated. Several emergency agencies from around the region raced to the coastal community to help with what officials called a “mass trauma incident.”

On Saturday night, as U.S. news outlets reported that 28 people were injured when a truck plowed into a crowd during a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans, a car in Heidelberg, Germany rammed a group of pedestrians in a crowded city square killing a 73-year-old man and injuring others near a bakery stand. In New Orleans, the driver was found to be severely intoxicated; in Heidelberg, the driver, armed with a knife, attempted to flee the scene and was ultimately shot and killed in a standoff with the police. Both incidents occurring within hours of each other serve to remind us of the devastating effects of vehicular attacks. Such attacks have increased in frequency and lethality, and as we are having important and necessary discussions around active shooter prevention and response, equal attention must be given to other forms of mass violence, including vehicular attacks.

I am confident that an ever-growing number of people have been exposed to the basics of active shooter response, such as run, hide, fight, or the other popular approaches. I am not at all confident that many people would be able to describe what they would do to protect themselves and their loved ones during a vehicular attack in an open, public setting. To the growing risk of vehicular attacks, I propose to apply the three-step “general mitigation” process (i.e., understand the hazard; understand the defense; act in time) with the hope of raising awareness of this serious risk and improving the survivability of those who may in or around he impact zone of such attacks.

Understanding the Hazard 

Vehicular attacks, also referred to as vehicle-ramming attacks, are those instances of mass violence in which a perpetrator deliberately rams a motor vehicle into a building or crowd of people. While the term is most often used in the context of terrorism, it is also applicable to rampage killers who use a vehicle as their primary weapon. Vehicles have also been used by attackers to breach security around buildings with locked gates when initiating bombing and/or shooting incidents. This tactic is certainly not new and examples of vehicular attacks date back at least to the early 1970’s.

Like active shooter events, the perpetrators of vehicular attacks select target rich environments such as large public gatherings to maximize the number of casualties. Target selection may also have symbolic value for the attackers since large crowds often gather on holidays with religious or political significance, or in places that represent cultural ideas or ways of life. For example:

  • Last July, 86 people were killed and more than 400 wounded when a cargo truck barreled through a large crowd in Nice, France during a fireworks display on Bastille Day. The attacker shot into the crowd from the vehicle as he drove over a mile along the waterfront venue.
  • In November, a man rammed his car into a group of pedestrians on the campus of Ohio State University in Columbus, then ran from his car to cut people with a butcher knife.
  • In December, a man in Berlin plowed a truck through a crowd at a Christmas market, killing 9 and injuring another 50.

In each of these well-known incidents, terrorism was identified as the motive. Like active shooter situations, vehicular attacks are rare but devastating events.

Since most people are so comfortable with motor vehicles it can be difficult to fully appreciate the incredibly destructive nature of vehicular attacks and their capacity for creating a mass casualty event.

There is not an epidemic of vehicular attacks, but there is clear and convincing evidence that this type of mass violence is actively being promoted within terrorist organizations as an attack method of choice. It is helpful to explore the tactical and strategic aspects of vehicular attacks when developing approaches to prevention and survival.

Tactical Elements

Immediately following the shooting incident in Orlando in June 2016, considered the deadliest terrorist attack in the U.S. since 9/11, Al Qaeda of the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) published a special edition of their online magazine, Inspire, as an operational guide urging true believers to carry out more attacks against the general population in America, specifically targeting large public gatherings. Shortly after, the ISIS English-language magazine Rumiyah urged followers to wage additional vehicle attacks on the West, with subsequent AQAP publications providing guidance about which types of vehicles would be most effective. One issue featured a glossy, full-page photograph of a Ford F-150 pickup under a banner headline calling the truck “the ultimate mowing machine.”

Motor vehicles are ubiquitous in most Western countries. They are easy enough to own, rent, borrow or steal. Accessing a vehicle does not raise the same red flags as attempting to acquire firearms or bomb-building materials. The 2012 FBI report, “Terrorist Use of Vehicle Ramming Tactics,”[i] suggests that the skill level necessary to execute a successful vehicle attack is extremely low compared to an operation using firearms and/or explosives. Vehicles can be moved around easily without suspicion. No specialized training or covert financing is needed to plan and conduct an effective vehicle attack which may yield a similar casualty count as a more complex and costly bombing or shooting attack. There is an extremely low threshold for conducting a devastating vehicular attack, and terrorists now have a well-developed template for planning and conducting such assaults.

Strategic Elements

The strategic objectives of terrorism include creating the maximum degree of social, economic and psychological disruption. I would refer you to an earlier blog post, “On Terrorism: The Cracked Sidewalk Analogy” for a more thorough discussion of the deep psychology of terrorism, but here it suffices to say that attacks at large public gatherings using weapons as common and accessible as cars and trucks can have a very chilling effect on the population. Such attacks can disrupt public celebrations that foster community cohesion or national unity. They can deter shoppers, sports fans or concert-goers, and others who become fearful of public settings with serious societal and economic consequences.

From the terrorist’s perspective, creating a fear of people simply coming together in large public gatherings plays well into an overarching strategy to change the national character of their enemies, create a climate of fear and distrust, and force the population and its leaders to become increasing divided in their opinions regarding the level of risk and appropriate options for response. The true weapon of terror, of course, is fear, but more specifically an ambient fear that is always operating in the background. When every car or truck on the street can potentially be used as a weapon, and every public gathering viewed as a target, the pervasive and constant fear that ensues fits the terrorist’s agenda well.

Understanding the Defense

The perpetrators of mass violence are not individuals who just “snapped,” in fact in many instances they have not been individuals at all, but rather teams or cells who have engaged in significant pre-operational planning and preparation. As an individual, or someone responsible for bringing your family or a group to a large public gathering, your best defense may also be in planning, reconnaissance (recon) and onsite situational awareness.

Applying a Red Team* mindset to large gatherings can give you a significant advantage in the event of a vehicular attack.

While not at the same depth as the type of advance work done for executive protection, thinking the situation through from the bad guys’ perspective can help you stay off the “X”[ii] (i.e., point of impact) or a least move quickly toward safety in the event of a vehicle attack. Of course, the safest way to stay off the “X” is simply to avoid the types of places or events that would be attractive to attackers. That is not always possible or desirable, and in a sense, the terrorists win if we change our way of life in response to the threat of violence.

Pre-Event Planning

The location of most large public gatherings is typically known well in advance of the actual event date. Spontaneous gatherings are less likely to be targeted since the attackers have been deprived of any lead time for planning or preparation. The bad guys know this and take advantage of the time before planned gatherings to conduct their own recon and operational planning. Their focus is on identifying:

  • Peak times when the greatest numbers of people will be gathered.
  • Likely security or law enforcement posts or checkpoints.
  • Sections of roadway where the driver can build up speed before veering into a crowd.
  • The locations of barriers and bollards.
  • Areas that afford victims few routes of escape.
  • Choke points that will allow passage of their vehicle but cause panicked flight and potentially dangerous escape mobs or stampedes.

Improving your safety and survivability means applying a similar mindset and taking the time to do some research of your own. Situational awareness is essential and involves efforts to identify both risks and resources ahead of time. Risks, of course, are those things that will likely be problems or that may hurt us; resources are the people, places and things that might help us if the going gets tough. Remember that we don’t do our best thinking during moments of terror. Having a plan in mind ahead of time and engaging in mental rehearsal of your crisis response can make a big difference if things go wrong.

Before attending large public gatherings, consider:

  • Finding and reviewing event maps or routes, even if this is done via online maps or Google Earth.
  • Visiting the location prior to the event if it is reasonably nearby, just to get the lay of the land.
  • Identifying choke points that would restrict rapid movement out of the threat environment.
  • Bringing with you only what you will really need for safety and comfort so that you have less to carry or manage if you must move quickly through a crowd. (A more complete discussion of safety and survival in crowds can be found in my September 2015 post, “The Hajj, the Pope and Crowd Safety.”)
  • Carrying a pocket-sized Individual First Aid Kit (IFAK) for self-care and care of others if needed.
  • Having a discussion with those who may be accompanying you to the event to develop contingency plans for communications and reunification.

When an emergency occurs in a large crowd it is foreseeable that nearby cell towers and local phone circuits may be overwhelmed with volume. Texting may be a reasonable Plan B since SMS operates on different channels than voice communications, and often is still available when voice is not. If cellular communications are jammed up, SMS messages cue and eventually get to their intended recipients. It is also helpful to have the phone numbers of your critical contacts in writing and tucked away in a wallet or pocket. We have become so dependent on the contact lists on our cell phones that we may not have committed our critical contacts’ phone numbers to memory or may not be able to recall them under extreme stress if our phones are lost or damaged in a melee. Understanding that separation from loved ones is the greatest source of anxiety during a crisis, so developing a backup communications plan is essential.

Since it is foreseeable that friends, families or colleagues may be separated during the initial crowd reaction, it is also important to pre-determine reunification spots. Try to envision the natural lines of drift, that is to say, the likely direction or pathways you think most people in the crowd might take to flee an attack, and establish your primary and secondary reunification points slightly outside of those high-volume routes. If your reunification point is in the stream of fleeing pedestrians, it might be difficult to stand still to meet up with others if you are being pushed along, or difficult to spot each other in the chaos. There are many brands and models of small, powerful tactical flashlights that are so bright that they can still be seen well in broad daylight. These lights, especially those with a strobe feature, are excellent tools for signaling others of your location if you are unable to communicate by other means.

During the Event

While everyone may be excited to get a front row spot to view a passing parade or be near the action at a special event, in ramming attacks, those along the curb line are often the most vulnerable. Here are a few ideas about positioning yourself in large street gatherings or on crowded sidewalks in busy urban environments that may be susceptible to a vehicular attack:

  • Avoid the center or densest parts of the crowd; try to stay on the fringe to allow yourself options for movement.
  • Select your location (or locations if you’re on the move) based on safety, not convenience or simply having a great view.
  • Try to find a position near a street corner rather than the middle of the block. This will allow for more avenues of retreat if side streets are accessible.
  • Do not position yourself against walls, doors or other immovable objects that you could be pinned against. Being hit and being crushed by a fast-moving vehicle will likely produce different physical consequences; you’ll want to have some space between you and solid surfaces.
  • Try to avoid standing on, under or around temporary structures like stages or platforms. If struck by the hostile vehicle, the collapse of those structures and the people falling from them represents another source of danger.
  • Event organizers, police and security forces often erect heavy barriers or bollards to reduce the risk of pedestrian-vehicle contact. If such barriers are in place, check them out and use them as protection. If they are heavy and solid, they may provide good cover and concealment from the vehicle attack, as well as shots fired by the attacker and/or the responding police. Attackers will be looking out for these barriers as well, simply to avoid them when seeking a path of least resistance and maximum impact.
  • In addition to scouting out sources for cover and concealment, such as concrete walls or large trees, look for places of refuge, such as open stores or allies that you can duck into as the hostile vehicle or frantic crowd passes by. Make sure that such places have alternative exits. You would not want to be trapped in a dead-end ally if others also pack into the same confined space. In mass gathering scenarios, dead ends can end with death from crowd crush.
  • Try to enjoy the event, but keep a high level of awareness and attention on the roads for any vehicle moving erratically or not keeping with the normal traffic pattern. Such anomalies always have meaning; they do not always mean something dangerous or deadly, but they mean something that you want to key in on.
  • If an erratically-moving vehicle veers toward you or the crowd, remember that in a crisis, you should not simply run from danger—run purposefully towards safety. This is when your pre-event preparedness will pay off.

The attacker has likely anticipated the movement of a terrified crowd. Running with the crowd may get you into even deeper trouble. Try to remember those people, places and things you had identified as sources of safety, and to whatever degree possible, stay calm, focused and move quickly toward those points of safety.

Act in Time

The perpetrators of all forms of mass violence employee three time-tested principles in their attacks: surprise, speed and violence of action.

Just as active shooter incidents begin and end quickly, so do vehicular attacks.

Survivors often report that the car or truck used in the attack seemed to appear out of nowhere, plow through the crowd, and speed onward in its path of destruction all in the blink of an eye. While the action steps recommended during the event are intended to stop the killing, the steps recommended in the immediate aftermath of a vehicular attack are meant to stop the dying.

Once the vehicle has stopped, don’t be a hero and approach the vehicle or try to engage the attacker. If you are near where the attack vehicle has come to rest, move away. It is quite possible that the perpretrator can exit the vehicle and continue the attack with firearms and/or edged weapons. There is always the possibility that there are multiple attackers in the vehicle, or explosives and other harmful materials onboard. Prioritize your safety and survival, and that of your family or friends. You must use your judgement in these stressful moments to determine if it is safe enough initiate care for others who may have been injured or put distance between you and the impact zone.

Bystander intervention can make a critical difference, but before initiating care for others, make sure that it is safe to do so. Take a moment to do a quick but thorough self-examination for any injuries. There are many examples of people who have been unaware of injuries which were masked by the powerful opioid response that accompanies our physiological fight or flight response. The physical numbness and emotional shock produced by our own neurochemicals and neurohormones can make us oblivious to pain, or possibly life-threatening injuries.

There are some reasonable assumptions regarding the impact zone that should guide initial post-attack action steps. These include the assumptions that:

  • There will be a great deal of chaos, confusion and panic, characterized in some instances by irrational fight and flight by the crowd.
  • There are likely to be multiple, if not potentially overwhelming numbers of casualties.
  • The injuries will range in severity from mild to catastrophic. Some may be extremely graphic or gruesome adding to the traumatizing effects of the attack.
  • Some injuries may involve the loss of limbs; many will result in severe bleeding.
  • Individuals with severe blood loss can die within minutes without intervention. Bleeding control (B-CON) will be a high-priority.
  • No matter how quickly professional emergency responders arrive, bystanders will always be first on the scene. Bystanders can initiate critical bleeding control and save lives by acting quickly and decisively.

If you are not already familiar, I would strongly encourage you to learn about the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s “Stop the Bleed” campaign. Based upon lessons learned in Combat Emergency Casualty Care (CECC) in Iraq and Afghanistan, this nationwide program seeks to empower citizens to act quickly and save lives in bleeding emergencies regardless of the cause. While not a purposeful vehicular attack, the scenario depicted in the short video, “A Perfect Stranger” illustrates the basic concepts very well.

The Stop the Bleed program promotes the use of three basic skills after calling 911 and if possible, moving a wounded person to safety:

  1. Apply firm, steady direct pressure to the general wound site with both hands if possible;
  2. Expose the wound and apply firm, steady pressure with a bandage or cloth to the precise site of the bleeding injury;
  3. If the bleeding doesn’t stop, place a tourniquet 2-3 inches above the wound between the injury site and the torso.

Tourniquets can be improvised, but given that shooting, bombing and vehicle attacks seem to be here to stay, it is an excellent idea to have a small kit of simple B-CON gear with a proper tourniquet, as well as receiving some basic training in using bandages and tourniquets. The gear is compact and relatively inexpensive, and B-CON training is increasingly offered in communities around the country.

Rapid Psychological Trauma Support

Compounding the medical trauma in the vehicular attack is the psychological trauma of facing a real-life threat and possibly witnessing others being injured or killed. The reaction of people exposed to overwhelming psychological stress can make a bad situation worse. For both clinical and tactical reasons, it will be important to begin managing the psychological trauma associated with a vehicular attack immediately, even while medical care is being rendered. Psychological First Aid (PFA) is an evidence- informed approach for assisting victims and witnesses in the immediate aftermath of disaster and act of terrorism. It is intended to be used in the 0-48 of a violent or threatening event to help reduce the physical and emotional arousal (stress response) that can lead to more harmful (frantic, unfocused) behaviors and potential long-term mental health consequences.

PFA is an “every person” skills set. Just as you don’t have to be a doctor, nurse or EMT to use basic medical first aid, you don’t have to be a mental health professional to use PFA. It is intended to be used by whoever is first on the scene to initiate basic psychological support and help stabilize the emotional response to the situation. Managing acute stress reactions in the midst of a crisis is another critical task for bystanders.

While there is a significant national effort underway to promote “Mental Health First Aid,” it is important for planners and leaders to be aware that Psychological First Aid and Mental Health First Aid are not synonymous. Mental Health First Aid is intended for individuals who have or who may be developing a diagnosable mental health disorder. In that model of support, participants learn about the major categories of mental illnesses, the signs and symptoms of those mental illnesses, ways to assist someone in a mental health crisis, and how to connect individuals in a mental health crisis with the appropriate resources. Mental Health First Aid is not intended to be used in the immediate wake of traumatic event; Psychological First Aid is and would be necessary and important in the immediate wake of a vehicular attack.

Also remember that the post-attack environment is a crime scene where the preservation of evidence is critical. Don’t move anything that does not need to be moved, and certainly don’t take anything away from the scene. Wait until you have touched base with law enforcement personnel and other first responders before simply leaving the area. It is likely that they will want statements from those who were in the epicenter of the attack. Avoid speaking with the media if possible; something you say can affect the investigation or apprehension of others who may have been involved in the planning or execution of the attack. You don’t want to be that guy or gal.

Stay Sharp, Have Fun

Unfortunately, the same dynamics that make large public events fun and exciting also make them attractive targets for terrorists and others who may wish to do us harm. Being aware of the risks, engaging in pre-event planning and preparedness, and knowing how best to respond during and immediately following a vehicular attack can make participating in large public gatherings safer for you and your loved ones. Stay sharp, have fun, and let’s not allow the bad guys to drive a wedge of fear any further into our lives than necessary.

*Red Teaming is the practice of viewing a potential target from an adversary’s perspective for potential vulnerabilities.

[i] Department of Homeland Security-FBI Warning: Terrorist Use of Vehicle Ramming Tactics. FBI and Department of Homeland Security. December 13, 2012.

[ii] Van Horne, P. and Riley, J. (2014). Left of Bang. Black Irish Entertainment LLC. New York, NY.

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