What I learned from active shooter training (and my own experience)
Editor’s note: This story was originally published on October 21, 2019. We are reprinting an edited version because it offers helpful tips for dealing with active shooter situations.
Tuesday’s mass shooting at a Texas elementary school in which an 18-year-old gunman killed 19 children and two teachers before being shot himself by law enforcement officers brings back traumatic memories of my own exposure to gun violence.
Below is my 2019 column of attending the Lake in the Hills Police Department Civilian Response Course on Handling Active Fire/Attack Situations, which seemed like a good opportunity to gain skills that could save my life.
Having written stories about situations involving mass shootings, I have often wondered how I would react in such circumstances.
Would I run and hide? Would I freeze? Would I have retaliated? I hope I never have to find out.
Luckily, I didn’t experience a mass shooting. But once, my sister and I were robbed at gunpoint while young college students were working minimum-wage jobs as motel receptionists. I know the thrilling adrenaline rush and mind-numbing fear that overwhelms the senses when someone points a gun at your head. I survived this experience more by luck than by heroism.
Could this police program help me be better prepared in the event of something even more unthinkable?
It could. And, over the course of two hours of videos and discussions, it provided a better understanding of what to expect and how to deal with it.
I left with these takeaways:
• Avoid. To refuse. Defend. Avoid situations that could make you a target. Limit the possibilities for a malicious person to have access to you or to other people. Fight against someone who does.
• Don’t expect to play dead.
• Try to stay calm.
• Have an action plan. Prepare yourself mentally for how you would handle an assault.
The free course, offered by many law enforcement agencies, teaches everyday people how to prepare for a mass attack and respond if it happens. Developed by Texas State University’s ALERRT (Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center), it examines attacks in a variety of settings, including the workplace, public gathering places, and religious institutions.
Other suburban police departments offered similar programs. Naperville and Aurora police held courses teaching the ALICE method – Alert, Lock, Inform, Deter, Evacuate – and police in Bartlett, Niles and Evanston, among others, offered active response courses for shooters.
In the Lake in the Hills class, Andrew Mannino, a Lake in the Hills police officer who trains new recruits in defensive tactics and the use of force, set the central strategy.
“Avoid the attacker. Deny him access. Defend yourself,” Mannino said.
A video reflecting the deadly April 2007 campus shooting at Virginia Tech provided a haunting lesson in why playing dead doesn’t work.
In it, Kristina Anderson, a sophomore at Virginia Tech at the time of the attack, described how she was shot three times in the back and in the foot as she played dead during the rampage. Somehow she survived. She was one of 17 people injured. Thirty-two people were killed. It was one of the deadliest mass shootings in US history.
As I watched Anderson tell his story, I was reminded of a video from March 15, 2019, filming a rampage at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in which 51 people were killed and dozens more injured. . Footage showed the gunman repeatedly firing at people who had fallen to the ground, some playing dead.
Mannino told us that understanding our psychological and physiological responses in high-stress situations is key to knowing how to act at the time.
A person’s heart rate increases, he explained, and the brain goes into fight, flight or freeze mode.
“Tasks you’ve done thousands of times become difficult under stress,” he said. “Fear is a fire that will overwhelm you (faster) than you can control.”
Again I remembered the flight with my sister. A man and a woman walked to the motel reception, the man pulled out a gun and ordered me to open the cash register. I was the one working that night and my sister brought dinner. Our hearts were racing. I obeyed, but when they asked for our car keys, we lied.
“We don’t have a car,” we pleaded.
The woman then pushed the man to point the gun at my sister’s temple and threatened to shoot her. We gave them our keys and our purses. We survived, losing only money and property. We were lucky.
To stay focused in such circumstances, Mannino suggested practicing tactical breathing — inhaling, holding your breath, exhaling and holding your breath for four seconds each — and running through hypothetical scenarios and reactions to help ground the body’s responses.
Having faith in a higher power has also helped people survive attacks, he said, as it thwarts feelings of helplessness. This point touched me deeply. My faith teaches that no harm can befall me except by the will of God and whatever happens will never be more than I can bear. It was this confidence that kept me strong through the darkest times of my life, including being at the mercy of these thieves.
Mannino told us to be aware of our surroundings at all times. He advised not to overlook loud bangs, as the sound of gunfire can be muffled or distorted in tall buildings. He said to identify several escape exits or places that can provide cover or concealment.
“Hesitation can cost you valuable time,” Mannino said. “If you can get out, do so. Encourage others to leave with you, but don’t let them slow you down. Leave your belongings behind. Get out of the line of fire. Prevent others from entering the area of danger.”
He talked about the value of keeping things between you and the abuser. “Locking the door has proven effective in many attacks,” Mannino said.
He demonstrated barricading doors, bracing doorknobs with belts and other objects, and urged turning off lights and silencing phones. He said it can be helpful to stay out of sight when lining up against the wall next to a door to suggest to an attacker that there are no targets inside.
But if the attacker walks through the door, it’s good to have a back-up plan, he said.
“You have the right to defend yourself,” Mannino said, and that includes “fighting dirty” and aggressively.
“Whether you are alone or in a group, fight,” he stressed. “Improvise weapons. Commit to your actions. Always have an exit plan. What you do matters.”
When the officers finally arrive on the scene, it’s essential to stay calm and follow their instructions so you don’t get shot by mistake, Mannino stressed.
“Law enforcement’s first priority would be to stop the threat to your safety,” Mannino said. “Have nothing in your hands that could be perceived as a weapon.”
Mannino told the class that only two things can reduce the death toll in a mass attack: the speed with which the police respond, which usually lasts three minutes on average, and the number of targets available. If more people are aware of the situation and are prepared for an attack, it “should help save lives”, he said.
Inaction is not an option. We must have a plan, which I pray we never have to put into practice. Share these tips with your family, friends, colleagues, classmates, and members of the faith community so that we are better prepared for the worst.
• Madhu Krishnamurthy is the diversity editor and an associate city editor for the Daily Herald.
How to react during a mass attack
• Use “Avoid. To refuse. Defend “. strategy. Avoid the attacker. Deny them access. Defend yourself.
• Don’t expect to play dead.
• Have an action plan. Prepare yourself mentally.
• Know how your mind and body react to high stress.
• Stay calm. Practice tactical breathing.
• Identify several exits to escape or places to hide.
• Leave your personal belongings behind.
• Encourage others to go with you.
• Get out of the line of fire. Stay out of sight.
• Barricade doors with chairs, furniture, doorknobs with belts and other objects.
• Turn off lights and silence cell phones.
• If cornered, fight hard. Be aggressive.
• Follow police instructions when help arrives.
Source: Texas State University Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center curriculum taught by Lake in the Hills Police Officer Andrew Mannino