Here's what to do in an active shooter situation
Lt. Michael Wicks with the Monroe County Sheriff's Office said you can "run, hide, fight" if a shooter gets in.
Do you know how to escape from Target without using the main entrance?
Does stacking furniture in front of a door actually make it harder to open?
What's the difference between "cover" and "concealment" — and why should you care?
Most Americans aren't searching Google for the answers to these questions. But in the age of the active shooter, they may want to start.
Make no mistake: The odds of being caught in a mass shooting are slim. But the randomness with which gunmen strike is disconcerting, as evidenced by the twin massacres this month at Atlanta spas and a supermarket in Colorado.
"It used to be the wrong place at the wrong time; now it's any place at any time," said Clint Emerson, a retired Navy SEAL and founder of Escape the Wolf, a global crisis management company.
And experts say it could worsen this year as local and state governments loosen lockdowns and revise social distancing measures that kept us safe from the novel coronavirus — which burdened citizens with extraordinary amounts of stress.
"The lockdown has certainly exacerbated the big issues that push people toward violence — everything is a little bit worse for everyone," Emerson said. "My guess is 2021 will probably be the year of the active shooter."
Everyone in America hopes he's wrong. But in case he's not, here are some tips on how to survive.
Run, hide, fight
The federal government pushes a simple plan for coping with mass shooters on ready.gov, a website run by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security.
If bullets start to fly, run away. If you can't do that, hide until the threat moves on. And if that doesn't happen, prepare to fight for your life.
Even the most hardened skeptics have embraced the plan's framework because it's so intuitive. But it can and should be broken down further to cut the chances for error, experts said.
For instance, when do you run and when do you hide? And if you flee, in which direction should you go?
The answer's not always clear, said Kelly McCann, a security consultant and owner of the Virginia-based Kembativz Brand.
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The sound of a gunshot reverberates indoors, making it tough to figure out where the shooter is, McCann said. Especially during a panic-inducing adrenaline dump.
McCann tells clients to take a breath, calm themselves and search for the nearest exit. Don't just join the herd of people charging one way or another.
"Just because everybody seems to be running in a particular direction doesn't meant that's necessarily the right direction — somebody might have just bolted," McCann said. "The right direction is where you know there's an exit, and it's unlikely the shooter will be between you and that exit."
So don't panic. Of course. But how do you not panic when your friendly neighborhood grocery store just collapsed into a war zone?
Preparation is key, experts said.
When you're in a store, at the movies or eating out, take a second to find alternative exits, Emerson said. If, in that moment, you heard the crackling of gunfire, how would you react? Where would you go?
Even just thinking through the event will help inoculate your mind against the inevitable surge of terror, he said.
"Some people will call that paranoid, but it's not," Emerson said. "It's a mindful preparedness for the environment you're in. You're just taking a moment to think it through ... so if it does happen in reality, you've trained yourself to be a little more coherent and thoughtful before you make big moves."
Most importantly, don't freeze in place, said Brian Higgins, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan who also trains corporate clients of Brosnan Risk Consultants in how to combat active shooters.
"Do something. Period. Do not freeze, even if you're not sure those are gunshots," Higgins said. "The probability you'll survive will go up exponentially."
Higgins speaks from personal experience. As a former chief of the Bergen County Police Department, he helped lead the law enforcement response to the November 2013 shooting at Westfield Garden State Plaza in Paramus.
The six-hour nightmare started when a Teaneck man, dressed in black, stalked into the mall with a rifle, firing random shots as he went. But he didn't appear to have a specific target, and he inflicted no casualties before eventually killing himself in a remote storage area.
Cover vs. concealment: How to hide correctly
If you don't think you can make it to an exit safely, seek cover immediately, McCann said.
Not concealment, if you can help it. Actual cover. What's the difference?
Window drapes or a slab of drywall will cloak the person hiding behind them, but they won't stop a pistol or rifle round. That's concealment.
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The stone pillar, concrete planter or brick wall that halts lead slugs in their tracks? That's cover. And that's what you're looking for.
From there, dart from bulwark to bulwark as you head toward the door, McCann said.
"You might go to one position, take a breath, look around, see what's going on, move to the next position and so on, until you're further and further away from the source of fire," McCann said.
If you have to hide, Emerson said, avoid rooms with only one entrance, such as bathrooms or closets. Ideally, you'd find a space with windows or some other way out, then barricade the door.
To do that, stack furniture linearly, not vertically, Emerson said. In other words, shove a desk against the door, wedge a filing cabinet against the desk and so on until you reach the opposite wall, if possible. That will brace the furniture against the door and jam it in place.
Then go to the corner of the room and get low, Emerson said. Shooters are likely aiming chest-high, and lying flat on the ground means shots fired through the wall should sail harmlessly overhead.
How to fight an active shooter
Attacking the assailant is by far the most dangerous option and should be used only as a measure of last resort, experts said.
But if you must engage, keep it simple and savage. Emerson said team up with others if you can and focus on seizing control of the weapon.
For instance, ask two or three people to tackle the shooter's body while you latch on to the rifle, Emerson said. Get two hands on the gun and let gravity do the rest.
"You're just going to drop to the ground — hold on to that thing and let your weight go to Earth," he said. "No one can withstand that. Not even the strongest Navy SEAL can maintain control of that gun if someone's hanging from it."
Get the shooter to the floor, pile on and wait for law enforcement, Emerson said.
But again, running and hiding are better, safer choices. Higgins, of John Jay, said fighting is a "last-ditch effort for when all options are gone."
It's also a good idea to prepare for the aftermath by learning basic first aid skills, McCann said.
"If you're on-scene, there are mass casualties and you're able to assist in that first hour after the incident, you can significantly contribute to saving lives," he said.
In the end, it's up to people to prepare themselves for these tragedies, McCann added. Mass shootings start suddenly and end within minutes, and the police are rarely in position to help.
If civilians "don't do something for themselves, who's going to?" McCann said. "As much as you wish you weren't there, you are. So you've got to do something about it."
Steve Janoski covers law enforcement for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to the most important news about those who safeguard your local community, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.