by Dan Rullo
As I watch the cellphone videos from the Las Vegas concert shooting, several common negative themes become evident regarding the victims’ immediate reactions. These themes are typical of people in general when faced with a sudden threat for which they have not trained or prepared. And sadly, predators know to rely on these things to help them maximize damage. I’d like to review some of these themes here in hopes of helping people think about them ahead of time and increase their chances of survival by developing strategies before they are needed.
Keep in mind as you read this, that there are different categories of critical incidents and they don’t always have the same set of applicable responses. For example, although this was technically an active shooter situation, nobody was in a position to physically disarm the attacker or return fire without putting others at danger. The dynamics of this shooting are a little different than something like a shooting at a school. So some of the things that we teach in our active shooter response trainings may not be applicable in every single scenario. But there are things that could be done to boost your chances of survival as well as those who are around you. I won’t get into some of the higher-level training & preparation that I recommend (things like carrying a “blow out kit” for medical emergencies) here. Instead, I’d like to keep this post focused primarily on what the average person does versus what they can do, as they are currently equipped without training. I publish plenty of information about training and why it’s important. But that’s not the purpose of this article.
Most people don’t like to think about these kinds of incidents because they are “unthinkable”. But I assure you that denial has no survival value. When ordinary citizens are taken from a concert scenario to a legitimate war zone in a matter of seconds, the only hope that you have is prior preparation (training, planning, etc.).
First in foremost in every critical incident is the concept of Threat Recognition. Most people have not experienced a violent attack of any kind before. So when we suddenly find ourselves face-to-face with an attack, our brain has no prior conditioning to relate it to. Therefore, we burn up valuable time trying to figure out exactly what it is that we’re experiencing. And when that happens, people tend to freeze up – they essentially go into a state of paralysis. In the videos from last night, you can see people (even the performers on stage) trying to figure out if they were actually hearing gunshots. They knew it was something they hadn’t experienced before, yet so many of them tried to convince themselves and others that it was something they were familiar with – fireworks. Watch the videos and you’ll hear people saying “I think it’s just fireworks”, “did you hear fireworks?”. And even after realizing what was really happening, many people can be heard on video crying and saying “I don’t know what to do!”
Points of Egress
But there’s actually something that should come BEFORE Threat Recognition. Identifying Exit Options (all of them) and developing a strategy is an imperative step to increasing survivability. Most people are only aware of the entry point that they came in through – they fail to look around and identify potential exit points, which for an outdoor venue can be more complex even though there are technically more options. But it goes beyond the mere identification of doors or openings. You also have to prioritize these based on:
- Where are you located in the venue (should you move?). Keep in mind that the most accessible exit points are likely to be the least desired locations for the event. You might want to think about taking a slightly less advantageous viewpoint in order to purposely place yourself closer to an exit.
- Which areas are more or less densely populated by other people? And are certain exit points blocked by clusters of people?
- Given the environment, which exit point would you choose if an attack originated from a certain direction? Since we can’t know the direction that an attack will come from, we have to go through all of the conceivable possibilities and decide which way to run in each case.
Cover & Concealment
Something that goes hand-in-hand with Identifying Exit Options, is Identifying Potential Cover/Concealment. A small percentage of the population thinks about how they would exit in an emergency. But almost NOBODY thinks about where to take (effective) cover when the bullets start flying. Understanding the difference between cover & concealment is important too. If you’ve never done any firearms training, you might not be familiar with that distinction and you might not fully understand why certain materials would be better than others. Here’s a quick overview:
- Concealment refers to an object that will obstruct the view of an attacker and prevent them from seeing your location. It is nothing more than that (not to imply that it is without value). A concealment-only object is good to hide behind when that’s your only option. But it is not likely to stop incoming rounds from hitting you – especially rifle rounds. If you find yourself hiding behind a piece of concealment, your next priority should be finding suitable cover when it becomes safe enough for you to get to it.
- Cover refers to an object that not only serves as sufficient concealment, but is also likely to protect you from incoming gunfire, at least for a period of time. Effective use of cover starts with identifying cover ahead of time and making sure you understand how to fully protect your entire body (and those with you) behind the cover. After getting to cover, your next priority should be finding better cover when it becomes safe enough for you to get to it. You should never be satisfied with remaining in one place in an active scene simply because you have cover. By all means, remain there if that’s your only option. But your ultimate goal needs to be continuous improvement of your situation until you’re out of the scene.
A few examples of good cover options include things like large/thick concrete or stone structures – keeping in mind that many structures that appear to be solid are in fact hollow and thus, not suitable. Large masses of certain types of metal (steel, etc.) – engine blocks or even wheel wells can be a good starting point. But most of the rest of the vehicle is NOT suitable cover. Even handgun rounds will rip right through vehicle doors, etc. So if you choose to hide behind a vehicle, make sure you get behind the right part of the vehicle.
There’s a lot more involved with proper use of cover (distancing yourself appropriately from the cover, etc.). But that’s a bit beyond the scope of this article.
Getting Down Low Is Not A Valuable Tactic
I understand WHY people “get down” low as an initial reaction. It’s an instinctive thing that everybody does when they don’t know what’s going on. They drop to the ground and they start yelling instructions to other people to get down. Unfortunately, this tactic is unlikely to be beneficial in most shootings, especially one where the shooter has a position higher than you. Not only is it ineffective as a means of protection, but it makes you less mobile (usually completely immobile). Anybody who’s ever done any serious firearms training can tell you that hitting a stationary target is just as easy whether it’s 1-foot off of the ground, or 5-feet off of the ground. But hitting a MOVING target is extremely difficult. When you stop to drop down low, you’re burning valuable time that should be spent running to an exit or to a position of cover.
Going With The Crowd May Be A Tragic Mistake
When things like this happen, most people take comfort in the relative safety (as they see it) of going along with the rest of the crowd as they flee. But keep in mind that, with all due respect, none of those people have any idea what they are doing and they are operating largely on (flawed) instinct instead of effective tactics. Think about the goal of a mass shooter for a moment… they are looking for the highest value, most target-rich options. A cluster of 200 people stumbling over each other is going to be easier to shoot at and more likely to generate casualties than the 3 people running a different direction. It can be extremely uncomfortable and scary to leave the crowd and go your own way. But if you’ve identified your plan ahead of time and it’s not the way that the others are going, you should still execute your plan unless it’s compromised by the situation. By all means, adapt your plan as necessary. But don’t just go with the crowd if it’s not the safest option (it usually isn’t).
Take Command Of Your Team (Family, etc.)
Another consideration that I’d like to touch on here is the fact that your plan needs to incorporate other members of your party. If you are part of an adult couple, you have to talk about these things ahead of time and strategize together. Adults in the group should be assigned roles and STICK TO THEM no matter what happens. That might mean some really hard decisions need to be made when bullets start flying. For example, I tell my wife “Your primary job is to get the kids to safety. If I go down while fighting, you can’t stop to try to help me. Get those girls to the car, or other safe location first and foremost.” That’s easy to say, but hard for people to do when necessary. Additionally, you need to consider the actions and limitations of other people that are with you (kids, elderly or disabled people, etc.). They should be given a definitive and simple set of commands that you’ve worked out ahead of time. And be prepared for the very real possibility that they may shut down completely, requiring you to physically move them (possibly carry). If they’re kids, their world may not include any concept of this and they are likely to go into a deeper level of paralysis than the average adult.
Above All, Trust Your Instincts!
You know what’s normal in your everyday environment. And if you find yourself questioning if something is right, it probably isn’t. For example, every adult in that concert yesterday knows what fireworks sound like. And although they hadn’t experienced automatic gunfire before, they most likely knew what it sounded like as well. The two sounds are actually VERY different. Not only are the sounds different, but they have a very different cadence. Trust your gut when it tells you something is up. And act on it immediately. If it turns out to be wrong, that’s perfectly fine. But get out and determine that later.
If You’re Still Breathing, Keep Moving
Finally, I’d like to talk about a consideration that can be difficult to think about. There is always a chance that you may get hit. You may actually be shot. But if you’re still able to move, you have to keep going. This type of injury will be shocking, demoralizing, and excrutiating. But if you’re still breathing and thinking, then you’re still alive and it’s not time to quit. Statistically, the odds are on your side even if you’ve been hit by gunfire. A large percentage of firearms injuries are ultimately survivable if the victim is able to get timely medical treatment. It’s going to painful, it’s going to be awful. But keep fighting until you’re out. You are your own first responder. The “lifeguards” of society (medics, police, etc.) are unlikely to be in a position to help you in the active scene. Law enforcement will be busy dealing with the threat itself and medics will be staged up a distance away waiting for the scene to be secured before they can move in (which could be a LONG time). In order for them to help you, YOU have to get to them.