How to prepare for an active shooter



A chilling, sobering recording of the 911 call made by the librarian at Columbine High School provided a backdrop for emphasizing the importance of understanding how people respond to stress and how being prepared can mean the difference in life or death.

“I’m sure all of you remember where you were that day when you saw this on the news,” said Deputy Brandon Schaefer with Williamson County Sheriff’s Department. “This wasn’t the first active shooter in history, but this is the first time we saw a soft target, with some planning. Our response plan before this was to get on scene, call the SWAT team, wait for the SWAT team to show up and then go. Unfortunately, life is actively being lost in these situations.”

Schaefer said the average response time for law enforcement in an urban environment is three minutes.

“That three minutes is from the time the first call comes in, not from the first shot,” he said.

One of the unique characteristics of active shooter events is that there is no time to talk, reason or plan in the moment.

“Sixty-nine percent of events such as this are over in five minutes or less,” Schaefer said. “Coupled with our response time, these events are over a majority of the time before we get on scene, so if we really care about you, we’re going to show you how to protect yourself.”

In this latest installment of the ongoing series sponsored by the Liberty Hill Critical Incident Task Force, Schaefer was brought in to discuss how people can best prepare for and respond to active shooters.

Much of how people react in these situations is dictated by the natural ways they deal with stress. Schaefer said human beings deal with stressful situations through three stages – denial, deliberation and the decisive moment.

Denial can be as simple as assuming what people see or hear is easily explained as something non-threatening.

“Something happens and we do not want to accept it for what it is,” he said, using the example of something that sounds like gunfire being disregarded as fireworks. “We operate under something called normalcy bias. If we go into normalcy bias, that means we don’t have to respond.”

Not only does that denial potentially leave people vulnerable to an unknown threat, it costs valuable response time.
The deliberation phase is where people either begin to formulate a plan or fall back on whatever plan or experiences they know from their past.

“When we accept reality for what it is, our mind goes to the deliberation phase,” Schaefer said. “Here, we’re trying to decide the best course of action. We’re going through a rolodex of memories and training to determine what the best response is.”

While people are problem solvers, Schaefer said these events are not where they function best.

“The problem during the deliberation phase is if it’s a high-stress event, we’re going to start losing some of our cognitive ability and physical ability which is going to effect our ability to reason and come up with the appropriate response,” he said.

As the heart rate increases, mental and physical abilities diminish. At 120 beats per minute people lose their fine motor skills, with decision making skills diminishing as well as it goes higher. People can at that point, revert to what Schaefer called “lizard brain”, which focuses on nothing but flight.

“During a high-stress event we go from reflective reasoning to reflexive reasoning,” he said. “We go from deductive reasoning to high-speed reasoning. When I say lizard brain I like to think about something very primal, very instinctive.”

Because people revert to instinct and lose these critical skills, the key to knowing what to do in active shooter situations is planning.

“If you think you’re just going to figure this out in the moment, you’re not,” Schaefer said. “I promise you that you’re not.”

The best thing people can do is remain as calm as possible, control their breathing, shift their emotions and be as fit as possible.

“By controlling your breathing you are keeping your heart rate down below 150 beats per minute so you can maintain some of those physical and cognitive abilities,” Schaefer said.

Being able to react in anger rather than fear will also help.

“Fear is a very debilitating emotion,” Schaefer said. “When you’re afraid, sometimes you freeze up. You have to shift your emotion to anger. I wish I could say shift your emotion from fear to happiness, or to calm cool and collected. It doesn’t work that way. Anger is something that lashes out and gives us the ability to move.”

Staying fit helps a person be physically prepared for the sudden changes brought on by stress.

“If you live a sedentary lifestyle, and you never get your heart rate above 120 beats per minute, the first time you do, all those sensations will be very unfamiliar to you,” Schaefer said. “The more you are used to your heart rate being up, you will be a little bit more comfortable.”

All of this leads to the importance of having a plan in place rather than reacting in the moment. Scripting and practicing roles and responsibilities in the work place, churches, schools and at home give everyone a foundation of being prepared.

“When you get into that deliberation phase, you are going to immediately revert back to how you’ve been trained,” Schaefer said.

He added that preparation doesn’t have to be presented in a way that scares everyone. Rather than conducting active shooter drills, call them fire drills as much of the reaction and plan should be the same.

The key to survival is to avoid, deny, and defend and many of the tactics to survive are very simple.

“We’re creatures of habit,” Schaefer said. “We come in the same way, park in the same spot, sit in the same place, shop in the same place, eat at the same restaurants.”

Because of this, he said it is important to use different exits and entrances, change the routine and be familiar with everything about a location.

Barricading is one of the easier ways to slow an active shooter.

“Even if the door opens out, I want you to barricade the door,” Schaefer said. “I want you to put a mountain of materials into the doorway. If the shooter comes in, he is either going to have to start moving material, shoot indiscriminately or figure out how to get over or under things.”

Slowing a shooter down can make all the difference even if they can’t be kept out completely.

While it is contrary to human nature, the odds favor fighting a shooter over running once they are in the same room. Schaefer said the odds of surviving a bullet wound from a handgun are 86 percent, and though an attacker may shoot some people in the fight, they are more likely to shoot more if everyone runs.

As people rush an attacker, they should throw anything within reach to distract and cause the shooter to react.

“(Ducking and flinching are) natural human reactions,” Schaefer said. “If you want to close the gap on someone, start throwing the things you have. There’s a time then that he has to accept what’s happening and react.”

There can and often will be signs that point to a potential attack, but there is no sure way to prevent one. The profile of a shooter is not a simple one to recognize.

“The active shooter is a mass murderer,” Schaefer said. “There is no underlying motive. There is no time to negotiate. There is no profile of who they are and they have an avenger mindset.”

Some may fit into different categories, but statistics show it is often more random than that.

Fifty percent of all attacks occur in a business, with 25 percent in schools. In 55 percent of attacks, the shooter has no connection to the people or location they choose.

“That’s kind of spooky. This isn’t a scorned lover. It isn’t a disgruntled employee. It is just about soft target availability,” Schaefer said. “It is a perfect storm. There are plenty of people who are bullied. There are plenty of people with mental health disorders who don’t respond with shootings. When these things happen it is just the perfect storm that has come together.”

Forty percent of the time the incident results in the attacker’s suicide.

“The moment someone confronts them they show their true colors, they’re cowards, and take their own life,” Schaefer said.