This time, most of the victims were innocent young children. There were 26 dead, including 20 children, at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut that devastated the nation right before Christmas.
These innocent children died in vain if we do not learn from this tragedy and work together to prevent the next one. The victims of mass violence serve as a warning to us all. We can no longer ignore the risks and continue to do the same things, expecting different results. In order to effectively manage future threats, we must be willing to think about the problem differently.
These low probability—yet high consequence—events continue to occur and are a growing public concern. No place is immune to an active shooter attack, and no one knows when and where the next such terrorist attack will occur. Mass violence is a serious multifaceted challenge that transcends all politics, and no single approach in itself can stop these killers. The solution must include two key components: prevention and response.
PREVENTION THROUGH DETECTION
The best way to mitigate risk is to prevent it from occurring in the first place, so law enforcement agencies have been diligently working on preventing the next attack. Important reports about pre-incident indicators among at-risk individuals have been published online by the United States Secret Service (USSS) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
I urge everyone to read these free reports. Recognizing the signs of danger is essential to early intervention by school staff, parents and law enforcement and can prevent some of these attacks … but not all of them.
PREVENTION THROUGH DETERRENCE
Perpetrators always attack the most vulnerable victims. It’s no coincidence, that whatever their motivation, mass murderers attack soft targets.
What makes a school a particularly soft target for a mass shooting is its vulnerability due to the lack of defense capabilities (gun-free zone) and the large concentration of targets in the area (schools are what we in the military call a “target rich environment.”) Potential attackers know that they will be able to create many casualties due to the schools’ inability to immediately counter the assault. The only person armed in a school during such attacks is usually the killer. These inherent vulnerabilities of schools unfortunately increase the likelihood of future attacks.
As a first step in improving security, it is highly recommended that every school assemble a Threat & Vulnerability Assessment (TVA) team and conduct a thorough assessment of the security on campus. Following the findings and recommendations of the TVA team, the school can then develop and implement a plan to improve campus security.
There is no doubt that improving physical security can help deter or delay a violent intrusion, but it does not always work. There is no such thing as 100 percent security and risk can never be reduced to zero. We must be prepared to respond effectively when security fails and act swiftly to protect ourselves.
RESPONSE: OUTSIDE INTERVENTION
Since the devastating Columbine school shooting in 1999, law enforcement agencies across the nation have been working on improving their response capabilities to better address active shooter threats. Tactical training in rapid intervention is frequently provided to local and state agencies nationwide.
However, law enforcement response times can vary greatly from as low as several minutes in large metropolitan areas to as much as 30+ minutes in rural areas. Law Enforcement First Responders (LEFR) are handicapped by distance, delayed notification, size of the targeted facility, lack of information, confusion and various tactical challenges. Expecting law enforcement to provide an immediate response to these attacks is unrealistic.
By comparison, it takes only seconds or a few minutes for the shooter to inflict mass casualties. In the majority of these incidents, most of the casualties occur within the first 10 minutes, prior to law enforcement intervention.
RESPONSE: ESCAPE OR DEFENSE
Currently, the only standard procedure taught in schools across the nation is for staff and students to go on “lockdown” and wait for armed law enforcement to arrive on the scene.
The logic behind this approach is the desire to rapidly separate the students from the shooter. Having students locked down in their classrooms also makes the environment more manageable to the responding officers. Lockdown is indeed easy to understand and applies under duress, but it can also prove to be fatal.
By definition, locking ourselves into an enclosed space is equivalent to being trapped. Having all the students huddle together in classrooms makes it easier for the shooter to inflict the greatest number of casualties in the least amount of time.
The best initial response when facing deadly threats is always to escape (flight). It is more practical to train school personnel how to determine whether escape is possible and then evacuate the area if it is. Evacuating areas that are not under direct attack and are out of the shooter’s line of sight can save lives and will help make the scene more manageable to the responding officers.
We need to reverse the policy requiring people to always stay in the kill zone. Having the option of considering an escape by the people at the scene during the initial moments of the attack could save more lives. Lockdown should be a consideration only when escape is impossible. Additionally, if we are to advocate for self-entrapment (lockdown), it is incumbent upon us to provide guidance on how to do so effectively.
RESPONSE: FIGHTING FOR SURVIVAL
After 9/11, we placed more armed air marshals and armed pilots on airplanes. We also have armed security officers at federal buildings, stadiums and most Critical Infrastructure Key Resources (CIKR). The first thing visible to anyone walking into a federal building today is the presence of armed security officers.
By comparison, many schools do not have the same level of protection. Having a well-trained armed School Resource Officer (SRO) in every school would be best. Lawfully carried handguns in properly trained hands at the site of the attack could greatly reduce casualties and save lives.
However, because not all schools have an armed SRO or in the event that the SRO is unavailable or incapacitated, school personnel and students should be trained to defend themselves. When help is on the way, escape is impossible and the shooter is breaking into your classroom, the only viable option is to fight for survival, by attacking the attacker and disarming him.
How to Survive When an Active Shooter Goes on a Rampage
- The first rule of survival fighting is “anything goes.” You should use everything at your disposal to survive: the environment, tactics, any available tools or weapons, including improvised, blunt, edge, or firearms (if available).
- Anything that can slow down the perpetrator and give you an advantage is fair play.
- You should use surprise whenever possible because action always beats reaction.
- You should also work as a team, as there is strength in numbers. If you are fighting together and are determined to win, your chances of survival are actually good.
When facing deadly threats, the best initial response is always to escape (flight). It is more practical to train school personnel how to determine whether escape is possible and then evacuate the area if it is. Evacuating areas that are not under direct attack and that are out of the shooter’s line of sight can save lives.
Alon Stivi is a security and counterterrorism specialist and a POST certified law enforcement trainer who emigrated from Israel after serving in an elite unit of the IDF. He taught close combat tactics to the US Navy SEAL CQB Instructors and has protected Fortune 500 executives and dignitaries worldwide.
Currently serving with the Los Angeles Sheriff Department as a Terrorism Liaison Officer and teaches Active Shooter Survival and Terrorism Responder courses funded by the Department of Homeland Security. He has been featured on network television, radio and in national publications.
Find information on training regarding how and when to evacuate safely, how to effectively barricade a classroom, how to conduct a campus Threat and Vulnerability Assessment, how to implement effective campus security, and how to employ reality-based Last Resort Survival Measures to effectively stop the shooter at the ACT Cert website.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the 2012 print issue of American Survival Guide.