Exactly What To Do In An Active Shooter Situation

If you pay attention to the news, you could be forgiven for feeling that no place is safe these days. Wednesday's violent attack on a San Bernardino facility for people with disabilities, which left 14 dead and over a dozen injured, was the second high-profile mass shooting this week, the second mass shooting that day, and the 355th mass shooting in the United States in 2015. This kind of mass violence has become shockingly, astoundingly common, and we all react in our own ways — some of us break down, some of us boil with rage, some of us commit ourselves to agitating for stronger and more effective gun control, some of us just shut down. There's no right or wrong reaction — but mixed in there, for many of us, is a fear about whether we'd know what to do if we were in an active shooter situation ourselves.

I know I've wondered. When I commute, or run errands, or even walk down the street at lunch sometimes, I wonder. I wonder if I would know what to do, or how to help people, if a shooting broke out around me. You might feel like the best thing to do if you feel this kind of worry is try to ignore it, and if that works for you, that's great — but for some people, finding out what to do can have a soothing effect. Learning about active shooter protocol has been recommended as a possible technique for easing anxiety about mass shootings — Deborah Gilboa, a family physician, said in an interview with Live Science that "[t]aking some control over your own emergency plans can also help ease both parents' and children's fears." And I can attest that learning this has given me some small — but real — peace of mind.

Of course, you know yourself (and what may or may not cause you anxiety) best. We shouldn't have to learn what to do if a stranger starts shooting a gun near us. But if you want to learn, we break down three of the FBI's recommended active shooter preparedness techniques, in order of effectiveness, below.

1. Run


If at all possible, you want to leave the area as soon as a threat is identified. As Colorado's NBC 9News noted in their report on the subject, "Sixty percent of active shootings were over before police arrived" and "shooters often kill the most people in the first 10 minutes." So getting yourself out of harm's way and into a safe area as soon as you can, rather than waiting for things to calm down and then making a run for it, can be crucial.

The FBI's website urges us to "[a]lways try and escape or evacuate, even when others insist on staying. Encourage others to leave with you, but don't let them slow you down with indecision." Leave your belongings behind (though if your phone is in your pocket, keep it on you), and run to safety as quickly as you can. The Department of Homeland Security has also noted that it is useful to keep your hands visible as you run, if possible — in an active shooter situation, law enforcement typically have no idea who is doing the shooting, so it is helpful to make it clear that you're not a threat.

According to FEMA's website, you shouldn't try to move the wounded as you escape, and you should try to warn anyone you see entering the active shooting area. Finally, call 911 as soon as have reached a safe area, and let the dispatcher know as much as possible — so if you know the number of shooters or can describe them physically, the kind of weapons they're using, the number of possible victims on the scene, let them know.

2. Hide

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Escape is always ideal, of course, but it's not always an option. If your exits are blocked — say, you are in a secluded room when the shooting begins, and running for the exit would take you directly into the shooter's path — hiding is the second best option.

The FBI instructs those caught inside with an active shooter to "[a]ct quickly and quietly. Try to secure your hiding place the best you can. Turn out lights, and if possible, remember to lock doors. Silence your ringer and vibration mode on your cell phone. And if you can't find a safe room or closet, try to conceal yourself behind large objects that may protect you."

FEMA also notes that if you're hiding, you should "[b]lockade the door with heavy furniture [and c]lose, cover, and move away from windows." In last month's terrorist attacks on Paris, one concertgoer at the Bataclan concert hall was able to survive by hiding under a leather jacket in a dressing room, so know that hiding really can help you survive.

3. Fight (As A Last Resort)

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According Colorado's NBC 9News interview with Sgt. A.J. DeAndrea of the Arvada Police Department, in the past, law enforcement almost never encouraged civilians to attempt to fight with an active shooter. But now, the FBI and other government offices offer a third option: if escape and hiding are impossible — say, you are in a large open room with no exits — then you may opt to try to fight and incapacitate the shooter, attempting to prevent the loss of more lives.

"Ultimately the third probably the hardest to come to terms with," DeAndrea told News9. "But if your life is on the line, then fight for your life." Of course, no one ever has to interact with an active shooter if they don't want to or feel like they can't; and even if you want to consider this option, it is very dangerous, and you should make sure you have exhausted absolutely every other option first.

If you do choose to fight a shooter, the FBI advises that you "[a]ttempt to incapacitate the shooter; act with physical aggression; improvise weapons, [and] commit to your actions." 9News reported that the FBI found "in cases in which unarmed citizens did go after and successfully take down an active shooter, lives were saved." Choosing to fight is incredibly risky, and should absolutely only be picked as a last resort.

After Police Arrive


If you survive an active shooter incident, know that the first law enforcement on the scene will not be EMTs or others there to help the injured; they will be officers focused on stopping the shooter. The FBI advises that when law enforcement arrives, you should follow instructions, avoid quick movements, keep your hands visible whenever possible, don't hold any objects, and try to avoid yelling or making lots of noise — the shooter may still be within earshot.

Since the initial officers will be focused on apprehending the shooter or helping you evacuate, don't ask them for help tending to the wounded — emergency technicians will be on the scene to help the injured as soon as it is safe for them to do so. There is an emergency system in place designed to save as many lives as possible, so make sure to listen to law enforcement, even if you want to go back inside to help others — they have the training and they know what they're doing.

No one ever wants to have to know how to respond to an active shooter situation. Writing this was heartbreaking, and reading it was probably exhausting. We shouldn't have to learn how to protect ourselves from violent assaults, and we shouldn't have to live in fear. But for right now, unfortunately, we do.