SPEED + DISTANCE = SURVIVAL
As I’m writing this, my child is in the midst of a lockdown drill at her school. For years, I’ve railed against this rigid response plan to school shootings, but to no avail. It’s beyond frustrating. It’s dangerous. Confining children inside a school with an active shooter and telling them to stay put until help arrives goes against every survival instinct. It feels wrong because in many cases, it is the wrong response.
Some school districts have recognized the inherent weaknesses in lockdown-only procedures, and are supplementing their response plans with options-based approaches. But not nearly enough have made the switch. It’s easy to see how administrators might be reluctant to change tack. They aren’t security experts. They’re educators with limited time and resources to research and vet alternatives to shelter-in-place strategies which have been the standard for twenty years. I can see how they might feel overwhelmed, but they shouldn’t be. Because there is a simple, proven formula that can dramatically increase the odds of surviving an active shooting. Speed + Distance = Survival.
DESIGNING A BEST PRACTICE SOLUTION
No one wants to think about someone opening fire at their child’s school and I’m no exception. I long for the days when I lived in Britain and the major concern surrounding my children’s education was whether they were being bullied. But for the past five years, I’ve lived in the United States. My youngest child attends school here. Bullies are still a worry of course, but my biggest concern – like many parents – is whether she’ll get through the school day alive.
That’s why I’ve harnessed the knowledge and experience I’ve gleaned through two decades of Special Forces soldiering, and nearly twenty years as a private security advisor working in conflict zones around the world to advocate for a formula-guided, options-based response plan to school shootings. I’ve taught these techniques to diplomats, their families and others. These clients were at risk of getting caught in a shooting incident at a hotel complex, airport, shopping mall, cinema, restaurant or other venue where groups of people gather. A school is not a terribly different setting. The major difference is that the group at risk is mostly children under limited adult supervision.
Every school in America is vulnerable to a shooting incident. This country is awash in firearms. And in most cases, a school shooter is not a complete stranger, but a current or former student who has easy access to the school and can leverage their knowledge of the layout and safety procedures to deadly effect. While we can talk endlessly about how to better identify students at risk of committing violence—and that is definitely a conversation worth having again and again – what concerns me most is how to limit the damage once a shooting begins.
DON’T WAIT FOR THE CAVALRY
It’s not in a teacher’s job spec to take on a crazed shooter. It isn’t expected of students either. But teachers and students can find themselves in an active shooting situation. And it happens without warning, so they need to be prepared.
I’m a great believer in only teaching proven techniques. In the case of a school shooting, the lesson begins with identifying the first responders.
When people talk about first responders, they’re usually referring to law enforcement or the health and fire services. But in an active shooting, those professionals are minutes away – enough time for the attacker to kill and wound dozens of people. That’s why it’s crucial to understand that waiting for the cavalry to come to the rescue is often a mistake. Because the real first responders are not the security services, but those in closest proximity to the shooter—namely students, teachers and other members of staff.
RUN, HIDE, FIGHT
The four main options-based approaches for responding to an active school shooting include Lockdown; ALICE (Alert Lockdown Inform Counter Evacuate); Run, Hide, Fight; and Run or Fight.
The internet is full of videos and instructions on what these various options entail but based on my experience, the most effective is Run, Hide, Fight. Once the bullets start flying the faster and further you get away from the shooter, the safer you are. Hence the simple formula for increasing the odds of surviving a shooting: Speed + Distance = Survival.
Run, Hide, Fight are not disconnected responses. They’re fluid and different scenarios can illustrate how one response can open the door to another, increasing your odds of survival with each evolution.
Scenario 1 – Best Case. There’s no safer place to be during a school shooting than off campus. Maybe you’re home sick or away on a field trip or playing sport. Whatever the reason, not being present in school at the time of a shooting is the best case scenario. You have the physical distance you need so stay well away from the school and count yourself lucky.
Scenario 2 – Run. In this scenario, you are in school but have some distance from the shooter. Maybe you’re at the opposite end of the campus to where the attack is happening. The best response in this case is to RUN. Go to the nearest exit – a door or window—and escape to safety, running as fast as you can until you’re well away from school grounds (hopefully other students and staff have taken your lead and are right behind you).
Scenario 3 – Hide. In this scenario, you’re caught fairly close to the shooter. On the same floor, only a room or two away. You don’t want to run into the line of fire, so your best option is to HIDE. You barricade yourself; lock the doors, close the curtains or blinds on any doors and windows facing the hallway, pile and wedge furniture and other items against the door (remember that hiding from view does not protect you from bullets ripping through doors, soft walls, and furniture). Once you’re hidden, start assessing options for getting as far away from the shooter as quickly as possible.
Scenario 3A- Hide & Run. Once you’re safely barricaded, assess whether you can exit the building through a window (for higher floors, schools should consider stocking escape ladders. They’re inexpensive and can be a life saver). Once you’ve escaped through the window, switch into RUN mode. If a group of you can escape – great. But if you’re being hotly pursued by a shooter don’t wait around for your friends or anyone else. Delaying even a few seconds could cost you your life. Remember the formula: Speed + Distance = Survival.
Scenario 3B – Hide & Prepare To Fight. If you can’t get out through a window, then start looking for items that can help you in a fight. Fire extinguishers (which can be used to first blind and then bludgeon a shooter), bug spray, scalding hot coffee, chairs, books, even computers. Basically, anything that can be used as a missile should be grabbed and at the ready to tackle a shooter should they breach the door.
Scenario 4 – Fight. The last place you want to be when a shooter opens fire is next to them on the same floor space. It is the worst case scenario because the danger to you is immediate and critical. If this happens, the only real option is to FIGHT (provided you’re a teacher or at least a middle school student or older. I don’t expect elementary school kids to be able to fight). Attack the shooter with anything you can get your hands on. Ideally, those around you join the fight and the attack is mobhanded. Speed, unbridled aggression and surprise are your greatest assets in this fight. You want to put the shooter off their aim and cause them to go on the defensive with you on the attack. Once you’ve gained the upper hand, take the shooter out completely. And by completely, I mean kill them. They were about to kill you and may already have killed and wounded others around you. If you let your guard down, the shooter could regain the upper hand and start the killing spree all over again – beginning with you. Better to eliminate that possibility if you get the chance. Once the shooter is taken out, remove their gun/guns and place them safely to one side. You don’t want the police and armed response rushing in and mistaking you for the shooter. Then sit on the floor with your hands in the air, or if asked, help those with first aid training attend to the wounded.
Every second counts. Do appreciate that in each of these scenarios, we’re assuming that only one or two minutes have elapsed from when the shooter opens fire. At this point, the police may just have been notified and are scrambling to respond to the threat. In the meantime, you are responding. Because you are the first responder.
COMPLACENCY IS THE ENEMY
I’ve been keeping individuals safe and alive in hostile environments for almost four decades. First as a Special Forces soldier and later as a private security advisor. I’m sure along the way I’ve benefited from a wee bit of luck here and there. But my success is largely down to the professionalism of the people who mentored me as a young SF soldier from the mid-1970s. Men who ingrained in me the importance of the “Six P’s” —prior planning and preparation prevents poor performance.
If you follow this rule, your brain never stops. And indeed, I’ve spent countless hours over the years thinking through all the “what ifs” that could jeopardize the lives of my fellow soldiers or my clients, and comparing notes with my colleagues to ensure that no variable has been overlooked. Those in charge of school security need to be just as proactive and vigilant. They need to constantly plan and rehearse for the day that hopefully never comes. Hope alone is not a plan.
Absent from many public discussions of response plans is how to support students who are physically, mentally or emotionally impaired. For example, able-bodied students and faculty could help someone wheelchair bound escape through a window by placing them in a soft carry stretcher (provided the extra time does not place those carrying the stretcher in imminent danger). Like escape ladders for higher floor classrooms, stretchers are inexpensive and could prove a lifesaver. If the shooter is moving through a school complex, stretchers can also be used to carry wounded students out of harm’s way.
That’s what happens when you start ticking through the endless list of “what ifs.” You identify weaknesses in a plan and take steps to address them.
Too many people lull themselves into a false sense of security by believing a shooting will never happen at their school. Even for those who do recognize the possibility, as one day flows into the next without incident, the easier it is to grow complacent. Don’t let it happen. You must remain relentlessly proactive.
Having read through the scenarios, some schools may consider training students and teachers how to fight off an attacker. There are a range of option for unarmed combat training; boxing, jiu jitzu, karate and other martial arts. But in my opinion, street fighting techniques are best for taking on an armed shooter. Unlike martial arts, street fighting is not a sport. It’s a survival technique that teaches you to keep both feet on the ground at all times to ensure stability and balance, grab anything you can use as a weapon, and attack with speed and shocking, barbaric aggression. It’s not pretty but it is extremely effective.
Of course, how well someone does in training is no indication of how they’ll react when confronted with the sheer, bloody violence of an active shooter. Some people will fight, some will forgo the fight and try to run, while others will simply freeze. It’s more a matter of adrenaline than character. I’ve seen big, tough soldiers whither under fire, and the shyest and most reserved step up and take out an assailant. That’s the thing about drills vs. reality. It’s paramount to be prepared but it’s not a guarantee of performance when faced with the real thing.
Lots of schools provide limited medical training to staff. But in my opinion, every member of staff, as well as every high school and middle school student should be trained in emergency first aid; lifesaving basics like First Aid Priorities, CPR, and how to use a tourniquet on yourself or others. I’ve instructed my child on the use of a tourniquet and I make sure she always has one in her school bag. Too many wounded children and staff have bled out waiting for medical help, when someone close by could have applied pressure to the limb with a tourniquet.
PROACTIVE SCHOOL MONITORS
I’ve written at length about banning assault rifles and why arming teachers is a dangerous idea that would likely increase the chances of children and staff being shot. I’m vehemently opposed to placing armed guards inside schools for the same reason. Over the years, I’ve watched and heard of professionals in uniform—police and military alike—discharge their weapons negligently and wound themselves or others around them. Carelessness can also take the form of leaving a weapon behind in a restroom. This is not something we want happening in schools.
During meetings of my local school district, I’ve heard proposals for so-called “security improvements” such as installing bulletproof glass, bars on windows or electronic entry doors and gates. I personally think these ideas are double-edged and a waste of money. An electronic door is unlikely to keep out a student or former student turned school shooter. And bulletproof glass has serious drawbacks. It may stop a shooter’s bullet from taking out a victim, but it could also stop a police officer’s bullet from taking out an active shooter. After the sales pitches, schools would be wise to engage in plenty of “what if” thinking before splashing out on a so-called improvement.
If schools want to deploy their limited security funds more effectively, then I advise they consider hiring retired police officers from their local community as school monitors. These trained professionals are the eyes and ears of the school both at work and out and about in the community where they can identify at risk students. Retired police are already operating in schools around the country. They can be a terrific proactive surveillance and intelligence asset and I endorse their employment wholeheartedly.
CONTAINMENT IS FOR PRISONS, NOT CLASSROOMS
Run, Hide, Fight is not a new idea. I was taught this protocol as a young SF soldier and have been teaching it for decades to others, including diplomats, executives, the media, NGOs, students on gap years and others. I stick with Run, Hide, Fight not out of habit but because I’ve seen it work again and again in conflict areas around the world. It is a proven, best practice, options-based method for surviving an active shooting incident. Because it’s grounded in the formula: Speed + Distance = Survival.
When you commit that formula to memory, the drawbacks of lockdown-only response plans become apparent. Sheltering in place affords neither speed nor distance from a shooter. All it does is contain students and staff. And containment in my view is for prisons, not schools.
As I’ve illustrated, a lot of carnage can happen in those precious minutes between the shooter initiating his attack, the call going out and the cavalry arriving. When a shooter opens fire, you have one chance, and one chance only to get it right. So I’ll keep screaming it from the rafters. Speed + Distance = Survival.