Active Shooter Situations: Responding to an Active Shooter Situation
Higher ed EOPs should include courses of action that will describe how students and staff can most effectively respond to an active shooter situation to minimize the loss of life, and teach and train on these practices, as deemed appropriate by the IHE.
Law enforcement officers may not be present when a shooting begins. Providing information on how staff and students can respond to the incident can help prevent and reduce the loss of life. No single response fits all active shooter situations; however, making sure each individual knows his or her options for response and can react decisively will save valuable time. Depicting scenarios and considering response options in advance will assist individuals and groups in quickly selecting their best course of action.
Understandably, this is a sensitive topic. There is no single answer for what to do, but a survival mindset can increase the odds of surviving. As appropriate for your community, it may be valuable to schedule a time for an open conversation regarding this topic. Though some students, parents, or personnel may find the conversation uncomfortable, they may also find it reassuring to know that, as a whole, their IHE is thinking about how best to deal with this situation.
During an active shooter situation, the natural human reaction, even if you are highly trained, is to be startled, feel fear and anxiety, and even experience initial disbelief and denial. You can expect to hear noise from alarms, gunfire, and explosions, and people shouting and screaming. Training provides the means to regain your composure, recall at least some of what you have learned and commit to action. There are three basic options: run, hide, or fight. You can run away from the shooter, seek a secure place where you can hide and/or deny the shooter access, or incapacitate the shooter in order to survive and protect others from harm.29
As the situation develops, it is possible that you will need to use more than one option. During an active shooter situation, individuals will rarely have all of the information they need to make a fully informed decision about which option is best. While they should follow the plan and any instructions given during an incident, they will often have to rely on their own judgment to decide which option will best protect lives.
It is not uncommon for people confronted with a threat to first deny the possible danger rather than respond. An investigation by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (2005) into the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001, found that people close to the floors impacted waited longer to start evacuating than those on unaffected floors.30 Similarly, during the Virginia Tech shooting, individuals on campus responded to the shooting with varying degrees of urgency.31 These studies highlight this delayed response or denial. For example, some people report hearing firecrackers, when in fact they heard gunfire.
Train staff and students to overcome denial and to respond immediately. For example, train students and staff to recognize the sounds of danger, act, and forcefully communicate the danger and necessary action (e.g., “Gun! Get out!”). In addition, those closest to the public-address or other communications system, or otherwise able to alert others, should communicate the danger and necessary action. Repetition in training and preparedness shortens the time it takes to orient, observe, and act.
Upon recognizing the danger, as soon as it is safe to do so, staff or others must alert responders by contacting 911 with as clear and accurate information as possible.
If it is safe to do so, the first course of action that should be taken is to run out of the building and move far away until you are in a safe location.
Students and staff should be trained to
- Leave personal belongings behind;
- Visualize possible escape routes, including physically accessible routes for students and staff with disabilities and others with access and functional needs;
- Avoid escalators and elevators;
- Take others with them but not to stay behind because others will not go;
- Call 911 when safe to do so; and
- Let a responsible adult know where they are.
If running is not a safe option, hide in as safe a place as possible.
Students and staff should be trained to hide in a location where the walls might be thicker and have fewer windows. In addition
- Lock the doors;
- Barricade the doors with heavy furniture;
- Close and lock windows, and close blinds or cover windows;
- Turn off lights;
- Silence all electronic devices;
- Remain silent;
- Use strategies to silently communicate with first responders if possible, (e.g., in rooms with exterior windows make signs to silently signal law enforcement and emergency responders to indicate the status of the room’s occupants);
- Hide along the wall closest to the exit but out of the view from the hallway (allowing for an ambush of the shooter and for possible escape if the shooter enters the room); and
- Remain in place until given an all clear by identifiable law enforcement.
If neither running nor hiding is a safe option, as a last resort when confronted by the shooter, adults in immediate danger should consider trying to disrupt or incapacitate the shooter by using aggressive force and items in their environment, such as fire extinguishers, chairs, etc. In a study of 41 active shooter events that ended before law enforcement arrived, the potential victims stopped the attacker themselves in 16 instances. In 13 of those cases, they physically subdued the attacker.32
While talking to staff about confronting a shooter may be daunting and upsetting for some staff, they should know that they may be able to successfully take action to save lives. To be clear, confronting an active shooter should never be a requirement of any IHE employee’s job; how each individual chooses to respond if directly confronted by an active shooter is up to him or her. Further, the possibility of an active shooter situation is not justification for the presence of firearms on campus in the hands of any personnel other than law enforcement.