Responding to a violent intruder or active shooter scenario shouldn’t start in the moment of a real threat. It begins with preparation — education and training that instills confidence and can save lives.
“Having a plan is one of the most important things a business, school and place of worship should have,” said Trooper Brent Miller, director of communications for the Pennsylvania State Police. “Preparation is key to survival.”
Knowing how to respond to an active shooter situation can also keep someone from living in fear in a world where reports of mass casualties have become commonplace.
“Let’s face it, we have to live our lives,” said Scott Letterman, CAHSO, security supervisors at Evangelical Community Hospital in Lewisburg.
“At any given time, you’re going to be in crowds. You just need to know your surroundings, where the quickest way is to get out.”
For example, if you’re at a movie theater, he said, “Look around and think, ‘If an active shooter came in the entrance behind me, where would I go?’ You always have to have your head on a swivel, checking out your surroundings.”
Run, hide, fight
Most institutions are poised for a response that follows the state police and Homeland Security Department training: “Run, Hide, Fight”.
In that order.
Active shooter situations happen quickly and are over within a matter of minutes. Springing immediately into action is critical.
First, “run.” Know your escape routes, leave without worrying about what others are doing, and don’t gather your belongings.
While every situation is different, Miller said it’s critical that each person looks out for themselves first, rather than worrying about those around them. “If everybody looks out for themselves, they’ll all be on the same page and get out,” he said. In the Virginia Tech shooting, he said, some people stayed behind to help others, and became victims. If there are people around you, he added, certainly tell them to run with you, but don’t wait around for them to respond.
Once outside, Letterman advises getting to cover rather than just standing around. Get behind structures, buildings, even cars to protect yourself from bullets that could be fired by the active shooter from inside the building.
At this stage, it’s also important to prepare for encountering law enforcement responding to the incident: they don’t know when they arrive who or where the threat is, so keep your hands empty and visible, fingers spread wide and follow all of their commands.
If running isn’t possible, the second choice is to hide. Turn off lights, lock and barricade doors, stay out of view, and silence phones and electronics. Position yourself for an element of surprise in case the shooter does try to enter where you are, but never let anyone in — no exceptions, since the shooter could be right outside.
Letterman advises that you hide where you are not only concealed, but also protected from bullets. Look for doors that are solid, or solid wooden desks. Get low, and surround yourself with multiple layers.
Since law enforcement typically arrives at a scene within five to 15 minutes of a report, Letterman said an active shooter, looking for as many targets as possible, “won’t take time to try to get through a locked door.”
Calls to 911 should only be made once you’re in a safe place.
The last resort — when running or hiding isn’t an option — is to fight. At this point, the training calls for “sudden, aggressive and violent action” against the shooter, and the individual is urged to remain engaged, and to throw or use objects to strike or hit the intruder. Letterman suggests improvised weapons such as chairs or a fire extinguisher.
Mark Wolfberg, chief of the police department at Selinsgrove Area School District, said the fighting stage calls for people to be resourceful.
“Everybody’s carrying something on them that can be used as a method to either deflect or create some kind of disturbance to the individual.”
In a school setting, he said, “If you had 30 students throwing cell phones at you, or bottles of water, or staplers or books — that’s going to be a real deterrent.”
The training urges people in the “fight” stage to “yell, scream and be strong-minded,” and if there is a group of you, tackle or assault the shooter together.
Letterman leads a staff of 15 officers who provide 24/7 coverage at the hospital — an institution that presents unique challenges and an added element for response — protection of patients who often can’t run, hide or fight.
“Here, not only does our staff have to survive,” he said, “they also become a survivor protector.”
Staff are trained to help hide and barricade patients from harm’s way.
While the responsibilities are heavy, regular training has provided a source of confidence for those who may be faced with an active shooter situation.
Letterman encourages people to get educated, to do research, to take training. Sadly, he has seen many businesses avoid such training because it’s not a comfortable thing to talk about. But this can lead to tragic results if an event occurs and no one knows how to respond.
Ten to 15 years ago, an active shooter scenario was basically unheard of, Wolfberg said. Now, many local school districts are forming their own police departments, like Selinsgrove’s, which consists of Wolfberg, a retired borough police officer, and his staff of two retired state troopers. They have as much authority as any other police officer in the state now — the only difference is that they are already on the campus and are poised to respond much more quickly.
The reaction to the department’s creation has been positive, he said.
“They know we’re there for their safety, and we’re going to do whatever we can to save as many staff and students as possible.”
Staff and students are encouraged to be vigilant and report anything to the police or administrators that might look like danger and lead to violence later, whether something they see on social media or something that comes up when talking to friends — “no matter how insignificant it may seem to you,” Wolfberg said.
At Selinsgrove, regular training and drills are done to prepare students and staff for not just an active shooter, but any violent intruder.
“You can have somebody with a straight edge or knife that can cause a lot of damage as well,” he said. “We train for all of those things.”
“Security and safety needs to be at the front of everybody’s mind, not the back,” Wolfberg added. It’s not just for the police or administrators. “It’s actually everybody’s concern, that’s why everybody needs to get involved.”
The goal is to be so well prepared that when a situation occurs, everyone will naturally know what to do.
For years, Wolfberg said, schools have practiced regular fire drills, and students and teachers have learned to calmly respond by forming single-file lines that moved quickly and orderly toward the closest exits.
“You don’t think about it, you just do it,” Wolfberg said. “We’re trying to get to that same level with violent intruder training. When we practice our lockdowns and drills, we want to get to the point where students and staff are very comfortable in reacting in a very methodical, positive way, and not just freaking out and not knowing what to do.”
At Selinsgrove, he said, they remain realistic about the possibility that violent episodes could happen there as much as they could anywhere else.
“We’re just practicing,” he said, “so that we’re going to be as prepared as we possibly can be.”