September 16, 2019
The Federal government’s guidance for active shooter response – Run, Hide, Fight – has been the de facto national standard since it’s introduction in the aftermath of the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. The Sandy Hook shooting killed 26 people, including 20 children between the ages of six and seven, and revealed the dangers associated with not having a protocol in place for dealing with such an incident.
In the seven years since the Sandy Hook shooting, a growing volume of anecdotal evidence reveals that many schools and businesses that undergo run, hide, fight training tend to focus their drills primarily on the lockdown/hide aspects rather than a more fluid, comprehensive response protocol. As a result, hiding and lockdown is too often the default response and this can put students and employees at far greater risk.
A key element of run, hide, fight training that is sorely missing from many programs today is the ability to think critically and tactically, taking into consideration one’s location, personal abilities, and the nature of the assault taking place.
I recently discussed these concerns with Lieutenant John Weinstein, District Commander in charge of Strategic Planning and Community Outreach for the Northern Virginia Community College Police Department and a certified active shooter response trainer. Weinstein recently provided active shooter training to LiveSafe, during which he voiced some of the same concerns.
“There’s nothing wrong with barricading yourself in certain situations. But what we have found over the years is that all things being equal, an individual’s best chance for survival is to evacuate,” Weinstein said. “If you are barricading yourself in a classroom and a shooter comes in and shoots you several times, you may not be able to get out, and therefore medical attention may be delayed. And we have found that the majority of people who die in active shooter situations die because they bleed out,” he said.
“We saw that in Columbine. Many of the students who were shot in the library were actually 10 or 15 feet from a door that led outside. But because their protocol was to shelter in place, they were told to stay down, to stay behind the desk. And many people who were shot might’ve survived had they evacuated,” Weinstein said.
Even during the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings, students who did not automatically default to following lockdown protocols survived at a much higher rate than those who did not.
“I tell people if you can evacuate, then run … get out of dodge,” Weinstein said. “And even if you’re shot keep moving, because once you get outside there will be plenty of medical attention there for you.”
Current scholarship on the origin of lockdown protocols suggests it was developed by the Los Angeles County Unified School District in the 1980s in response to an epidemic of drive-by shootings and street crimes that were putting schools at risk.
But by 2013, the Department of Education, Department of Homeland Security, FEMA and the FBI recommended that lockdown procedures be viewed as a secondary emergency procedure after evacuation.
“If it is safe to do so for yourself and those in your care, the first course of action that should be taken is to run out of the building and far away until you are in a safe location,” states the 2013 Guide for Developing High-Quality School Emergency Operations Plans. “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.”
But the practice and the tendency to default to lockdown continues. I’ve seen it with my own eyes at one of the 10 largest school districts in the country. Students of all ages continue to tell stories of their lockdown drills that involve teachers locking doors and corralling students into a corner.
And that leads us to another question: Are we teaching how to hide correctly? Depending on the age and capabilities of the students or employees that choose to hide or barricade themselves in place, there are more effective ways to hide than the prevailing method of huddling in a corner.
Making it harder for the shooter to engage their target is a valid tactic. Speaking from personal experience as an expert marksman in the United States Marine Corps, hitting a moving target is extremely challenging. For the untrained criminal active shooter, it is even a bigger challenge.
“A lot of places teach the students to get into a corner out of sight and huddle there. But in my view that’s a mistake,” Weinstein said. “If a shooter does come in the class and everybody’s huddled together, then essentially the shooter has no targeting issue. All he or she has to do is aim into the corner and just keep pumping bullets into that conglomeration of people. That’s a bad idea.”
Weinstein recommends scattering individuals around the office or classroom. “Maybe some in the corners, some under a desk, some near the door. Then while the shooter is engaging one person the other people have the opportunity to evacuate or to rush the shooter,” he said. “There are more options than people just clustering together in one place and essentially making it easier for the shooter to shoot them.”
Run, Hide, Fight Are Not Mutually Exclusive
Although the vast majority of training programs teach run, hide, fight as the three main options available to students and employees in an active shooter situation, the reality is that run, hide and fight are not three distinct options that one must decide upon and stick with. To improve the chances of saving your own life and the lives of others you should approach run, hide, fight as a fluid continuum of choices that will change as the situation unfolds.
“Somebody can run and then find that they need to fight and then perhaps hide,” said Weinstein. “So running, hiding, and fighting are not mutually exclusive options. They need to be considered as part of an integrated response protocol.”
Understanding Your Personal Survival Strategy
Everyone should think about and develop a personal survival strategy that can help guide their decision making under high-stress circumstances. The personal survival strategy you choose will de dependent on three factors: Your personal profile, your location and the shooter or shooters.
An additional factor that must also be taken into consideration is time. The vast majority of active shooter incidents typically last less than 5 minutes. The crucible of time makes thinking about and preparing your personal survival plan in advance extremely important.
“I guess my point is that one needs to think about these things before hearing gunfire for the first time,” Weinstein said. “If you’re trying to figure out a survival strategy the first time you hear shots fired — it’s a little bit late to do that.”
One Size Does Not Fit All
Although the vast majority of colleges and businesses teach the run, hide, fight methodology, the training throughout K-12 school districts varies. “In my view, a 14 or a 15-year-old is perfectly capable of running, hiding, or fighting and making that determination,” Weinstein said. “Whether a five-year-old is capable of making that determination is another matter. But we practice fire drills, where individuals, even in kindergarten, get in a line and they’ll walk out of a building … to escape a fire scenario. I don’t understand why that couldn’t be the same response for an active shooter,” he said.
Unfortunately, approaching active shooter response protocols from a one-size-fits-all perspective is the easy thing to do, especially for K-12 school districts. “Sometimes laudable goals that are operative and should be operative 99 percent of the time can cause us to elevate accountability over, in my view, survivability,” Weinstein said.
“We need to [teach] more than … lock the door, turn off the lights, and hope that the shooter doesn’t come,” said Weinstein. “I think that the teachers are the ones who need to say, ‘what are my options?’ I would rather have five-year-olds or seven-year-olds running around in the playground, maybe without the supervision of a teacher and out of the building, than have them huddling in a classroom as they did in Newtown, Connecticut, and just be assassinated.”