Columbine, Port Arthur and Mumbai are three places that conjure horrific scenes of people screaming and running for their lives. But these tragic examples of a rogue active shooter opening fire on innocent victims are just three of many. Add to the list Colorado, Sandy Hook, Virginia Tech, Fort Hood, Beslan, Finland, Norway, Nairobi, and Washington.
In a report released by the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) Centre at the Texas State University, five massacre-style shootings occurred per year in the United States between 2000 and 2008. Alarmingly, that number more than tripled to 16 per year between 2009 and 2012.
Active shooter situations are predicted to continue to rise creating a huge threat to police and communities. Research shows 40 percent of active shooter attacks are most likely to take place at businesses, 29 percent at schools, 19 percent outdoors, and 12 percent in other places. Active shooters usually use firearms or sub machine guns, often don’t discriminate against their victims, and are extremely unpredictable. For example; Saturday afternoon, 17 August 1991, Wade Frankum walked into a shopping plaza in the Sydney suburb of Strathfield. He sat down at a café, placing the bag he was carrying next to him. He drank several cups of coffee. Behind him sat two teenage girls. Frankum looked like an average guy. No one could have guessed that concealed in Frankum’s bag was a large hunting knife and Chinese made SKS semi-automatic rifle.
At approximately 3.30 pm, and without provocation, Frankum withdrew the large hunting knife, stood up, spun around and repeatedly stabbed one of the two teenage girls sitting behind him. Snatching the SKS semi-automatic weapon, he then opened fire on innocent café patrons. In less than ten minutes, seven people were shot dead and a further six wounded. The nightmare ended just as police arrived. Frankum turned the gun on himself and fired. None of the victims were personally known to Frankum.
Scotland, 13 March 1996, Thomas Hamilton walked into a primary school gymnasium in Dunblane. He shot dead 16 innocent children and their teacher before killing himself.
Tasmania, Australia, 28 April 1996. Martin Bryant entered the popular tourist destination of Port Arthur and opened fire. He massacred 35 people and wounded a further 23 without any apparent provocation or warning.
According to the United States Department of Homeland Security, an ‘active shooter’ is an individual actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and other populated area. The Australian-New Zealand Counter-Terrorism Committee describes an ‘active shooter’ as a person armed with a firearm(s) who is actively engaged in killing or attempting to cause serious harm to multiple people in a populated location.
Statistically, 94 percent of active shooters are male. They act alone and often have no prior criminal record. They rarely confide in anyone and their cache of weapons is usually compiled legally.
Take the case of Major Nidal Hasan, a United States Army Psychiatrist. In 2009, he entered Fort Hood in Texas, opened fire and fatally shot 13 fellow soldiers and civilians. A further 32 people were wounded including an unborn baby.
Similarly in Australia, 8 December 1987, Frank Vitkovic walked onto the Melbourne University campus with a sawed-off M1 Carbine machine gun. His intent was to kill a former school friend. Discovering his former friend was not on campus that day, Vitkovic proceeded to the 5th floor. Arriving at the Telecom Employees Credit Co-Operative reception, Vitkovic asked for another former friend to be called to the front counter. Vitkovic withdrew the sawed-off M1 Carbine from his bag, opened fire and shot dead a young female office worker. He then proceeded to the 12th floor where he randomly opened fire before running down to the 11th floor where he indiscriminately shot victims at point blank range.
In a desperate bid to bring Vitkovic’s killing spree to an end, three wounded office workers wrestled Vitkovic. After an intense, but brief struggle, they prized Vitkovic’s weapon off him. The terrifying experience ended at 4.27pm when Vitkovic attempted to escape through an open window and fell to his death. At 4.30pm the Victorian Police Special Operations Group (SOG) commenced their search of the building. Half an hour later, at 5pm, police gave the all clear and ambulance officers were permitted to enter the building to attend to the wounded.
Research shows active shooter situations only last 10 to 15 minutes. And in most cases, they’re over before law enforcement arrives. Yet, within those frenzied few minutes, an active shooter will continue to kill until he runs out of ammunition, victims, is stopped, or takes his own life. Active shooters are fully committed to their ‘cause’. In their minds a ‘top kill score’ proves their dedication.
Three step defence
In most cases there is no pattern to victim selection in a shooter scenario, nor is it obvious whether the shooter is motivated by anger, revenge, skewed ideology, or mental illness.
July 2012, James Holmes entered a crowded movie theatre in Aurora, Colorado at midnight. Like many of the patrons, he was dressed as one of the characters from the Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises. Without warning, Holmes threw two gas canisters into the crowd and started shooting.
Surviving patrons reported they initially assumed the gas and gunshot sounds were all part of promotional stunt – until people started dropping dead.
For those innocently caught up in an active shooter scenario, every second counts. Every action or reaction is a life or death decision. And unlike first aid, very few people are taught basic survival skills. In an active shooter situation, three basic steps should be followed.
Step 1: Evacuate
If there is an accessible escape path, attempt to evacuate the premises or area. What to do:
• ensure the escape route doesn’t lead to a dead end, locked door, or leave you trapped somewhere the shooter may venture;
• evacuate regardless of whether others agree to follow;
• leave belongings behind;
• where possible, help others to escape, but do not attempt to move the wounded;
• warn others not to enter the shooter zone;
• call 000 (Australia) or 911 (USA) only when it is safe.
Once you’ve evacuated safety, provide the following information to police or emergency operators:
• location of the active shooter;
• number of shooters, if more than one;
• physical description of the shooter(s);
• number and type of weapons held by the shooter(s) (eg, pistol, shotgun, rifle);
• the number of potential victims at the location.
When the police arrive:
• remain calm;
• obey their instructions (their first job is to classify all as victim or threat);
• put down any items in your hands (eg, bags, jackets);
• immediately raise your hands and spread fingers;
• keep your hands visible at all times;
• avoid making quick movements toward officers;
• avoid pointing, screaming or yelling;
• do not stop to ask officers for help or directions when evacuating, just proceed in the direction from which officers are entering the premises.
Step 2: Hide out
If a safe evacuation is not possible, find a place to hide. Choose somewhere that:
• remains out of the active shooter’s line of sight;
• does not trap you or restrict your options for relocating to another position of safety;
• provides cover, not just concealment, if shots are fired in your direction.
The difference between cover and concealment is widely misunderstood thanks to action movies. Cover will protect from gunfire. Concealment merely hides you from the shooter’s view.
In movies, action heroes are seen to take cover behind soft couches and thin table tops. ‘Miraculously’ these items provide protection from high calibre weapons. In reality, you might as well hide behind a sheet of cardboard. The best ‘life-saving’ cover is solid objects like brick walls, large trees, and parked vehicles.
It is also very important to ensure the active shooter can’t enter your hiding place. Where possible:
• lock or blockade the door using heavy items/furniture;
• silence mobile phones (even the vibrate function may give you away);
• remain quiet;
• move away from windows;
• cover windows if safe to do so.
During the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks in India, a waiter at the Taj Mahal Palace heard explosions and shouting. Instinctively, he locked the doors, turned out the lights, and told the 60 plus patrons to keep very still and quiet. Minutes later, an armed terrorist peered into the darkened restaurant from the brightly lit courtyard. Detecting no movement and hearing no sound, the terrorist moved on before his eyes had time to fully adjust to the darkened room.
Is playing dead an option?
‘Playing dead’ works best in the movies. In real life, once you ‘play dead’ your options for escape are severely restricted. You’re reliant on the shooter not noticing any signs of life. Even then, there is no guarantee you won’t be shot.
In July 2011, Norwegian born Anders Behring Breivik went on a shooting rampage. He shot 77 victims as they were standing, cowering or running away. But he also shot indiscriminately at bodies lying on the ground.
In real life, playing dead is not easy – especially if the body’s fear responses have kicked in. Breathing becomes rapid and uncontrollable making it almost impossible to keep the chest from noticeably rising and falling. At the same time, adrenalin courses through the blood stream producing heat. In cold or wet conditions, extra body heat can cause steam to rise or escape out of the mouth or nose. Either way, it’s a ‘dead’ give-away the person is still alive.
Step 3: Take action
Take action by disrupting, and or incapacitating, the active shooter only when your life is in real and imminent danger. As a last resort:
• act furiously and aggressively towards the shooter;
• throw items and utilise improvised weapons;
• scream at the shooter whilst attacking (this can act to distract while fuelling your own determination and confidence under stress);
• commit to your actions and do not stop until the threat is over (or you can escape safely);
• act to preserve your own life at all times.
Arguably, launching a counter attack is very dangerous. Yet, it is no more dangerous than doing nothing. A moving target is much harder to hit than a stationary one. A counter attack from victims is the very last thing a shooter will be expecting. The element of surprise may just create an opportunity to escape, or delay further killings until the police arrive. But there are no guarantees. Victim or perpetrator, one or both may end up severely injured or dead.
Tactical response today
Police arrive on an active shooter scene with one objective – to stop the shooter as soon as possible. For that reason alone, follow their instructions immediately – especially if you launched a counter attack. In that moment in time, you may be the one holding a weapon. If so, drop the weapon immediately and place your hands clear of your body. Police officers:
• will always proceed directly to the area in which the last shots were heard;
• may be armed with rifles, shotguns, handguns and ballistic shields;
• may arrive in teams of two or various numbers;
• may wear regular patrol uniforms or external bulletproof vests, Kevlar helmets or other tactical equipment;
• may use OC spray or tear gas to control the situation;
• may shout commands;
• may push individuals to the ground for their own safety or until individuals have been identified.
Tactical response history
April 20, 1999, Columbine High School students, Eric Harris, 18 and Dylan Klebold, 17, systematically killed 12 classmates and a school teacher before wounding another 21 people.
The teenage shooters took less than 16 minutes to kill and wound their victims. Yet the responding police took more than three hours to find the teen shooters. The SWAT team was also criticised for being too methodical and slow.
Up until Columbine, police departments throughout the world trained their officers to contain the shooting scene and wait for tactical units to arrive. But Columbine marked the need for change.
Yet change didn’t come until after the December 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre in Newtown, United States. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) formed a team to study active shootings.
The study resulted in a training program developed at Texas State University being adopted world-wide. Now first responders isolate, distract and stop active shooters as fast as possible.
But it’s not just law enforcement agencies that need training. Just like a fire drill, individuals, employees, employers and organisations need to put an active shooter plan in place.
Active shooter drill
No one knows when or where the next active shooter incident will occur. All that is known is that active shooter incidences are on the rise. Along with fire evacuation plans individuals, employers and organisations should consider an active shooter drill. This would include:
• ensuring the facility has at least two evacuation routes;
• posting evacuation maps in high visibility areas throughout the facility;
• including local police and emergency first responders during emergency training exercises;
• encouraging police and emergency first responders, tactical teams, K-9 dog teams, and police and military bomb squads to train for an active shooter scenario at your location.
While the safety tips and guidelines in this article are not all inclusive, there are a number of excellent active shooter training programs available. Within Australia, for example, Defensive Measures International and the Australian Institute of Defense, Science and Technology have combined to offer a theory and practical based training program. The course includes training participants to prepare and respond to violent confrontations involving active shooter scenarios.
Active shooter attacks in Australia remain a real and persistent threat. Yet, with prior planning, training and an understanding that no one is immune from this potential threat, individuals, employees, employers, organisations and law enforcement agencies can help prevent unnecessary wounding and deaths.
When it comes to active shooter events, it is impossible to predict who, what, when, how and why. Yet, everyone can contribute to keeping their community safe by having an active shooter plan in place.
About the Author
Paul Johnstone is a former Federal Agent with the Australian Federal Police and a former Soldier with the Australian Army. Johnstone has performed a number of specialist protective security intelligence and counter-terrorism roles during his combined 25 years of service and is a Government accredited Instructor in a number of specialist fields. Johnstone has been formally recognised by the Governments of the United Kingdom, Bosnia and Herzegovina for outstanding police investigations pertaining to complex fraud and war crimes and he has lectured and trained law enforcement, security and military personnel throughout Australia, Peoples Republic of China, Afghanistan and the Pacific Rim. Johnstone is the founder and principal director of Defensive Measures International which is a consultancy firm offering specialist services throughout Australia, Peoples Republic of China, India and the Asia Pacific region. Johnstone is also the Training Manager for the Queensland TAFE Security, Investigations and Law Enforcement Training Centre in Brisbane.
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