How to Protect Yourself During a Mass Shooting
No one thinks they could be in this situation, but here's advice from safety experts if it happens.
By Beth W. Orenstein
Medically Reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH
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The headlines appear with unnerving frequency about mass shootings somewhere in the United States -- at a movie theater, a shopping mall, a school, a sporting event. Yesterday, a shooting tragedy took place at the Fort Hood military base in Texas, the second at this site since November 2009.
Precisely how often mass shootings have occurred depends somewhat on interpretation. The Congressional Research Service, which defines a mass shooting as one that takes place in a relatively public place and results in four or more deaths, not including the shooter, identified 78 such shootings in the United States from 1983 to early 2013. A report by researchers at Texas State University, done after the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, used different parameters and identified 84 mass shootings from 2000 to 2010 by people whose main motive appears to have been mass murder.
Though the precise number of mass casualty shootings may be hard to determine, there's no disagreement that people today need to think about their safety whenever they go out in public, said Dennis Krebs, a retired captain and paramedic with the Baltimore County Fire Department and author of "When Violence Erupts, A Survival Guide for Emergency Responders" and the "Special Operations Mission Planning Field Guide."
“If you at least think about what you would do if you were confronted with such a situation, it gives you an edge,” Krebs said.
Life-Saving Tips in the Event of a Mass Shooting
Irwin Redlener, MD, director of the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University, said that people don’t need to panic or even fear going to public places to avoid mass casualty shootings. He does agree with Krebs though: In 2014, it’s worth giving some thought to how to protect yourself during a mass shooting.
What you can do if faced with a mass shooting depends greatly on the situation and your physique and physical capabilities, Dr. Redlener noted. “If you’re small and alone or with your 1-year-old or your 14-year-old, it’s going to be different,” he said. “Everything about survival guidelines is dependent on the details of the particular situation.”
However, experts in public safety do have advice on how to protect yourself and your loved ones in the event of a mass shooting.
Pay attention to your surroundings.No matter where you go, "be aware of your environment," Redlener said. "If you see something that looks suspicious or out of place, or you notice an unusual gathering of people, you can begin taking action prior to the event occurring." By being aware, you may be able to avoid the scene and not walk into trouble. “Situational awareness is something that police officers and the military are taught and trained to do,” he said. When you go to a mall or a movie, know where the nearest exits are.
RELATED: Media Exposure to Traumatic Events Can Be More Stressful Than Being There
Flee if you can.If you’re caught in a mass shooting, “you want to get outside of the building as quickly as you possibly can," Krebs said. A lot of people freeze, but "that's the last thing you want to do,” he said. Urge any people you're with to come with you, but don’t waste precious time trying to persuade them to get out while you can.
David Reiss, MD, a San Diego psychiatrist, said that some training in the martial arts can help prepare you to deal with your body’s natural fight-or-flight response and not be paralyzed when faced with traumatic events from which you should flee. “To be aware of that response and have some training in dealing with it can be useful without going overboard,” he said.
Leave your belongings behind.Drop whatever stuff you have with you -- packages, luggage, purse, or backpack. It will make your exit easier. Nothing is more important than your life, Krebs said. Video of the mass shooting at the Los Angeles airport in November 2013 showed people fleeing with their suitcases, but, as Krebs said, "there's nothing in that piece of Samsonite that’s worth your life."
If you can’t run, hide.“You want to be in an area that allows you to be protected from the gunman or further mischief by the armed perpetrator,” said Stephen Hargarten, MD, MPH, professor and chairman of emergency medicine and director of the Injury Research Center at the Medical College of Wisconsin. Lock and barricade the doors to your hiding place. In one recent mass shooting at a mall, a store clerk was able to protect some shoppers by hitting the button for a gate in front of the store, sealing everyone inside, Krebs said.
Once in hiding, be quiet.Shut off your cellphone. Instinct may tell you to keep it on and try to call for help, but a ringing phone could be dangerous if it attracts the shooter's attention, Krebs said. Call 911 for help only if and when it’s safe to do so.
Try to avoid confronting the shooter.According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, taking any action against the shooter should be a last resort -- something you do only if your life is in imminent danger. But, if there's no other option, yell, act aggressively, or look around for something that might work as a weapon.
Afterwards, exit carefully.Once the shooting has stopped and you are able to leave the building, go out with your hands up. Drop whatever you are carrying. “Police may not have a description of the suspect they’re after," Krebs said, "and if you come running out the door with something in your hand, you could end up getting hurt."
Disaster Preparedness With Children
Parents with young children should follow the same advice that flight attendants give passengers: Take care of yourself first because, if you don’t, you won’t be able to help your children, Dr. Hargarten said.
Before you're faced with a traumatic event, talk with your children about the best ways to handle such situations. What you say will depend on their age, but whatever you say, try not to frighten them unnecessarily. Emphasize that in an emergency situation like that, they would need to follow your directions, no questions asked. If you have to scream at your children, it could attract the attention of the shooter.
As part of your family's disaster preparedness plan, decide where to meet if you get separated in an emergency -- even if it's a place you've been many times before.
Dr. Reiss said you can’t anticipate mass casualty shootings and should not spend your days fretting over what you would do if you were caught up in one. “If you expect emergencies every moment of your day, it will ruin your life,” he said. It’s best to give it some thought but not let it overwhelm you.
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