What cops need to tell their families about active shooters

Your hard-earned knowledge about active shooter events may help to prevent your loved ones from becoming victims


I was at the California Association of Tactical Officers (CATO) annual conference when I overheard attendees discussing the active shooter attack that had just happened hours before at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks, California. Although it had been less than eight hours since the attack, many of the assembled officers were from the region and were already getting information about the shooting that killed 12 people, including Sergeant Ron Helus of the Ventura County Sheriff’s Office.

Several officers indicated they were frequent patrons of Borderline and knew the staff and crowd well. One officer said a daughter of a fellow officer worked at the bar. Yet another officer said his adult children had planned to visit the club that evening, but changed their plans when they were invited to a party at a friend’s home, instead.

Close to home

A forensics team works the scene Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018, in Thousand Oaks, Calif. where a gunman opened fire Wednesday inside a country dance bar crowded with hundreds of people on "college night," wounding 11 people including a deputy who rushed to the scene. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
A forensics team works the scene Thursday, Nov. 8, 2018, in Thousand Oaks, Calif. where a gunman opened fire Wednesday inside a country dance bar crowded with hundreds of people on "college night," wounding 11 people including a deputy who rushed to the scene. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)

The shooting was a grim reminder to everyone present that these attacks don’t just happen to other people. Law enforcement officers typically deal with situations where they have no connection to the victim, so it’s unusual to have friends and family directly involved.

However, your loved ones are not immune to the jeopardy created by the broken and evil people around us. Sadly, your badges will not shield your family and friends from attack, but your hard-earned knowledge about active shooter events may help to prevent them from becoming a victim. As law enforcement officers, you understand violence and the dynamics of active shooter situations better than anyone else, so you need to share some of this knowledge with those you love to enhance their chance of survival if they are caught in one of these attacks.

Tips to enhance survival during an active shooter attack

Some of the things to share, on an age-appropriate basis, include the following:

Maintain situational awareness. Poor situational awareness makes it difficult to identify threats and respond to them in a timely manner. Encourage your friends and loved ones to keep their noses out of their phones when they’re in public, and look around. Help them to develop the habit of scanning the area around them, watch what people are doing and be mindful of changes to their environment. Teach them to look for people and things that don’t belong, or don’t follow the pattern. Most of the public couldn’t tell you what’s happening beyond six inches from their nose … don’t let friends and family become one of these zombies.

Know where the exits are. Teach your friends and family to make a habit of identifying ways to get out of whatever space they find themselves in. Look for doors, stairs and service entrances. Look for things that can be used to smash through windows – or even walls – to create an exit where none exists. Identify the obstacles and chokepoints that could prevent you from getting out when a crowd rushes that way in a panic. Figure out the exit that most people will probably flock to, and then locate one opposite of that location. Have a plan for getting out, and have a backup plan in case that one doesn’t work.

Get off the floor. Hitting the deck during the initial moments of an attack might make a lot of sense and prevent you from getting hit by gunfire, but it might be a bad place to stay in the long run. Every situation is different, but in many cases, staying on the floor will only lead to you being trampled by the crowd or targeted by an attacker that’s moving faster than you. If you’re on the floor, try to get out of the traffic flow, and move to a place where the attacker can’t see you (concealment), or where you have the physical protection (cover) necessary to get up and run. You want to spend as little time in the target area as possible, so don’t freeze in place on the ground. It might make sense to stay still in some situations, but in most cases, your odds of survival will improve if you get out of there quickly. A moving target is hard to hit – especially one running away at an oblique angle – but a slow-moving or stationary target on the floor is easy work for an attacker.

Don’t volunteer to be deaf and blind. Anything that interrupts normal hearing or vision can make it difficult to sense danger and take appropriate measures. For example, loud music can mask the sound of gunfire, and dark rooms can hide the presence of a threat and make it hard to find the exits. If your friends and family are going to hang out in loud and dark places, they need to make up for the sensory loss in other ways. Scan the crowd more frequently, know how many exit rows you have to touch before you’re near the door, hang out near the exit, bring a good flashlight – find ways to make up for your loss of vision and hearing.

Limit alcohol consumption in public. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying a drink with friends and family and it’s an important part of the entertainment experience for many people. However, drinking alcohol to the point of intoxication while you’re in public is dangerous for your personal safety. If your senses, thinking and coordination are dulled by too much alcohol, you’ll be in no shape to detect threats, or to save yourself or any of the people you are with. If you plan on drinking a lot, do it in the safety of your home – not out in the ocean, where all the sharks are swimming about.

Have a plan. Friends and family should understand what they’re expected to do if they get caught in an active shooter situation. First, they should break the freeze and get moving to safety. In some cases, they may need to fight, and should be mentally ready to do so. Have them think about and discuss an offsite rendezvous point (something outside of the immediate area – away from the Hot Zone) for the group if they get separated. Teach them if they get out, to stay out, and to not go back inside looking for someone.

Be careful with your communication devices. Encourage friends and family to keep a charged cell phone on their person. Off-body carry (i.e., in a purse, in the console of a car) is not recommended, because it’s too easy to get separated from the phone – put it in a pocket so that it’s there if you have to run. Discuss the critical information 911 needs to know when reporting an emergency, and have them practice making a good call with the right elements of information. Ensure youngsters know how to operate a traditional, wired phone (no, I’m not joking). Encourage loved ones to memorize essential phone numbers, so they can call family from someone else’s phone.

Know how to act when the police arrive. Friends and family must understand how to act when the police arrive to ensure their safety. Teach them the importance of following commands, avoiding furtive movements and keeping their hands off of responders. Teach them that the first responding officers are trained to bypass the wounded and put the shooter down first, before giving aid or evacuating victims. Teach them how to communicate the essentials to responding officers – description, weapons, location, and direction of the suspect’s movement.

Learn first aid basics. Teach friends and family how to stop bleeding, how to put someone in the recovery position and how to move a wounded victim. Teach them about the best locations in the area to transport a wounded victim for treatment.

Be prepared. Most important, have them take the threat seriously. The shock and stress of an attack like this can lead an unprepared mind to panic and freeze. Teach your loved ones that these events are survivable, even if they are wounded, if they keep their head and make good decisions. Teach them “tactical breathing” or other skills that will help to calm them down, and gain control of emotions so they can think and act. Ignoring the threat won’t make it go away, and will only set them up for failure if they’re unlucky enough to get caught in one of these situations.

Conclusion

None of us wants to discover that a friend or family member has been involved in one of these attacks, but it would be even worse for us if they were hurt because we failed to tell them what they needed to know to survive.

Take the time today to discuss these awful realities with those you love. It won’t be a fun conversation, but it may be a lifesaving one.

Be safe out there, and pray for Sergeant Helus, his family, and his fellow officers and co-workers.

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