It’s a dreadful reality of living in America (or, honestly, the world) right now that there are, and likely will be more, mass shootings. Though it may be impossible to predict where and when they’ll occur ― and the odds are still very small that you’ll encounter one ― security experts have some basic safety tips that can help you prepare for the unlikely but horrific situation.
“During an active shooter situation, it is estimated that law enforcement response time may be between five to six minutes. And on average, an active shooter situation lasts anywhere between five to eight minutes,” said Steve Guerrero, director of security for the nonprofit Green Dot Public Schools in Los Angeles.
So saving your life may be up to you. No one should ever have to fear for their safety in a bar, a place of worship, an exercise class or any other ordinary location. But a little knowledge ― hopefully knowledge that you never have to use ― can be beneficial.
HuffPost talked with the experts on what they want everyone to know about potential or active shooter situations, including steps to take when something seems off and other useful protection measures.
1. Be aware.
It sounds basic but sometimes the most obvious points are the most crucial. Put down your phone and tune in to your surroundings.
“In security, we often refer to the phrase ‘situational awareness,’ being aware of our situation wherever we are,” said Brent O’Bryan, corporate vice president of training and organizational effectiveness at Allied Universal, a private North American security company.
When you first walk into a building, O’Bryan recommends getting your bearings and taking inventory of your surroundings: Notice the people in the room, the layout of the venue, where the nearest exits are and whether anything appears off.
2. Make a brief, mental “what if” plan ahead of time.
“People have to unfortunately have the mindset these days that when you walk into anywhere, something bad can happen and you have to begin to mentally prepare yourself with the ‘what if’ scenario,” said Mike Zimet, owner of New York-based executive protection company Mike Zimet Protective Services.
If used correctly, that strategy could potentially save somebody’s life.
“We use the what-if scenario in protection all the time,” Zimet said. “What if this happens? What would you do with the person you are protecting? How would you evacuate them?”
This type of thinking, he added, trains you to be a lot more diligent in looking for exits or a safe room where you can shelter. Take a few minutes to put an escape plan into place when you first arrive at a venue, he suggested, and then go back to enjoying the evening.
3. Know what to look for.
When taking inventory of a place or scenario, be on the lookout for anything that appears suspicious.
“The biggest red flag is somebody appearing out of place by their clothing ― they are dressed for the winter in the summer ― or by their actions,” Zimet said. Actions to watch for include leaving a suspicious package behind or behaving uncharacteristically for the setting.
4. Don’t be afraid to report something suspicious.
“Be aware of your neighbors, people’s activity on social media, and don’t be afraid to share your concerns,” O’Bryan said.
If something seems suspicious, you shouldn’t assume that somebody else is going to call it in or otherwise report it. Make the call yourself.
“We need to do better as a society with having that courage to step in when we see something that doesn’t seem right,” O’Bryan said. “Law enforcement would rather have us be more proactive in sharing leads and concerns so they can say, ‘OK, that’s not a concern’ or ‘That is a concern’ than have us thinking, ‘That looks suspicious but I’m not sure if it is so I’m just going to hold back.’”
“Trust your gut instinct when something niggles at the back of your mind that something is wrong,” added Robert Sollars, a security consultant based in Phoenix with 35 years experience in the industry. Too many people ignore those feelings even though they could save lives, Sollars said.
“Trust your gut instinct when something niggles at the back of your mind that something is wrong.”
5. Try to remain as calm as possible.
Focus on breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth as you take action.
“Remaining calm and focused can mean the difference between life and death,” Guerrero said, adding that a “heightened state of panic may impair your judgment and ability to make sound decisions when time is of the essence.”
Matt Harden, a SWAT team member and owner of the San Francisco Bay Area company OpTempo Training Group, which provides active shooter training, noted that staying calm also helps people “to not alert the shooter to their location.”
6. Run if you’re able to.
In a situation involving an active shooter, your immediate move should be to get out of the building if you can safely do so. And once you are through the door, don’t stop.
“Keep going and get as far away from the line of fire as you can,” Zimet said. Don’t assume that you’re safe once outside just because the gunfire is happening inside.
“Many gunmen go in through front door. The same way they went in shooting, they can come out shooting. So if you are lingering outside, you could find yourself back in the line of fire,” Zimet warned.
Even though it might be your first instinct, O’Bryan said you should not stop to dial 911 before running.
“Get to safety and then make that call. To stop and make that call immediately, you are risking yourself and you’ve gotten rid of a few seconds you could be using to get somewhere safely to make the call,” he said.
7. Hide if you need to.
If you can’t get safely to an exit and out the door, your second choice is to hide.
“Law enforcement will arrive quickly and if you can’t run, then your next best option is to hide and wait for them to arrive,” O’Bryan said.
Once you are hidden and secure, remain quiet and still. “Hiding is not the time to get on your phone,” O’Bryan added. “If you have that opportunity and you truly think you are safe, you can reach out to 911, but you want to be very careful. Especially in a dark situation, you want to maintain the darkness. You don’t want to have your phone on to give you away.”
Zimet recommended concealing yourself behind the hardest object possible so as to shield yourself from bullets. O’Bryan also suggested looking for a room with a door that you can lock from the inside, if possible.
“Hiding is not the time to get on your phone. If you have that opportunity and you truly think you are safe, you can reach out to 911, but you want to be very careful.”
8. Stay hidden for the long haul.
Once hidden, don’t come out until law enforcement arrives and announces that they are ready to escort you out. Don’t try to determine when it’s safe to emerge on your own accord.
“If you’re hiding and still in the building when law enforcement arrives, be prepared for officers with rifles entering to deal with the threat,” Harden said, adding that it’s crucial you stay where you are and not try to run over to them even if you’re injured.
“You can call out to them but they will find you,” he said. “Follow their commands.”
Officers are entering a very uncertain, chaotic scene and will be focused on clearing the entire structure to ensure there are no additional shooters or threats. “The initial officers may bypass injured people asking for help until the scene is secure. But they will return to render aid and evacuate,” Harden said.
9. Get low to the ground.
If you can’t run away or find a hiding space, or you’re out in the open, you’ll want to get as low as possible.
“Duck down to the floor and try to put yourself in a fetal position because that reduces the amount of target that somebody is targeting at,” Zimet said.
Dropping to the ground can also help to get you out of the line of sight of an active shooter and reduce your chances of getting hit by gunfire. “The more you reduce your size and your target, the better chance you have of surviving,” said Zimet.
“Duck down to the floor and try to put yourself in a fetal position because that reduces the amount of target that somebody is targeting at.”
10. Fight back only as a last resort.
Your safety comes first. Attempting to stop an active shooter is only advised if they are extremely close to you and you cannot take any of the above safety steps, Zimet said. Basically, only try this if it’s your sole option.
“Do not run across a huge distance to the attacker and hop into their line of sight in the process,” he said, noting that if you do attack, your focus should be on lunging at the person and going after the weapon.
“The attacker will not be expecting an attack from a victim so the bigger, louder and more violent you can be, the more you will disrupt their train of thought. If you have a group of people, even better,” said Tammy Johnson, CEO of Bravo1 Protection, an event security service in South Carolina.
11. Finally, curb your curiosity.
If a shooting happens in your neighborhood and you are not actively caught in the situation, remain a safe distance away. Louis Perry, the owner and executive vice president of Los Angeles-based Kadina Security who has provided security for politicians, former presidents and other high-profile individuals, said that often someone shoots a gun and people actually run toward the sound of the gunfire to see what’s going on.
“It’s human nature to be curious but you don’t want to do that,” Perry said. “I know it sounds silly to say this but if somebody shoots a gun, you want to run away from the gunfire.”
So if there is a shooting in your area, remain inside, keep your doors locked and wait until you are given the all-clear from officers to leave your premises.