What I learned from active shooter training (and my own experience)
Tuesday's mass shooting at a Texas elementary school in which an 18-year-old gunman killed 19 children and two teachers before being shot himself by law enforcement officers brings back traumatic memories of my own brush with gun violence.
Below is my 2019 column about participating in the Lake in the Hills Police Department's civilian response course on dealing with active shooter/attack situations, which seemed like a good chance to learn skills that might save my life.
Having written stories about situations involving mass shootings, I've often wondered how I would react under such circumstances.
Would I run and hide? Would I freeze? Would I fight back? I hope I'll never have to find out.
Fortunately, I have not experienced a mass shooting. But once, my sister and I were robbed at gunpoint while young college students working minimum-wage jobs as motel desk clerks. I know the heart-pounding adrenaline rush and mind-numbing fear that overcome the senses when someone points a gun at your head. I survived that experience more through luck than heroics.
Could this police program help me be better prepared in the event of something even more unthinkable?
It could. And, over the course of two hours of videos and discussion, it provided insights into what to expect and how to deal with it.
I came away with these take-aways:
• Avoid. Deny. Defend. Steer clear of situations that could make you a target. Limit the opportunities for someone with bad intent to gain access to you or others. Fight back against someone who does.
• Don't rely on playing dead.
• Try to remain calm.
• Have an action plan. Prepare yourself mentally for how you would handle an assault.
The free class, offered by many law enforcement agencies, teaches ordinary people how to prepare for a mass attack and react if one happens. Developed by Texas State University's Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center, or ALERRT, it examines attacks in a variety of settings, including the workplace, public gathering spaces and religious institutions.
Other suburban police departments have offered similar programs. Police in Naperville and Aurora have conducted classes teaching the ALICE method -- Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate -- and police in Bartlett, Niles and Evanston, among others, have offered active shooter response courses.
In the Lake in the Hills class, Andrew Mannino, a Lake in the Hills police officer who trains new recruits on defensive tactics and use of force, laid out the central strategy.
"Avoid the attacker. Deny them access. Defend yourself," Mannino said.
A video reflecting on the deadly April 2007 shooting spree on the Virginia Tech campus provided a haunting lesson of why playing dead doesn't work.
In it, Kristina Anderson, a Virginia Tech sophomore at the time of the attack, described how she was shot three times in the back and in the foot while playing dead during the rampage. Somehow, she survived. She was among 17 people who were wounded. Thirty-two people were killed. It was one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history.
As I watched Anderson tell her story, I was reminded of a video on the March 15, 2019, shooting rampage at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in which 51 people were killed and dozens more were injured. Images showed the gunman repeatedly shooting people who had fallen to the ground, some playing dead.
Mannino told us that understanding our psychological and physiological responses in high-stress situations is key to knowing how to act in that moment.
A person's heart rate elevates, he explained, and the brain shifts into a mode of fight, flight or freeze.
"Tasks that you have done thousands of times become difficult under stress," he said. "Fear is a fire that will overcome you (more) quickly than you are able to control."
Again, I recalled the robbery with my sister. A man and a woman walked up to the motel front desk, the man pulled out a gun and ordered me to open the cash register. I was the one working that night and my sister just happened to bring dinner. Our hearts were sprinting. I complied, but when they demanded the keys to our car, we lied.
"We don't have a car," we pleaded.
The woman then goaded the man to put the gun to my sister's head and threatened to shoot her. We gave them our keys and handbags. We survived, losing only money and property. We were lucky.
To stay focused under such circumstances, Mannino suggested practicing tactical breathing -- inhaling, holding your breath, exhaling and holding your breath again for four seconds each -- and running through what-if scenarios and reactions to help hardwire the body's responses.
Having faith in a higher power also has helped people survive attacks, he said, because it counters the feeling of powerlessness. That point hit me profoundly. My faith teaches that no harm can come to me except by God's will and whatever happens will never be more than I can bear. It's that trust that has kept me strong during the darkest times of my life, including being at the mercy of those robbers.
Mannino told us to be aware of our surroundings at all times. He advised not to disregard loud bangs, because the sound of gunshots can be muffled or distorted in large buildings. He said to identify multiple exits to escape through or places that can provide cover or concealment.
"Hesitation can cost you valuable time," Mannino said. "If you can get out, do. Encourage others to leave with you, but don't let them slow you down. Leave belongings behind. Get out of the line of fire. Prevent others from walking into the danger zone."
He talked about the value of keeping objects between yourself and the attacker. "Locking the door has proved effective in many attacks," Mannino said.
He demonstrated barricading doors, bracing door handles with belts and other objects, and urged turning off lights and silencing phones. He said it may help to stay out of sight by lining up against the wall next to a door to suggest to an attacker that there aren't any targets inside.
But should the attacker breach the door, it's good to have a backup plan, he said.
"You have the right to defend yourself," Mannino said, and that includes "fighting dirty" and aggressively.
"Whether alone or working together as a group, fight," he stressed. "Improvise weapons. Commit to your actions. Always have an exit plan. What you do matters."
When police officers ultimately arrive on scene, remaining calm and following their instructions is critical to not being shot by mistake, Mannino emphasized.
"Law enforcement's first priority would be to stop the threat to your safety," Mannino said. "Do not have anything in your hands that could be perceived as a weapon."
Mannino told the class only two things can decrease fatalities in a mass attack: how quickly police respond, which typically runs three minutes on average, and the number of targets available. If more people have situational awareness and are prepared for an attack, that "should help save lives," he said.
Inaction is not an option. We need to have a plan, which I pray we never have to put into practice. Share these pointers with family, friends, co-workers, schoolmates and faith community members so we are better prepared for the worst.
• Madhu Krishnamurthy is the Diversity Editor and an Assistant City Editor for the Daily Herald.
How to respond in a mass attack
• Use "Avoid. Deny. Defend." strategy. Avoid the attacker. Deny them access. Defend yourself.
• Don't rely on playing dead.
• Have an action plan. Mentally prepare yourself.
• Know how your mind and body respond under high stress.
• Stay calm. Practice tactical breathing.
• Identify multiple exits to escape from or places to hide.
• Leave belongings behind.
• Encourage others to leave with you.
• Get out of the line of fire. Stay out of sight.
• Barricade doors with chairs, furniture, brace door handles with belts and other objects.
• Turn off lights and silence cellphones.
• If cornered, fight hard. Be aggressive.
• Follow police instructions when help arrives.
Source: Texas State University's Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center program taught by Lake in the Hills Police Officer Andrew Mannino