Home inSight Run, Hide, or Fight: A Poor Strategy for an Active Shooter

Run, Hide, or Fight: A Poor Strategy for an Active Shooter

Stephen Bryen

The FBI model, endorsed by many security professionals in the United States and abroad proposes that in the case of an Active Shooter those impacted should first run, then if that fails hide, and if, and only if that fails, fight.

The model was put clearly to the test in the Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue Active Shooter incident where some congregants hid inside a closet downstairs from the main temple.  The shooter found them and killed them all.

The fight scenario was again tested at the University of North Carolina where Riley Howell, 21, who was killed when he physically attacked the shooter.  His action no doubt helped save lives, but the cost was his own life.  Similarly Liviu Librescu who was a Romanian–American scientist and engineer at Virginia Tech was killed holding shut doors enabling other students to flee.  He also died from gunshot wounds.

The Run, Hide or Fight model assumes that a venue has been completely penetrated by an Active Shooter.  In many of the video and slide presentations shown by the FBI and passed down to police departments around the USA and elsewhere, the presentation focuses on people diving under desks or running away from a shooter.  Typically “fight” is not shown or addressed because an Active Shooter’s targets are not armed.

As Mike Wood, a tactical expert has written: “The [FBI] film and [Run, Hide Fight]model encourage a ‘soft’ response to violence, preconditioning the victim to escape or hide as the preferred means of survival….  Potential victims are taught that the risks associated with fighting an attacker are much greater than the risk from running away, so violence can only be used ‘as a last resort’ when all other options have been tried, and failed.”

Wood goes on to talk about the problem of “freeze” which is that humans “confronted with sudden and unexpected violence” freeze unless they are trained otherwise.  Freeze leads to panic or worse, panic induced paralysis, and victims are left completely unprepared for the reality of the attack.

Relying on Run, Hide Fight also conditions Staff and its leadership to have the same mental state as victims, unless thoroughly trained otherwise.  The Plan does not address training or the overall psychological impact of an Active Shooter incident.

In “real life” Active Shooter Incidents there are only a few cases of “fight” (and then only by armed guards) and the scenario to “run and hide” has come up short and failed to save lives.  This has been observed particularly in indoor and outdoor theater settings, in night clubs, in meeting halls and in churches, mosques and synagogues where the victims are often in a theater-like setting.  In virtually all these examples there have been many victims.

A proper Plan needs to focus on what happens before the police arrive.  Moreover, the police will almost certainly need the support of Staff and in-House security in order to neutralize the shooter and minimize “friendly fire” incidents.  In particular, staff need to assist the police in locating the shooter, understanding where the shooter might escape or hide, and for the police to operate in as secure a mode as possible (e.g., avoid police casualties).

The Critical 5 Minutes

A workable and effective Security Plan must account for the 5 minutes before police and emergency personnel can arrive on the scene, keeping in mind that the “5 minutes” could in reality take longer because police may have to be summoned from other operations and not only from their headquarters, have to deal with traffic and congestion on the streets, and will need to take time to understand where the threat is before attempting neutralization.  On some occasions police may not act until they get reinforcements or specialized counter-terror SWAT teams.

The 5 minute period should not be squandered.  Along with calling 911, there are a number of intermediate steps to help avoid or minimize casualties.

Active Shooter Methodology

From what has been learned of Active Shooters, the shooter will often pre-plan his or her attack trying to understand his chances to penetrate a facility. Most of the incidents that are known involve settings where the level of perimeter/site security was poor or only one or two guards at most blocked a successful penetration.

The Shooter will try and see if his entrance with a weapon will be blocked.

There are a number of scenarios but the most common ones are:

  1. Push into a premise with guns blazing.

This is what happened at the Bataclan Club in Paris and at the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC.  At about 12:50 p.m. on June 10, 2009, 88-year-old white supremacist James Wenneker von Brunn entered the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. with a rifle and fatally shot Museum Special Police Officer Stephen Tyrone Johns. Other security guards returned fire, wounding von Brunn, who was apprehended.  In this case an armed guard was shot, but the Shooter was himself wounded and apprehended by other guards. In some locales, armed guards are posted both outside and inside buildings to prevent a “push” type assault.

In Israel, for example many restaurants hire armed security guards, inspect bags and take other measures to prevent shootings from outside (e.g., shooting through large glass windows).

In the Push scenario there is very little time but to the degree that the main Hall and entrance can be locked down, the Shooter can be partly contained.

In cases where the Security Staff is not armed, the Shooter’s access can be partially limited by technological means such as magnetic locking doors that can be activated before the Shooter penetrates a facility, strong sound alarms to attempt to drive the shooter away, and the use of non-lethal immobilizing technology including tasers, “wrap” technology (such as the BolaWrap 100 restraint device), immobilizing sprays, rubber bullets etc.  In the case of large glass exposure, the use of bullet-resistant glass is recommended.

  1. Smuggle a weapon into a facility.

Carrying a weapons (gun, rifle, knife, or explosive device) into a building is very common, although most of the cases we know of have occurred where there was neither a security presence (or the security presence was poor) nor any inspection system.

On December 2, 2015, 14 people were killed and 22 others were seriously injured in a terrorist attack consisting of a mass shooting and an attempted bombing at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California. The Active Shooter perpetrators, Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik, a married couple living in the city of Redlands, targeted a San Bernardino County Department of Public Health training event and Christmas party of about 80 employees in a rented banquet room.   At 10:58 a.m., Farook and Malik, armed with semi-automatic pistols and rifles, fired five shots, killing two people outside the building. Farook then entered a minute later and opened fire on those in attendance, followed quickly by Malik. They wore ski masks and black tactical gear but no ballistic or bullet proof vests. The entire shooting took two or three minutes, during which the shooters fired more than 100 bullets before fleeing.  There were no security guards.  Farook had earlier been at the event as a participant, so he knew the set up and was able to use that information to carry out the attack.  When he left midway through the party, he left a backpack on a table filled with explosives.  (The two shooters were later killed by the FBI and Police when their SUV was shot up by law enforcement.)

In Aurora, Colorado at the Century 16 Movie Theater an Active Shooting took place during a midnight viewing of the film “Dark Knight Rises.”  The shooter, James Eagan was able to enter the theater with multiple firearms.  There was no security present.  Twelve people were killed and seventy others were injured, 58 of them from gunfire. The Shooter was arrested outside the Theater near his car.  His apartment was also rigged with explosives and the police narrowly avoided another serious incident.

  1. Enter the enclosed area or gain shooting access from an unlocked exit, loading dock or parking lot.

The most famous incident occurred in Las Vegas on October 1, 2017, a gunman opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers at the Route 91 Harvest music festival.  The shooter opened fire from the 32nd floor of the adjacent Mandalay Bay Hotel.  He smuggled weapons, weapons stands, electronics and other gear to a room he rented, using the Parking Lot underground the hotel and using a freight elevator, not a public elevator.  While the smuggling of his weapons was caught on surveillance video, none of the security personnel in the Hotel apparently understood the penetration or even saw the man hauling equipment.  In the incident, the Shooter was able to train his weapons on the outdoor crowd for around 10 minutes; it would be a full hour before the shooting location was identified and neutralized.  Some  58 people were killed and 851 injured, over 400 of them by gunfire and hundreds more in the ensuing panic. The Shooter was able to pick off his victims at will and kill or wound them when they tried to escape.  Run and Hide was of no value in this incident and there was no possibility of Fight.

  1. Drive by Shooting or related vehicle incident.

Drive by shootings are often gang related but can also include terrorism, or some mental or personal problem.  In some cases the drive by shooting includes vehicle ramming of pedestrians. In New York in 2017 eight people were killed and more than a dozen injured after a man drove a truck nearly a mile down a bike path in lower Manhattan, striking pedestrians, cyclists and a school bus.

On 19 December 2016, a truck was deliberately driven into the Christmas market next to the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church at Breitscheidplatz in Berlin, leaving 12 people dead and 56 others injured. One of the victims was the truck’s original driver, Łukasz Urban, who was found shot dead in the passenger seat.

On the evening of 14 July 2016, a 19-tonne cargo truck was deliberately driven into crowds of people celebrating Bastille Day on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, France, resulting in the deaths of 86 people and the injury of 458 others. The driver was Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, a Tunisian resident of France.

Organizing to Deal with Active Shooter Threats: Operational Model

To effectively deal with Active Shooter attacks requires proper organization, strategy, appropriate technology and training.  The model is not Run, Hide or Fight.  The model is to attempt to (1) identify; (2) intercept; (3) isolate and (4) protect.

  • Identify means the ability to rapidly identify a potential Shooter.
  • Intercept means to attempt to stop or block a shooter before full penetration of a venue.
  • Isolate means to divert a Shooter wherever possible away from crowds or entrances.
  • Protect means to employ effective means to protect as many people as possible from an Active Shooter.

This is the Operational Model.  Not all elements of the Model will be available to the any security staff.  But the security staff must be trained to use these methods as the most effective means of limiting potential harm to individuals.

The FBI should update its security model to Identify, Intercept, Isolate and Protect.  Places where there is any danger of any attack should put in place a trained security staff who understand what they need to do to confront an active shooter.  Correlated with the security staff, useful technology to inhibit an entering shooter, protect employees and visitors and thwart a shooter until reinforced police units arrive is a better security model the FBI should embrace