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How to protect yourself during a mass shooting

Mass shootings can happen anywhere, at any time. It's imperative that everyone know how to react.

Laura Torres, right, and Sonia Yanez visit a line of crosses before a vigil for the victims of Sunday’s First Baptist Church shooting, Monday, Nov. 6, 2017, in Sutherland Springs, Texas.
Laura Torres, right, and Sonia Yanez visit a line of crosses before a vigil for the victims of Sunday’s First Baptist Church shooting, Monday, Nov. 6, 2017, in Sutherland Springs, Texas.Read moreDavid J. Phillip / AP

After shots were fired at the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where 26 people were killed in Sunday's mass shooting, Julius Kepper, who lives nearby, grabbed his gun and ran toward the sound of gunfire, according to the Wall Street Journal, where he saw another neighbor, also armed, confront the suspected killer. Kepper later said, "You just can't conceive of this happening in a small town like this." Carrie Matula, who works nearby, told NBC News, "I never thought it would happen here," adding, "This is something that happens in a big city."

Not so. Mass shootings occur in rural, suburban and urban settings. In recent years, mass shootings have occurred at gathering places and houses of worship of many different faiths: churches, an Islamic center, a Jewish community center, a Sikh temple. There was Sandy Hook elementary school in 2012, the Pulse nightclub in 2016, and, a few weeks ago, an outdoor country music show in Las Vegas where a gunman opened fire, killing 58 people and wounding hundreds.

Mass shootings can happen anywhere, at any time. It's imperative that everyone know how to react.

Dave Grossman, author of On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, speaks regularly on the subject and often begins his lectures with this question: How many kids in America have died from a school fire in recent years? His answer: None. Meanwhile, according to a 2014 FBI study, active shooters killed 117 people in schools between 2000 and 2013. Schools conduct fire drills and adhere to fire codes, but they generally don't do nearly as much, Grossman insists, to train students for a scenario far more likely to kill kids in schools: an active shooter. Most adults lack preventive training, as well.

Talking about these attacks can be difficult and heart-wrenching. But we can't avoid preparing ourselves just because the topic is disturbing. As my colleague James Hamilton – who served for years in the FBI and provides training to corporations, government agencies and security personnel for public figures – says, "You must be an active participant in your own survival."

Be an active participant in your own survival

In the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre, a lone gunman had two handguns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. He entered the second floor of Norris Hall and began the final phase of a killing spree that, in total, left 32 students and faculty members dead.

One lesson from that tragedy is that the types of action taken by students and professors inside different classrooms influenced their chances of survival. In Room 206, where students hid beneath their desks, the gunman killed 10 students and wounded several as he walked up and down the rows of desks. In Room 204, however, where two students were killed, several students jumped out of the second-floor windows, and all of those who managed to escape survived. In Room 205, students barricaded the classroom door with tables and chairs, holding it all in place while lying flat on the ground. Despite the shooter's attempt to breach the barricade, firing two inaccurate rounds into the room, he never entered and everyone inside survived.

During an active-shooter event, as the recent attacks in Texas and Las Vegas sadly demonstrate, some things are outside our control. Yet, like the students in Rooms 204 and 205, we can take actions that may improve the chances of survival.

Take time to prepare an emergency action plan

Recently, in a coffee shop with my wife, I nodded toward the door and asked her, "What would you do if a man holding a gun walked through that door right now?" She answered, "I would throw my hot coffee at his face and distract him long enough to run out that side door." I loved her response. She had a plan.

When I asked a security professional and colleague, Nick Perez – who attended the Las Vegas concert with his girlfriend – what he credits most for their survival, he said, "I had a plan." Before attending the show, Perez reviewed the festival's app on his phone. He noted the venue's layout, including the entrances and emergency exit points. He said, "I thought ahead because I'm trained to do so. I always want to know a location's layout in case I need to make a quick exit or find on-site security or medical services. And, to be honest," he said, "I wasn't thinking about a mass shooting but more common occurrences like a medical emergency or a fight."

In the world of bodyguards and close protection, we call his actions "advancing" a location – preparing for the arrival of our protectee. We want to know the location of on-site security and paramedics, exit points and, most of all, our planned evacuation routes in case we need to evacuate because of an emergency, such as a fire or a shooter.

When you're out in public, before settling into your seat or spot, ask yourself: If there's an attack, what will I do? It only takes a moment to answer this question before you sit back, relax and enjoy your outing. Think of it as making regular deposits in a survival bank and then, if an emergency arises, being able to make a potentially lifesaving withdrawal.

At theaters and concerts, consider choosing seats on the aisle and close to exits. At restaurants, sit with your back to the wall and face the entrance. And before you relax, identify your escape routes and exit points, including turnstiles, doors, scalable fences and accessible windows. If escaping a building isn't a viable option during an attack, consider moving into rooms where you're able to barricade yourself and others from the attacker. If the attacker breaches that room, be ready to use an improvised weapon – fire extinguisher, scissors, pen, etc. – to incapacitate him with speed, surprise and violence of action.

Practice situational awareness

Perez told me that he stood with his girlfriend just 30 feet from the stage when gunfire tore through the crowd. "After the second burst of gunfire," he said, "I knew it wasn't firecrackers, I knew we were under attack." How did he know? "I saw a police car racing down Las Vegas Boulevard, toward the hotel." "Right then," he said, "I grabbed my girlfriend's hand and sprinted in the opposite direction to the exit I remembered from the venue's layout on the festival app."

When arriving at a new location, such as a restaurant or hotel lobby, in addition to considering your emergency action plan, pause for a moment and allow your senses to absorb all that's "normal" within the new environment – the sights, the sounds, the smells, etc. Once you establish a baseline of normalcy, it's easier to identify all that is not normal, and possibly, dangerous. At the gun range, firearms and gunshots are normal. Nearly everywhere else, they are not. At a concert, yelling is normal. At a restaurant, it is not. Anything that "is not" catches my attention as "not normal" for that environment and is possibly an indication of danger.

If I saw a man walk through the front entrance of an establishment dressed in a wool trench coat on a hot August day, his winter attire would disrupt my baseline sense of normalcy. As a result, I'd observe his behavior a bit longer. If his actions continued to suggest abnormal behavior and cause me unease, I'd listen to my intuition like any animal bent on survival and respond to the perceived danger. That response might simply be continued observation or something more, like me moving closer to the exit. And if the strange-acting man, who I'd now be intuiting as possibly dangerous, revealed a rifle beneath his wool coat, I wouldn't need to hear the first shot. I'd already be executing my evacuation plan before anyone else.

Get out of the kill zone

When one of the teachers at Columbine High School heard shots fired during that school's 1999 mass shooting, she ran into the library and called 911. At one point, she told students in the library to "get down" and hide under desks and tables. When the gunmen entered the library, it became a kill zone and teenagers, caught sitting statically underneath those tables, began to die.

If you're caught by surprise in a kill zone, getting down is beneficial if the shooter is firing from a position level to yours. But whatever you do, don't stay down for long. As soon as it's possible, "move off the X," as we say in personal security. Hiding under a table or desk offers little protection and provides the shooter a static human target to shoot. And, in the case of Columbine and Virginia Tech, to shoot at close range. Targets moving through the kill zone, however, are harder to hit. And targets that have evacuated the kill zone altogether are much harder to hit.

If you're being shot at and you know the gunman is firing from an elevated position, do not "get down" or stay down. Doing so creates a stationary human target with a larger surface area for his barrage of descending bullets. Instead, flee the kill zone immediately toward your preplanned exit points and eventually find cover, either terrain or structures that can probably stop bullets.

If like many of the Las Vegas concertgoers, you don't know the killer's location and you lack nearby cover, you can still attempt to flee the kill zone. It's your best option. And when you evacuate the kill zone, try to take others with you. If more people are running away from the kill zone than remaining paralyzed in it, others will follow.

Ed Hinman is a director at Gavin de Becker & Associates, an international security consulting firm. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and served for eight years as a Marine Corps infantry officer.