- By Jeff Ostrowski Palm Beach Post Staff Writer
After one of the deadliest school massacres in U.S. history, Americans are hotly debating gun control and public investment in mental health.
There’s little compromise in sight on those contentious issues, but police, employers and experts are nearly unanimous on another scary topic — how potential victims should respond to the immediate threat posed by an active shooter.
The U.S. Department of Homeland Security teaches a three-step response known as Run-Hide-Fight. The approach is embraced by large employers such as Publix Supermarkets and Office Depot and local law enforcement agencies, including the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.
Using Run-Hide-Fight as a building block, law enforcement experts at Texas State University tweaked that approach and created a three-step plan known as Avoid-Deny-Defend. Walmart teaches that curriculum to its employees.
The two approaches are nearly identical, and both aim to empower people who lack military training and might otherwise find themselves frozen with fear in the face of gunfire.
“It’s an easy takeaway,” said Publix spokeswoman Nicole Krauss. “When you’ve completed it, you know what to do.”
Publix in 2016 collaborated with the Department of Homeland Security and the Polk County Sheriff’s Office to create a Run-Hide-Fight video for its 188,000 employees, Krauss said. The retailer requires workers to view the video.
For many cubicle-dwellers and retail workers, just thinking about a violent confrontation is unsettling. Scott Zimmerman, chief executive of K17 Security in Rockville, Md., conducts active-shooter training for employers, and he aims to teach workers simple ways to respond with confidence in the event of a shooting.
“Our goal is not freaking everyone out,” Zimmerman said. “We want them walking out of there with their heads held a little bit higher.”
The Feb. 14 shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland have focused new attention on active shooter training.
“All of a sudden, my next three months are completely booked,” Zimmerman said.
Police and employers teach three basic concepts for responding to a mass shooter:
Avoid/Run: Fleeing the shooter is the first, best option, experts say. Don’t bother to collect belongings, just get away. Plot escape routes ahead of time. Experts stress that fleeing shouldn’t be done in a blind panic, but rather in a quick and calm way.
Deny/Hide: If you can’t safely get away, find a way to make yourself less visible to the assailant. Take shelter in an office or closet. Close and lock doors, or barricade doorways with furniture. Turn off lights. Silence phones that could betray your hiding spot.
Defend/Fight: Take action — but only as a final resort, and only if your life is in danger. Defending yourself could mean throwing something at the shooter, tackling him or grabbing his gun. In separate training videos created by the city of Houston and the Los Angeles County sheriff, workers conveniently hide near fire extinguishers that can be used to blind or bludgeon the shooter.
However, for an unarmed person, taking on a madman wielding an assault rifle isn’t an option to be taken lightly. “It’s our last choice, because it is a risky option,” said Pete Blair, associate professor of criminal justice at Texas State University.
At CareerSource Palm Beach County, the nonprofit employment agency in West Palm Beach, deputies from the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office visit once a year to instruct 130 workers on the Run-Hide-Fight response.
“The sheriff’s department does a really good job,” CareerSource President Steve Craig said. “They try to keep people at ease, but they get the message across.”
Security expert Zimmerman stresses the nuance behind the three-step action plan. Circumstances might force you to scramble the recipe’s order.
“There’s no perfect solution,” Zimmerman said. “Running may or may not be your best option. What if you’re running into something worse?”
And he doesn’t want shooting victims to use hiding as an excuse for inaction.
“They may have wasted critical seconds where they may have gotten away,” Zimmerman said.
Only a tiny fraction of Americans ever experience an eruption of this sort of violence, but because the consequences are so dire, a little training and preparation make sense, experts say. By responding calmly and decisively, Zimmerman said, potential victims can stay alive until police arrive to stop the shooter.
“You’re just trying to buy yourself some time,” Zimmerman said.