One of the most dangerous situations you can encounter at home or abroad is an active shooter scenario. Particularly since the Columbine School shooting US law enforcement has devoted a great deal of effort on training to deal with active shooter situations. This phenomenon has occurred over and over again – most notably as of this writing with the Colorado movie theater shooting. This is not a uniquely American experience as active shooter situations have occurred in different places around the world. In some of the foreign cases the “active shootings” are actually militant attacks on soft targets.
Two examples of particular concern for travelers are the January 2008 attack on the Serena Hotel in Kabul, Afghanistan and the 2008 attacks in Mumbai, India. In both cases the attackers breached hotels (the Mumbai attacks also involved other soft targets) and victimized guests.
While these attacks had pre-incident indicators they likely would not be visible to a short-term hotel guest. Therefore – as with most of the types of situations we have discussed before – the best immediate defense is awareness. As soon as you become aware that an active shooter situation is occurring you typically have to choose quickly between two options: (1) evacuate (2) shelter in place. If conditions permit and you can do it safely it’s usually best to evacuate the building under attack and move to a safe location. The difficulty with this option is that frequently too much may be unclear to make a good decision. Has the shooter or shooters blocked the exits? Have they set up fields of fire on the likely evacuation routes, hoping to draw people into a killzone? In many cases you may have to go for option 2, to shelter in place.
When sheltering in place it’s important to consider cover and concealment. How do they differ? Cover is any object that will protect your body from gunfire, shrapnel and other projectiles. Concealment protects your body against visibility and detection. Both are important. Some objects will offer both cover and concealment, some will offer one but not the other. Whenever possible you want both. Also as with any defensive position you want to use a layered approach if you can. As an example, if you become aware of an active shooter threat you might seek shelter in a closed, locked office or your hotel room if you are in a hotel. This will provide you concealment (unless of course it’s a glass office) and possibly a minor barrier (the locked door). Once inside the office you can seek cover and in fact additional concealment by going behind a large desk or other piece of furniture. You should silence your cell phone, watch alarm or any other electronic device that might emit noise and give away your location. You should also try to arm yourself with an improvised weapon of some type and prepare yourself mentally should you be discovered and have to attack the shooter as a last ditch effort. If possible you should call a reliable contact or an emergency number for the police and advise them of the situation. Be cautious however about revealing your location. If it’s a lone shooter then it’s probably useful to the responding police to know where you are located. However in a more complex terrorist event, like the Mumbai Attacks the attackers maybe using scanners to monitor first responder radio transmissions and cell phone calls. There is a risk – although maybe remote – that they may intercept your call and therefore know the location where you are hiding. Unfortunately you likely won’t know the nature of the attack when it occurs. You may have to make your decision based on the location where you are, what the likely threats are and their potential capabilities.
Additional resources are the US Department of Homeland Security Active Shooter Response Guide (http://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/active_shooter_booklet.pdf) and pocket card (http://www.dhs.gov/xlibrary/assets/active_shooter_pocket_card.pdf) and the NYPD Active Shooter Recommendations and Analysis for Risk Mitigation (http://www.nyc.gov/html/nypd/downloads/pdf/counterterrorism/ActiveShooter.pdf