What our reporter learned from Lake in the Hills' active shooter training -- and her own experience of being robbed
Having written stories about situations involving mass shootings and cars driving into crowds, 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.
When the Lake in the Hills Police Department offered a civilian response course on dealing with active shooter/attack situations recently, it seemed like a good chance to learn skills that might save my life.
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 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 both into what to expect and how to deal with it.
I come 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 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.
It will be offered twice more in the coming weeks: from 6 to 8 p.m. Oct. 28, and 3 to 5 p.m. Nov. 21, at the Lake in the Hills Police Department's Safety Education Center, 1109 Crystal Lake Road. To register, visit lith.org/police.
Other suburban police departments have offered similar programs. Police in both 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, lays out the central strategy.
"Avoid the attacker. Deny them access. Defend yourself," Mannino says.
A video reflecting on the deadly April 2007 shooting spree on the Virginia Tech campus is a haunting lesson of why playing dead doesn't work.
Kristina Anderson, a Virginia Tech sophomore at the time of the attack, describes 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 watch Anderson tell her story, I am reminded of a video on the March 15 shooting rampage at two mosques in Chirstchurch, 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 tells 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 explains, 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 says. "Fear is a fire that will overcome you (more) quickly than you are able to control."
Again, I recall 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 suggests 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 says, 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 tells us to be aware of our surroundings at all times. He says not to disregard loud bangs, because the sound of gunshots can be muffled or distorted in large buildings. He says to identify multiple exits to escape through or places that can provide cover or concealment.
"Hesitation can cost you valuable time," Mannino says. "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 talks about the value of keeping objects between yourself and the attacker. "Locking the door has proved effective in many attacks," Mannino says.
He demonstrates barricading doors, bracing door handles with belts and other objects, and urges turning off lights and silencing phones. He says 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 says.
"You have the right to defend yourself," Mannino says, and that includes "fighting dirty" and aggressively.
"Whether alone or working together as a group, fight," he stresses. "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 emphasizes.
"Law enforcement's first priority would be to stop the threat to your safety," Mannino says. "Do not have anything in your hands that could be perceived as a weapon."
Mannino tells 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 says.
As the class disperses, I reflect. When the couple bolted with our car after the robbery, my sister rushed behind them to lock the front door.
Police arrived within minutes, while I was still on the phone with the dispatcher describing what had happened. We survived that ordeal. Am I prepared for one that could be even more horrific?
I leave knowing inaction is not an option. I need to have a plan, which I pray I never have to put into practice. And I need to share these pointers with my family, friends and faith community so we are better prepared for the worst.
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