WINCHESTER — In a mass shooting, fear often causes people to freeze or make stupid decisions, but those who have a survival plan are more likely to live.
“We do dumb things when we’re scared,” Winchester Police Department Capt. Doug Watson told about 50 people in a Wednesday night speech at Shenandoah University on surviving mass shootings. “That’s why we have to have the training and drills. That’s why we have to be [alert] and identify if we have a potential threat and have our plan before the threat presents itself, whenever possible.”
Watson, Winchester SWAT team leader, said he’s extensively studied mass shootings. His research has included listening to lectures by a Connecticut State Police commander who investigated the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre that killed 27, including 20 children. Watson also attended a speech by the mother of a girl killed at Sandy Hook and a speech by a student wounded in the 2007 Virginia Tech massacre that killed 33.
While mass shootings make up a fraction of the approximately 17,000 annual homicides in America, the U.S. leads the world in mass shootings — there were 200 between 2000 and 2015, according to the FBI, which defines a mass shooting as when four or more people are killed.
Watson said people always need to be aware of their surroundings and know where exits are located. And they should be alert for people acting abnormally in a potentially dangerous way.
“That’s not paranoid. I’m not saying that if somebody drops a book or makes a loud noise at work that you’re ducking and diving underneath the table or running outside the building, across the field and into the woods,” he said. “I’m just saying you’re aware of your surroundings. You understand that any day could be the day you have to defend yourself.”
Watson stressed the easy-to-remember “run, hide, fight” survival approach in a mass shooting. While every shooting scenario has different elements, people should try to flee the scene whenever possible.
If fleeing isn’t feasible, they should hide and put up a barricade. Quoting from FBI and New York Police Department research, Watson said most mass shootings last about eight minutes, so the longer a person can hide, the greater the chances of being rescued by police.
A last resort is to fight for survival when cornered. Watson said to improvise using whatever blunt or sharp objects are handy and aim for the shooter’s head.
“Be that person who’s a fighter,” he said. “Be that person who says, ‘I’m not going to be an easy win for this person.’”
Before the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Colorado that killed 15, the first police officers arriving at a mass shooting scene were trained to wait for the SWAT team. Now officers are trained to rush the shooter.
“We can’t sit and wait because people are going to die if we do,” Watson said. “We will not initially render first aid. Our job when we come through the door is to stop the threat. Once we stop the killing, we will work to stop the dying.”
When police arrive, they are trained to treat everyone at the scene as a potential shooter, so Watson said people need to be prepared to have guns pointed at them. They should be compliant and never carry anything in their hands such as a cellphone. In the heat of the moment, it could be mistaken for a gun by officers.
Unless they’re highly trained, Watson said it’s a bad idea for an armed person with a concealed carry permit to take on a shooter. “When you hear the sirens, you’re out of the fight,” he said of concealed carry permit holders. “Do not try to be a hero and jump in the fight [alongside] a police officer, because they’re going to take you as a threat, too.”
Watson also asked parents of students whose schools are in lockdown to not drive to the scene. In the event of an actual shooting, their cars could get in the way of ambulances or police vehicles.
Watson has provided advice and training to more than 2,000 people and 50 different organizations since 2013. He said in an interview that he has had about 20 organizations seek presentations since the Oct. 1 Las Vegas massacre that killed 59, the nation’s deadliest mass shooting. He said police have learned from the killings, and training has saved lives. For instance, Watson said the quick reactions of Sandy Hook teachers who hid their students in bathrooms reduced the carnage.
Audience member Rachael Weaver, training coordinator at Kingspan Insulation in Winchester, said after the speech that the “run, hide, fight” approach and the need for regular workplace “active shooter” drills makes sense.
“We take it very seriously,” she said. “We want to make sure our employees are safe, and we’re doing everything we can to keep them safe.”
Watson told the audience he understands talking about mass shootings makes people uncomfortable, but it could be a matter of life and death. He noted Virginia didn’t make active shooter drills at schools mandatory until 2013.
“I’m sorry that we have to have these talks,” he said. “I wish it wasn’t necessary.”
— Contact Evan Goodenow at firstname.lastname@example.org