Surviving a Mass Shooting


In law enforcement we must constantly be prepared to respond to nearly any situation. Utilizing a wide variety of training methodologies including classroom, practical exercises, and scenario-based instruction, we work to maintain situational awareness at all times. This lesson of preparedness is one I have tried to impart on my family to use in our personal lives.  We talk about various situations that we may find ourselves in - like a fire at home or strangers we may encounter when travelling - and how we would respond.  Someone once said safety is about preparation, not paranoia, and I firmly believe in that philosophy. We should be mentally prepared at all times to quickly react and respond if the situation warrants.

As I was researching my latest book, Mass Shootings: Six Steps for Survival, I was surprised to learn how unprepared the general population is to address traumatic events.  Time and time again I read firsthand accounts of how individuals who were involved in mass shooting incidents had a delayed response, costing precious time in situations where every second counts. On numerous occasions, victims mistook gunfire or even explosions as firecrackers, pranks, or some type of play, holiday celebration, or promotional stunt, causing their initial response to be delayed by valuable seconds or even more.

During the Long Island Railroad shooting in 1993, passengers said they thought it was fireworks before realizing they were being subjected to gunfire.  The sound of fireworks related to a school election was how one survivor of the Thurston High School shooting later explained the noises she heard, while one witness in the Navistar shooting in Melrose Park, Illinois also said he thought it was a prank involving fireworks.  In the Omaha Mall Shooting in 2007, one witness said she thought she heard a nail gun firing, while in the Northern Illinois University shooting one student described the scene as "It was just surreal. Even when the first shot was fired I couldn't believe it was happening. It didn't seem to register with anyone."

One explanation for these very similar types of reactions in very different circumstances may be as simple as the fact that most people have never heard actual gunfire before or been involved in any type of violent incident.

In a mass shooting situation, every second counts - even the slightest delay in response can have dire consequences.  Individuals must be able to quickly recognize the situation and respond.  If you are a teacher in a school, an employee in a post office, or a worker in an office building and hear sounds similar to gunshots, you should recognize that firecrackers or other pyrotechnics are not normal for your workplace and immediately take action.  Know where your nearest exits are located, which objects will provide you with cover (protection from bullets), and which ones will conceal you from the offender. Have a plan and be able to implement it at a moment’s notice.  By being mentally prepared for a violent incident, you are more likely to save yourself and better protect your loved ones from a tragic event.

About the author: John Matthews is a highly decorated, thirty-year law enforcement veteran and public safety consultant who has developed scores of federal law enforcement initiatives.  He is a recipient of a Texas Press Association award for column writing the author of Mass Shootings: Six Steps for Survival and the co-author of The Eyeball Killer, a first-hand account of his capture of Dallas’ only serial killer.