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What AI says you should do during an active threat and what you should (and likely will) actually do

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A white man in a black baseball camp casts a stark shadow on a hallway inside a building.

If you ask an AI model what you should do during an active shooter or threatening situation, the advice given is:

  1. Stay calm
  2. Assess the situation to determine the kind of threat
  3. Evacuate if possible
  4. Hide if evacuation is not possible
  5. Communicate to 911
  6. Stay informed
  7. Prepare to defend yourself
  8. Follow instructions of law enforcement

This is not bad advice, but it is incomplete.

We must move beyond the typical “Run, Hide, Fight” model of active threats common in most training programs and, sadly, what many kids learn in schools across the United States. Otherwise, the training we’re giving people is not based in reality and is most likely forgettable — and thus unhelpful.

Imagine an active threat in the room you’re in right now

If you are reading this anywhere other than your home, imagine a voice coming over an intercom or a message arriving on your phone or inbox that says an active shooter has been spotted in the main corridor of your building.

What you think you’ll do is what most models talk about, including AI models: you’ll assess the situation, evacuate if possible or hide, and call 911. But this is not what research suggests will actually happen.

Bystander effects are worse the more there are and the more people know each other

Researchers in Denmark reviewed 764 bystanders across 81 violent incidents that occurred on camera in Denmark. The researchers wrote:

Bystanders were sampled with a case-control design, their behavior was observed and coded, and the probability of intervention was estimated with multilevel regression analyses. The results confirm our predicted association between social relations and intervention. However, rather than the expected reversed bystander effect, we found a classical bystander effect, as bystanders were less likely to intervene with increasing bystander presence. The effect of social relations on intervention was larger in magnitude than the effect of the number of bystanders. 

Even in a workplace where people may know each other more closely than, say, a shopping mall, the bystander effect is ever more pronounced the more people there are in a building and just as severe among people who know each other.

Information relayed to 911 dispatchers is often frustratingly vague

Further, when people do contact 911 or their building security, most people can’t or don’t relay information that is particularly useful to responding officers and can cause delayed responses from emergency medical services. In a 2014 report from the Police Executive Research Forum, they write:

The national standard is that EMS workers will not enter scenes that are not secure. And that makes sense; they don’t want their own people to become victims.

However, the problem we face in an active shooter situation is that when one of these events happens, you get many people calling in and giving different descriptions of the shooter. So the police go in and stop the killing, and they call dispatch and say, “I’ve got a shooter down,” and they provide a description. But the description does not match all of the descriptions given by 911 callers, so you can’t be sure that there isn’t another shooter on the scene.

Law enforcement then has to do a thorough, systematic, door-to-door search of the entire building, which can take hours, depending on the size of the building and the number of rooms. People who are actively bleeding do not have the luxury of hours for recovery and response.

Even after a shooter or threat is incapacitated, people continue to call into 911 dispatch centers reporting sightings or relaying second-hand knowledge, like, “My buddy just texted me from across the hall and says he just saw the shooter.” Police officers are increasingly trained to help render minimal first aid if they believe it is safe for them to do so, but the delays from 911 calls are glossed over in many active threat trainings.

You should absolutely call 911 to report what you know but do not under any circumstances relay information you do not know to be true. Even when people think they are relaying positive information, it can still be frustrating for dispatchers. A series of 911 calls to dispatchers from the University of Michigan in 2019 caused a campus-wide panic and lockdown alert that lasted over three hours when multiple students called to report gunshots that turned out to be balloons popping during a team building exercise.

This is why Vantage Point’s active threat response and drills have long encouraged people to identify and sustain ways of escaping buildings under almost any means necessary, even if it risks breaking an arm or leg to jump from a second-story window, and how to help dispatchers with actionable advice.

An FBI analysis of mass shootings occurring during 2000–2013, which includes the Fort Hood and Aurora, Colorado theater shootings, found that at least 25% of all incidents involve shootings in more than one location. About half of the shooters moved from one location to another to continue killing. And, they note, male shooters tend to act violently against women with whom they have or once had a romantic relationship.

Statistically, most people will not remain calm, so what you think you will do is unlikely to be what you will actually do. In the University of Michigan balloon incident, most students could only relay that they “heard gunshots.” Despite constantly asking for information like where they were, how many, and where they may have come from, nearly every caller stood in panicked silence and could only say, “You guys need to get over here.”

Preparation requires practice, not simple slogans and pamphlets

VPC’s R2EBA model — Recognize, React, Evacuate, Barricade, and Attack is longer than the simpler “Run, Hide, Fight” and requires more training for people to internalize. But that investment is worth it in life. VPC encourages everyone to practice active threat drills like they would fire or tornado drills. 

Dwight Frost, VPC’s Safety Branch Director and veteran law enforcement officer, helps organizations from churches to healthcare facilities to better prepare by establishing evacuation routes — including ladders or ropes — to place in every room. “If every room has clearly marked exits in case of a fire, they should also have tools to evacuate during an active threat,” says Frost.

Frost cites the Virginia Tech shooting where two classrooms provided an unfortunate case study in response. “Two rooms next to each other got the same information at the same time,” says Frost. “One room actively sought to escape through windows, often jumping and breaking ankles or suffering minor scratches,” he says. “The other room took a hide and barricade strategy, which failed and resulted in everyone’s death. This is why if you’re in an active threat, the number one thing you should do is get out of the area entirely.” 

In-person active threat drills and seminars provide significant value over reading guides and leaning on AI-generated best-case scenarios. “When we’re on-site providing an active threat seminar, I’m looking around the room we’re in and encouraging people to identify what they can use as weapons, how to escape, providing options for getting out of the space, and offering practical, life-saving solutions for those people in that building,” says Frost.

Request an active threat exercise or seminar for your organization

You can get started with a no-risk quote on active threat training for your company, organization, or facility now. Rates vary depending on travel from Indianapolis, Indiana, and while online seminars are possible, “We find this is too important to do merely online. It needs to be in-person, focused, and given the attention it demands,” says Frost. 

Exercises can be designed for your facility, team, shifts, and schedules. Further, exercises can be designed to help people practice relaying useful, actionable information to dispatchers.

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