Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Active attackers: How to survive as a parent with small children


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Here's an article I wish I didn't have a reason to write but that I feel I need to. If talking about assault scenarios like active shooters makes you too anxious, feel free to click away. My intent isn't to scare you more but to help you feel prepared and practice some safety tips, the way your family already probably has a plan in place for emergencies like a fire.

Now, I am not a tough cookie. I am not a trained martial artist or Olympic-level sprinter or law enforcement officer or indeed anyone who would be helpful in an active-attacker situation. The following is my take on what to do based on researching from people who know. I encourage you to do your own research and make your own determinations. Because:

1. The first step is to be prepared for what you will do in an emergency assault situation.

This sounds like an unnecessary prep step to skim over, but I assure you it's not. Most people's initial reaction to a public assault (shooting, bomb threat, car driving into pedestrian area) is to do nothing. This is due in part to a trick of the mind that your brain is much more likely to believe something usual than something unusual, so it takes longer for your brain to figure out what is actually happening in an emergency situation, or that it even is an emergency. I saw video footage of people watching the bomb fire on the London Underground and basically saying, "Huh," until someone authoritative yelled at them to run. (See the video here at about the :20 mark.) Like, duh, of course, and yet they just got their cellphones out and videoed it for awhile.

This ties in to a second reason we do nothing in emergencies. We are social creatures, and we look around to see if other people are freaking out and what they're doing about it. But if we're ALL just freezing in confusion, then the freezing reinforces itself. We don't do anything because no one else is, and they don't because you aren't, and so on. Until it's too late. I was on a plane where the oxygen masks dropped down. You've heard the safety spiel, right? What are you supposed to do when the oxygen masks drop down? PUT THEM ON. No one did. No one. We all just looked around to see if anyone else did, and no one wanted to look like the goofy person who put on a mask when no one else was. Everything was (relatively) fine; it was some technical glitch and we could all breathe without the masks, but it brought home this point.

Decide in advance what you will do when you think there's an emergency, and then DO IT, no matter if you're the only one. Be safe now; feel silly later if necessary.

This is all the more important if you have young children in tow. Taking action is going to be slower and more cumbersome for you, so you need those extra seconds you'd have wasted wondering what to do and if you should do it. Just GO. Because, point #2:

2. Run.

Don't hide or stay to fight. If there's a bad person intent on harming people in a particular space, the best thing you can do is DON'T BE IN THAT SPACE.

Get out. Grab your kids, and haul it.

Some subtips on how to accomplish the above.

  1. Be aware of your exits wherever you go. This can be accomplished in a way that makes you feel more like a secret SWAT team member than paranoid. There's a reason airlines emphasize all the exits, including the weird ones over the wings. They don't want you (a) wondering where they are or (b) remembering only the "official" exit you came in through. Same here. A lot of businesses seem cave-like, with only one official entrance. But most, for fire code reasons if nothing else, have alternate egresses. Consider employee-only areas like stockrooms and kitchens. Consider convenient windows. Consider emergency exit doors. It might sound silly to remind you of those, but I think psychologically we tend to gloss over those as possibilities since we're not usually allowed to use them. This would be the perfect scenario to give them a try.
  2. Leave your stuff. Don't lug your diaper bag or fumble for your kid's lost shoe. Go, go, go. People first, stuff later.
  3. Trust your instincts. If something seems hinky to you, get you and your kids out first and worry you overreacted later.
  4. Consider in advance which of your kids can run alongside you and which you need to grab in your arms. If you're not carrying certain children, see if you can arrange to grab a hand to haul them along. If you have older kids who can help move along younger kids, enlist them in advance. If your youngest kid is already currently being worn in a baby carrier on you, that's perfect for leaving your hands free to help an older. If not, you don't have time to strap in, so just grab and go. With a stroller or car seat-type carrier, if there are any obstacles in your path, it's probably best to grab just the baby and leave the gear, unless it's physically impossible for you without a stroller. In general, if you have someone to help you carry children or can rope someone into helping, use that. Again, though, don't wait for people to run with you if they're not. Tell people to get out as you go, but keep going even if they're not. The exception is if you're physically not able to manage escape with your children; then you'll need to quickly persuade someone nearby to help you out.
  5. Prepare older children in advance. I don't really want to freak my kids out by having active shooter drills at home. My kids are homeschooled, and I know they do these in schools now, but I think it's possible to do a generalized emergency drill without going into details of what scenarios are possible. Emphasize that some emergency situations might require you to evacuate, quickly. As with fire safety, remind them that people are more important than things and they should be prepared to leave a place immediately and leave any belongings behind. Teach them to take you seriously when you say something's an emergency (and don't abuse that term for any other situations), and to stay near you and run as quickly as possible if you say so. For even older children, those who might be on their own in an emergency, you'll want to go over these tips so they can be prepared to save themselves.
  6. As you're running, try to take any cover that's convenient. By this I mean, don't take the time out of running to hide, but if it's possible to run a direction that puts buildings, trees, or vehicles between you and an assailant, all the better. Most assailants aren't highly trained, and moving and obscured targets are hard to hit even if they were. Some tips will say to zigzag as you run through open spaces. I fear this may be hard to accomplish with an entourage of small children and might just slow you down. Consider your and your children's running ability as you decide now. If you want to zigzag, practice this running pattern with your kids in advance.
  7. Once you're far enough away that you feel safe, then take shelter. Call emergency services, take stock of injuries, and take time to rest. Your adrenaline will probably have carried you this far, but now you will have to handle the aftermath and tend to your children. 

For more information, I refer you to the steps disseminated by the Department of Homeland Security in order of preference: Run, Hide, Fight.

You'll notice I skipped the last two steps. That's because I don't think they're particularly useful for parents of young children. Crying babies and talkative toddlers don't hide well (nor do large groups), and how are you going to perform hand-to-hand combat while shielding your kids? But I do recommend going over these subpar options quickly in case they're what you're stuck with. Also be aware that you might have to do more than one of these three options and not necessarily in order. For instance, if you're in the direct path of an attacker, you might need to fight first and then flee. Think through some possible scenarios and what you might be able to handle as you deal with your kids as well.

Hide: If running didn't work or you're trapped, try finding a room with a locking door, maybe an office or family restroom. Barricade the door with anything that is heavy but movable, and then stay back and down and quiet. If you can get behind impenetrable objects like concrete walls or big appliances, do so. Kids can squirm themselves into small, unreachable spaces, but only if they'd be hidden rather than trapped. Again, escaping is better if possible. If there's nothing to hide behind, experts say to crouch against the wall that's next to the door.

Fight: If it comes down to it and a bad dude is lunging at you and yours, absolutely fight back. Might as well at that point. Resolve ahead of time that whenever someone attacks you, you will attack back. Don't be nice, and don't rely on an assailant's niceness. Just go full throttle and try to hurt him before he hurts you. There are some more ideas here, but a few tips are to enlist others' help (better for you if they can handle it without you as you stay with your kids, of course), take whatever weapons are to hand (fire extinguisher, swinging a chair, throwing a book, etc.), try to attack from the back or side if possible, and try to keep distance between you and the attacker by throwing or swinging weapons and then still fleeing if possible.

Here's a video I found helpful outlining each step in order of preference. It's one you could also show older kids who want to prepare themselves. For more sensitive viewers, skip to the 1:30 mark if you want to avoid most of the dramatization of violence. I've tried to cue it up for you below.

This is all assuming you alone are in charge of your kids in a public or semi-public space like a shop, place of worship, theater, restaurant, or the like. If you're in a school, airport, mall, or other organized space, authorities there might have procedures in place to direct you into lockdown areas. Without knowing the particulars, I can't tell you whether you'd be safer running or sheltering in those circumstances, but I know I'd probably err on the side of following authority figures who seem to know what they're doing. As noted above, we are sheeple at heart, so this might or might not be what's best in any given scenario, but if there's a coordinated lockdown procedure in place, that will likely end up at least being easier on you and your kids than running with them would be. As with the above, think about it beforehand and make your decisions in your own mind. Definitely obey any law enforcement personnel to increase your safety and avoid being treated as threatening.

The odds of being caught in such a terrifying situation are higher than they should be but still thankfully rare. I'm hoping none of you ever have need to follow these tips, but it's good to know what you would do should the unthinkable happen to you and your little ones.

Resources & further reading:

"What to Do in an Active Shooter Situation" at The Art of Manliness

"Teaching Your Kids What to Do in an Active Shooter Situation" at BusyMommyMedia — extra tips directed at children themselves for if you're together or separated during an emergency

FEMA booklet (PDF)

Department of Homeland Security Active Shooter Preparedness — resources and training

I'm Not Scared … I'm Prepared children's book & activity book

Disclaimer: Please remember I am not an expert, and you should do your own research and training! I hope you will never need any of this information, but I urge you to read further about what experts recommend during an active attack and determine what you will choose as your possible courses of action.


Olivia said...

Thank you for sharing. This scenario and what I would do runs through my head often, sadly.

Lauren Wayne said...

@Olivia: Yes, it has caused me sleepless nights. Scary.

Becca @ The Earthling's Handbook said...

This is really good advice. My main strategy when I feel worried about this kind of thing is to imagine, in detail, how safely I will escape.

My son and I were on the edge of riots about the G-20 when he was 4. (Rereading my article, I'm surprised I didn't mention that the next day, we walked on broken glass on Craig Street because nearly half the street-level windows had been smashed; all those businesses were closed, so it was creepy calm yet very obvious what we had missed by getting out of there in time!) I feel that the most helpful tool I had was having read Little House on the Prairie to him: The scene in which they're fording a river in the wagon when the water begins to rise is a perfect illustration of An Emergency and how kids need to follow their parents' instructions immediately without question!! My kids are questioning/arguing types, so having this example handy to refer to is valuable.

Lauren Wayne said...

@Rebecca Stallings: I really appreciate your story and how well you explained things to your son in the moment and kept your cool. I like the idea of having a story to lean on as a vivid reminder of listening in an emergency — good tip!

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