Editor’s Note: Today’s Op-Ed was sent to us by Chief Travis Walker of the Santa Paula, California police department.
A well-known professional boxer famously said, “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth," and the same is true once you find yourself in the middle of a mass shooting. Due to the time it takes law enforcement to intercede, it is imperative that you begin conditioning your mind now, to help better recognize the threat, formulate the appropriate response, and ultimately execute your plan to help ensure your survival.
We have sadly experienced multiple active attacks in a variety of communities over the past few weeks. Whether a gun, an explosive device, or a vehicle is used to carry out the attack, more and more people across our country are getting caught in the line of fire, and I feel we must do a better job of training the general public to condition their minds ahead of an incident, if we expect to see a reduction in the number of casualties.
Preconditioning the mind
If you want to reduce your exposure to danger, it’s important to have a plan in place beforehand. Advance planning can precondition your mind to make the decisions and take the actions that are necessary for your safety. This will reduce the possibility of a freeze-inducing panic and shorten your response time to danger. Just as residents of earthquake zones are primed to “Drop, Cover, and Hold” if they’re caught in a quake, it is now sadly necessary for you to have a plan for responding to an active attack threat. Simple models like “Run, Hide, Fight,” or “Avoid, Deny, Defend” are excellent starting points for your planning, but you can do even better. If you want to maximize your ability to survive in an active attack, you’ll need to build a new habit—one where you’re constantly paying attention to your environment, and looking for the important details that will allow you to tailor a plan that’s specific for where you are right now.
Public safety and military personnel condition their minds to effectively navigate combat and stress situations by visualizing how they would handle incidents beforehand. Driving by various businesses prone for robberies would help condition my mind for a response to in-progress calls at the location. Visualizing priorities such as where I would park, what would I say over the radio, how I would handle multiple suspects, and knowing the environmental conditions around the business, all helped my brain process information more effectively, allowing me to better focus, and remain calm during stressful calls.
The danger of normalcy bias
Have you ever walked into a business and identified a primary exit route in the event of a crisis? How about a secondary or tertiary exit route should something happen to your primary exit? You can no longer disregard the need to be aware of your surroundings or rely upon others to be responsible for your safety during times of crisis. Research conducted by Amanda Ripley for her disaster response book, The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – And Why (2009), showed that humans share three common phases of behavioral responses during disasters. These are denial, deliberation, and decisive moment. Her findings are consistent with the behavioral responses of victims during active attack incidents.
Ripley’s denial findings showed that it was more common for people to deny that a disaster was occurring, due to the brain not properly identifying the source of the emergency. The brain processes information at a remarkable speed and will typically default to comparing information experienced in our past to what is happening in the present, and anticipating the future. Psychologists commonly refer to this as “normalcy bias.” During the 2015 mass shooting terror attack in San Bernardino, California, I saw an example of this when some of the surviving victims thought that the initial gunshots fired outside of their room were balloons popping. Our brains are not conditioned to recognize the distinct sound of gunfire and will default to the most similar sound that it knows, such as a balloon popping, a car backfiring, or maybe even fireworks…but not a threatening situation. To help overcome the denial phase, we must treat sounds that may be gunfire as such, and immediately act without delay.
Our fight, flight, or freeze response is activated after overcoming the denial phase. Referred to as the deliberation phase, this is where your pre-planning will likely save your life. Don’t worry about grabbing personal effects, trying to shut down your computer, or deciding you need to record the incident for social media…move on to the decisive moment and GET OUT! Freezing, playing dead, or huddling with others during an attack only makes you an easier target for the suspect. You must condition yourself to act decisively by quickly arriving at the decisive moment phase and executing your plan of action.
Your survival depends upon your mental preparation
Suspects will choose a location that can be attacked easily, because it does not have any type of armed defenses. We have seen attacks occur in movie theatres, open air events, houses of worship, schools, beauty salons, shopping centers, and many other locations we frequent daily. The suspect in the 2019 active shooter attack at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas, professed it was “not cowardly to pick low hanging fruit” and that “low security targets should be attacked.” This is a common ideology shared by many active attackers. Since law enforcement’s response time to an active attack incident can range between four to eight minutes, you must ensure that your mind is prepared to recognize the threat early, rapidly process an escape plan or find a hiding spot that will safely conceal you from the suspect(s), and, as a last resort, be prepared to attack with such aggression that the suspect is quickly incapacitated.
Your life depends on it.
— Travis Walker
Walker is Chief of Police for the city of Santa Paula, located in the State of California, and has more than two-decades of law enforcement experience. Chief Walker was the Tactical Commander during the 2015 mass shooting terror attack in San Bernardino, California. He has a master’s degree in leadership and disaster preparedness from Grand Canyon University and is a recognized subject matter expert in the areas of active shooter response, critical incident management, and incident command.