This month, readers of Security Management Magazine — published by ASIS International — were shocked when they saw the following headline on the cover:
RUN, HIDE, DON’T FIGHT.
The article, written by Michael Dorn, a CEO of a security consulting firm specializing in K-12 school security, is based on a study of schools that found educators and school administrators who underwent Run, Hide, Fight training (based on the Department of Homeland Security guidelines) most often defaulted to “fighting” the threat. The conclusion of the author is that “fighting” is not always necessary when confronted with a potential mass casualty event and could, in fact, lead to unnecessary injuries or deaths.
As a security and intelligence professional who has consulted on several DHS counterterrorism awareness programs (along with many other law enforcement, military and counterterrorism professionals), I find the analysis and conclusions offered in this story extremely dangerous and detrimental to the future of this critical training. The editors at Security Management Magazine did a great disservice to our K-12 educators and the security of our children by not putting such an important topic into the hands of an independent journalist who could seek out and include counter arguments to those proposed by the author — to say nothing of the absolutely ridiculous headline.
No Plan Survives Contact With The Enemy
According to the author, the study’s conclusions were the result of scenario-based options training, in which school teachers and staff were presented with either audio or video scenarios depicting active shooters and other threats. As each scenario was presented, participants were asked to choose a course of action. The decisions were then scored by “analysts” who had “completed a 16-hour formal training program and one day of field work.”
It was these “analysts” who, according to the author, came up with the action steps for each scenario that were “predetermined to be ideal.”
This should be a red flag for any counterterrorism or security professional. Such an overly academic approach to a highly tactical threat situation does little more than help non-security professionals think about the challenge. But training for an active shooter threat requires the right balance of muscle memory and tactical decision making under stress. And that kind of training cannot be provided by analysts with a mere 16 hours of training under their belts, sitting back checking off standard operating procedures on an iPad.
I was taught early on in my career as an officer in the United States Marine Corps that no plan survives contact with the enemy. You can produce detailed mock-ups of your plan, rehearse standard operating procedures over and over again, and plan for every conceivable contingency. But the reality is that the enemy always gets a say in how a situation or crisis will unfold. It is at that point that your standard operating procedures and policies become non-standard. This is the essence of tactical decision making.
This is a critical point given Dorn’s assertion that active shooter training based on the run, hide, fight methodology leads to poorer decision making than receiving no training at all.
“Participants who were provided with options-based active shooter programs had lower scores than those who had not completed any type of training,” Dorn wrote. “This outcome shows that current active shooter training methods may be overwhelming for administrators and teachers because they provide too much information—prompting them to attack when it is not necessary.”
What is missing here? First, we aren’t provided any information on the actual nature of the scenarios. Is the active shooter standing within reach of the participant being evaluated, or is it simply the sound of shots being fired? Are there other students in the immediate field of fire? Is it practical or even wise to expect a teacher or administrator to initiate a lockdown, call 911, or pull the fire alarm when a active shooter or suicidal student is brandishing a weapon within feet of dozens of other students?
What is most important in any scenario involving a mass casualty threat is that the staff and faculty act. But to act properly and effectively requires training in tactical decision making. Standard operating procedures, such as initiating a lockdown and calling 911, are the foundation of tactical decision making. But they are muscle memory actions that must be flexible when faced with novel situations that you cannot control.
Will you feel overwhelmed with options when faced with an active shooter? Yes. Will you be forced to make decisions without 100 percent clarity about the situation? Yes. But it is imperative that you make those decisions and that you act.
The unfortunate implication of Dorn’s study is that the run, hide, fight methodology is leading educators to make the wrong decisions in active threat scenarios, particularly active shooter scenarios.
“Many of the participants in the simulations responded by opting to use force for almost any scenario involving a subject depicted with a gun,” Dorn wrote. “If the student in question was suicidal, such a reaction could be deadly, possibly leading to the student to shoot himself or others.”
This is not a symptom of a flawed methodology, but perhaps lack of expertise by those providing the training. Participants in active shooter training must be taught how to think and analyze the situation under extreme pressure. They must be trained to make decisions and select the best course of action based on the information they have.
We should never attempt to grade non-security personnel on their reactions to what may appear to be life or death situations. Rather, we should train them how to process and think through their options, and ultimately to act based on that training.
Better decision making under stress is what will lead to better outcomes during active shooter threats. Effective training must emphasize adherence to standard operating procedures while not closing off options with “predetermined” or “ideal” responses devised by “analysts” with 16 hours of training. And when the threat evolves in ways that eliminate those options or poses an immediate threat to the lives of dozens of other students, school officials must be ready to fight.