If the worst happens…

Program focuses on mass shooting reponse

If you were caught in a mass shooting situation, do you know what you’d do to survive?

On Wednesday night, J.P. McLaughlin and Barry Bland, crime prevention specialists with the Hanover County Sheriff’s Office, presented a program in Boydton designed to provide citizens with information and tips on how to react and strategies to improve your chances of surviving mass shooting incidents and other widespread disasters.

“We’re going to cover a wide range of things you can do to prepare for things to come,” said McLaughlin. “We pray it doesn’t happen, but we hope to give you ideas of what you can do to increase the chances of survival.”

The program tried to cover basic things that could increase the odds of surviving such events.

McLaughlin pointed out that mass shooters are unlike any other criminal. Unlike most criminals, shooters seldom plan on getting away with their crime.

“They plan to kill as many people as they can before they get killed themselves,” said McLaughlin.

Bland agreed. The one thing citizens can do, said Bland, is to learn to “train their brain” to be ready if they find themselves caught in a mass shooting situation. Many of the techniques, he said, also apply to other panic situations.

Bland told the group that as law enforcement officers, they are trained to look for exits whenever they enter an unfamiliar place. If you know where the exits are, he explained, you don’t have to waste time looking for the way out if an emergency happens.

McLaughlin said that while the advice applies to mass shootings, it also applies to other emergencies as well. Citing the now famous Station Nightclub fire, the two officers explained that the majority of people who died in the fire only knew of one or two exits while the club had at least two more. Had they known, said the officers, their chances of escape and survival would have been much greater.

Even if there are few designated exits, there are other options. Although the Station featured a windowed section, the crowd failed to make use of it to get out.

In a confined room, said Bland, it is possible to kick through sheetrock walls. Building codes call for studs in walls to be 16 inches apart. In an emergency, added McLaughlin, it is possible to kick through the wall and escape between the studs.

“Our fire department trains for this,” said Bland. “It can be done.”

As for mass shooting events, said McLaughlin, the shootings at Columbine High School marked a change in the way law enforcement handles such situations.

“Everyone did what they were supposed to do at Columbine,” said McLaughlin. At the time, training called for surrounding the site and calling out the SWAT team.

Thinking has changed since then, explained McLaughlin.

“We don’t wait for anything anymore,” he said. “The minute we arrive, we attack. If groups arrive together, they gather and go in. If it’s a single officer, they go in.”

At Columbine, officers stopped to render assistance to the wounded. Although it sounds harsh, current training is to go straight after the shooter or shooters.

“The best first aid is to stop the threat,” explained McLaughlin.

Bland noted that even that school of thought is evolving, and many departments are now training to secure an area and allow first responders in to treat the injured.

McLaughlin noted that the names of shooters would not be mentioned during the program.

“It gives them notoriety,” explained McLaughlin. “Gratification, that’s why they do it. So we don’t name them in this program.”

According to the officers, there are three distinct phases people are likely to go through when confronted with an emergency situation.

Denial: The example provided was of the worker who hears shooting in the area an assumes the sound is fireworks. “You try to put a familiar face on it so you don’t have to deal with it,” said McLaughlin. “But think, how many times have you heard fireworks at work? Think and start doing things to survive.”

Deliberation: Knowing something is wrong and deciding whether or not to do something about it. Bland told the group that stress plays a major part in the process. As stress and heart rate go up, it becomes more difficult to coordinate muscle movement, and the ability to think clearly becomes impacted.

Returning to the “train your brain” concept, Bland said that citizens “have to train ourselves to calm down. Ask what is the problem, and what am I going to do? Then do it.”

McLaughlin agreed and talked about the natural reactions, flight versus fight as well as the possibility of freezing. He urged citizens to make a decision and move on it.

“If it doesn’t work, change it, but don’t freeze,” he said.

Action: This is the final stage. Both officers advised that in the event of a shooting situation, the best solution is always to escape, if possible. “Don’t stop to pick up your purse or your phone, just go,” said Bland.

If escape is not possible, hiding can save your life. “Hide,” said Bland. “Deny the shooter access to his target. Lock the door, turn out the lights, be out of site.”

“He’ll move on and look for another target,” said McLaughlin.

If confronted with nowhere to run and nowhere to hide, both officers urged citizens to fight back, using whatever they can find. “Almost anything can be a weapon,” said McLaughlin.

“There’s no such thing as a fair fight,” added Bland. “Bite, scratch, use everything you have. You’re fighting for you life.”

McLaughlin agreed.

“Don’t just sit around like sheep,” he said. “They come in with the idea of hurting people. They’re not expecting people to hurt them back. What you do matters.”

Featured Photo: J.P. McLaughlin and Barry Bland, crime prevention specialists with the Hanover County Sheriff’s Office, were the guest speakers on Wednesday night for a special program, “Civilian Response to Active Shooter,” which was hosted by the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office. Pictured left to right are McLaughlin, Bland, Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office Crime Specialist Doug Hatchell and Mecklenburg County Sheriff Bobby Hawkins.