Picture yourself sitting at your desk at work when your mobile phone lights up, buzzing as you see this message: “Emergency alert! Armed intruder in XYZ building; Shelter in place and take self-protective actions; if not onsite, avoid the area. Police are responding. Updates to follow.” If faced with that message, how prepared would you be…really?

A friend shared with me recently that some of her co-workers were upset to find that they had more questions than answers after going through mandatory active shooter training. She described a pretty standard corporate mashup of online Homeland Security materials accompanied by some employer-specific processes for notifications and drills.  I was curious about why my friend’s co-workers were upset.  She explained that after the training, her co-workers said they still didn’t know what to do.  “Not all the doors lock…Why can’t Facilities give us a list of which rooms have locks on the doors?”  “If there are people outside on the steps (there usually are), do we let them in or lock them out?  What if one of them is a bad guy and we accidentally let him in?”  And then this one: Why doesn’t the alert give more information, like telling us where the shooter is?”  She said they wanted more specific information than what they found in the training.

Wait…what?

It all comes down to perspective… because it sure sounded to me as if the training worked! As I shared my opinion, I told my friend about a lesson I learned early on in law enforcement. Once upon a time, I had a co-worker who always had amazing scores during our routine firearms qualifications.  I was jealous, until I noticed those scores dropped sharply whenever we shot in scenarios that had us moving around (think: active shooter response training). Inside the firearms booth, my co-worker used the ever-present little shelf to hold extra magazines and rounds.  I, on the other hand, had been trained to instead use my pockets, my waistband, storing gear anywhere except on that shelf.  In fact, the first time I touched the shelf, I heard my instructor’s voice in my ear saying, “Real shootouts don’t have shelves! You want to survive? Learn to be your own damn shelf!”  As I relayed that story to my friend in the context of her active shooter training, the takeaway was pretty simple.  The problem wasn’t the content of the training, I explained.  It was intended to do exactly what it did: raise questions about what employees would do in their own particular space. The training is supposed to get you thinking about your options, not define your survival process for you.

According to MSG Michael Clemens, retired US Army M.P. and Federal Law Enforcement Firearms Instructor, “Active shooter situations are fluid and unpredictable, and require responders and victims to improvise, and adapt in order to overcome the situation. There really is no “checklist” or “playbook” to tell us how to react. The aggressive and continual use of scenario-based training, simulations, and re-enactments are the best way to prepare.”  He explains further about the role and mindset of the individual when it comes to preparing for emergencies, adding, “In my role as a firearms/tactics and simulator instructor, my goal is to have everyone regularly practice envisioning potential situations and tactical responses/actions in their minds. By doing this, they have essentially “been there” and have considered plausible if/then responses to help them react, and survive.”

As I encouraged my friend to take these thoughts back to her group, I thought it worth sharing with a wider audience.  While active shooter training is a great tool to start with, individuals can best prepare for emergencies by thinking through their own environment and the options that might work best for them. You too can learn, as I did, to be your own shelf.