Talking With An Expert: The Reality of Active Shooters

Trigger Warning: This post talks about Active Shooter situations, and as such, may be frightening to some readers.

Talking With an Expert: The Reality of Active Shooters | Duluth Moms Blog

At the beginning of December, I attended an active shooter training. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t often chat about this topic. I would argue there are at least three reasons why I don’t like to talk about these kinds of events in detail:

1. They are scary. Tragedies like Columbine, Parkland, Las Vegas, and myriad others are terrifying. I’d rather think about and discuss happy things, wouldn’t you? Frankly, I’d be lying if I said that writing this post didn’t give me some anxiety.
2. These situations feel overwhelming and difficult to solve. Whenever one of these tragedies occurs, it seems like every system is broken. It can feel so devastating and hopeless.
3. These events become highly politicized. When issues become highly politicized, and therefore polarized, it feels impossible to even attempt a helpful conversation.

In spite these challenges, I’m going to try my best to talk about this issue because I think it’s important.

The training I attended, led by Sgt. Joel Olejnicak, a 20-year veteran with the Duluth Police Department, was highly informative, sobering, and also empowering. He purposely avoided giving opinions on hot button questions that were raised and instead chose to address the details of active shooter situations as they related to our safety. I so appreciated his perspective and contacted him after the training to ask some follow up questions.

Even though thinking about worst-case scenarios can increase anxiety (especially for us moms who are already inclined to worry!), I wholeheartedly believe that we can potentially save lives by addressing them head on. Just like we talk our children through how to respond should there be a house fire, I think that talking through how to respond in an active shooter situation could potentially be the difference between life and death. Sgt. Olejnicak shared that “the body will never go where the brain has never been.” Here’s hoping that the following suggestions will give each of our brains the information they need should our bodies ever need to follow.
Sadly, it feels as though not a week goes by in which there isn’t at least one mass shooting somewhere in the United States. Active shooter situations are all nuanced and no two are exactly the same, but, there are some common themes to these tragedies.

Talking With an Expert: The Reality of Active Shooters | Duluth Moms Blog

Here are some statistics that Sgt. Olejnicak shared about active shooters:

  • 98% of shooters act alone.
  • 90% commit suicide on site.
  • Almost all shooters are male and over half of the mass shooters in the past 35 years have been white men.
  • Most mass shooters have exhibited some sort of previous threatening behavior and have planned their attack.

Thus, generally, active shooters are men who act alone with the express purpose of causing death and injury to others in a concentrated period of time before they commit suicide. There are some exceptions where shooters don’t die on site, but often, they do.

Now, if you’re like me, reading this information isn’t pleasant. But, while none of us ever hopes to encounter one of these violent situations at work, at our place of worship, or at any other public place, there are things we can do to prepare ourselves in the event that we do. Sgt. Olejnicak repeatedly enforced the importance of having a plan. In a moment of crisis, the limbic system in our brains gets triggered and the typical responses include the impulses to flight, fright, or freeze. In active shooter situations, seconds and minutes matter and the ability to think clearly is paramount.

One of the best ways to give our brains “practice” for responding well is to exercise awareness of our surroundings. Sgt. Olejnicak shared, “I think we have lost touch with many of our basic survival senses. I think having our phones in our hands has a lot to do with that. I encourage people to pay attention and maintain awareness of your surroundings and those around you.”

For example, he encourages being aware of who is walking near you on the street, intentionally noticing the location of exits when you enter a building, and generally paying attention to your environment, which can be difficult to do when looking down at your phone or when you’re wearing earbuds. He also mentioned how, in the past, the police may have been less-inclined to encourage calls from people sharing their “hunches” of things that just didn’t feel right, today, they are more willing to receive calls of this nature. So, if your gut says something isn’t right, feel free to call the authorities.

In addition, he encourages everyone to challenge themselves to do things differently from time to time. For example, it isn’t uncommon for us to park in the same part of the parking lot each time we go to work, sit in the same section at the movie theater, exit out the same door at the mall, or drive the same route to Target. Basically, we are creatures of habit. Sgt. Olejnicak shared that by intentionally changing up how we do things, we give our brains practice in quick decision making when it really counts. If we are hard-wired to only think of one exit, for example, we may freeze if that exit isn’t an option. But, if we’ve intentionally utilized multiple exits, we’ll have a better chance of coming up with creative solutions during a crisis. By engaging the prefrontal cortex, the part of our brains capable of critical thinking, we give ourselves a chance to override the body’s impulse to freeze with a helpful pre-programmed response.

Talking With an Expert: The Reality of Active Shooters | Duluth Moms Blog

Here are some other concrete tips Sgt. Olejnicak shared:

1. If you’re able to get out of the building, get out. Most shooting incidents occur indoors. At Columbine, many of the students who had been instructed to sit down quietly in the library lost their lives. Sadly, there was an exit in the room that was not utilized. So, if there is an exit, use it! This includes windows, which may need to be broken. Windows are easiest to break in the corners as opposed to the middle. Also, going to the roof is safer than staying inside.
2. Don’t run in a straight line. Running in a zig-zag pattern makes you a harder target to hit.
3. Leave personal items behind. If you have your phone in your hand, bring it and call 911. But, don’t take the time to dig for it or other items—just go.
4. Be prepared to run past the injured. As hard as this might be, if you have an ability to exit, go and let medical responders attend to the injured when they arrive.
5. If leaving is not an option, Sgt. Olejnicak suggests the following:
a. Lock and barricade the door. Stack tables, desks, etc.
b. Stay away from windows (if you aren’t able to exit through them).
c. Don’t huddle in groups as groups make easier targets.
d. Silence cell phones.
e. Turn off the lights.
f. Recognize the difference between cover and concealment. Cover stops bullets: desks, tables, other hard furniture or machines, etc. Concealment hides you but won’t stop bullets, i.e. curtains.
g. Be prepared to counter or attack. This includes things like: spray the assailant with the fire
extinguisher, throw staplers or other items at him, stab him with a pen, fork, etc. Anything can be used
as a weapon to try and debilitate the attacker. Mace, pepper spray, or even hornet spray can be used to
incapacitate the eyes. Also, some groups may decide to swarm the attacker and try to disarm him.
h. Don’t open the door for anyone. Shooters may try to gain access to a room by using a hostage. Sgt. Olejnicak encourages people to not open the door for anyone until it is certain the shooter has been detained. This may mean waiting for many hours.
i. Expect chaos, confusion, blood, and for time to feel very strange. These situations usually end within
minutes, but those minutes may feel like a lifetime.

Also, be aware that each school district chooses how to prepare their students and staff to respond to these kinds of situations. If you’re wondering, check in with your principal or superintendent to find out how they’ve prepared your children to stay safe at school. Some have been trained in the ALICE method.

How are you feeling? Maybe a little anxious and queasy? Me too. But my hope is that, like me, you also now feel a bit more prepared to respond in the face of an active shooter situation should you ever need to.

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Lauren (Swanstrom) Mitchell is thrilled to be writing for the Duluth Moms Blog. A native Duluthian, Lauren lived elsewhere (namely the Twin Cities) for many years before a divorce brought her back home in 2014. She and her 4 year old son live with her folks in their formerly empty nest on Pike Lake. When she and Lars aren't outside exploring, reading, dancing or fishing, Lauren works part-time as a Parent Educator in Cloquet. She is a baker, jogger, daily flosser, avid reader, second-hand shopper, and Dairy Queen lover.