Building Blocks of Personal Security: Reacting to Danger

9 MINS READSep 18, 2014 | 09:15 GMT
Building Blocks of Personal Security: Reacting to Danger

Editor's Note: Although the world can be a dangerous place, one does not have to passively wait for acts of violence to occur. This series provides the tools to help anticipate, avoid and respond to danger. Part I explored the mindset needed to respond to a dangerous situation, Part 2 discussed situational awareness, and Part 3 discussed understanding your environment.

As we have noted in the previous parts of this series, it is always better to detect dangerous situations before they fully develop so that one can take steps to avoid the danger. This is because in general, once an attack has been launched, it can be very difficult to avoid. As any football player knows, action is always faster than reaction. That principle provides offensive players with a slight edge over their opponents on defense because the offensive players know the snap count that will signal the beginning of the play. This principle of action and reaction is applicable to personal security. When a criminal or terrorist launches an attack, they have the advantage of tactical surprise over the target — they have selected the time, place and method of the attack. This advantage can be magnified significantly if the target lacks the proper mindset and freezes up during the attack.

By practicing the proper level of situational awareness and understanding the possibility of being targeted, a person will be mentally prepared to realize that an attack is happening, something security professionals refer to as attack recognition. The earlier a target recognizes that an attack is developing, the better.

Quite often, when a criminal loses the element of surprise before launching an attack, he will not pursue a victim who leaves the attack zone and darts to a safe place — especially if the target is just one of convenience and not one that has been specifically selected. Even once the attack has begun, the victim can still keep it from being a successful one by quickly recognizing what is happening and getting away from the attack site, a tactic referred to as "getting off the X."

Remember, criminal attacks do not appear out of a vacuum. They are the result of a planning process that can be recognized if one looks for it. As we have noted, criminals tend to be very bad at camouflaging their actions and their suspicious demeanor often leaves them vulnerable to early detection.

The Criminal Planning Cycle

The Criminal Planning Cycle

Admittedly, overreacting and raising a false alarm can be embarrassing, but it is far better to be safe than sorry. The alternative is ignoring the warning signs and letting a truly dangerous situation develop. Being slightly embarrassed is far preferable to suffering long-term trauma — or even death — after becoming a victim.

While it is obviously best to avoid danger and leave an area before an attack is launched or a crime is committed, this is not always possible. Some attacks simply cannot be avoided. That being said, even if one cannot avoid an attack, immediately recognizing danger and then taking action to mitigate the threat can often mean the difference between survival and death.

Run, Hide, Fight

Some people have criticized the simplicity of the "Run, Hide, Fight" public service announcement produced by the City of Houston and funded by the Department of Homeland Security. In our assessment, the video does a good job achieving its goal of raising awareness of active shooter situations and of providing a simple, easy-to-remember mantra similar to the "Stop, Drop and Roll" fire response slogan. The video also discusses the necessity of having an evacuation plan and being aware of one's surroundings. While the video is not a complete self-defense course, it is still an important resource.

Once a person has recognized that an attack is taking place, a critical step must be taken before they can decide to run, hide or fight — they must determine where the gunfire or threat is coming from. Without doing so, the victim could run blindly from a position of relative safety into danger. We certainly encourage anyone under attack to leave the attack site and run away from the danger, but one must first ascertain that they are in the attack site before taking action. Many times, the source of the threat will be evident and will not take much time to locate. But sometimes, depending on the location — whether in a building or out on the street — the sounds of gunfire can echo, and it may take a few seconds to determine the direction it is coming from. In such a scenario, it is prudent to quickly take cover until the direction of the threat can be located. In some instances, there may even be more than one gunman, which can complicate escape plans.

Fortunately, most attackers engaging in active shooter scenarios are not well trained. They tend to be poor marksmen who lack experience with their weapons. For example, in his attack on a Los Angeles Jewish community center daycare on Aug. 10, 1999, Buford Furrow fired 70 shots from an Uzi-style submachine gun at close range but wounded only five people. The Uzi is an effective and highly accurate weapon at short distances, meaning poor marksmanship was the only reason Furrow did so little damage. During the July 2012 shooting in Aurora, Colorado, James Holmes managed to kill only 12 people — despite achieving almost total tactical surprise in a fully packed movie theater — due to a combination of poor marksmanship and his inability to clear a jam in his rifle.

This typical lack of marksmanship implies that most people killed in active shooter situations are shot at very close range. There are some obvious exceptions, like the shooting at the University of Texas on Aug. 1, 1966, when ex-Marine Charles Whitman shot several people with a high-powered rifle from the top of a tower on the college campus. But even then, most of Whitman's victims were shot early on in his attack at a closer range, and his ability to successfully engage targets declined rapidly as victims realized where the shots were coming from and either moved away from the threat or took cover and waited for the authorities to respond.


As seen in the Whitman case, potential victims can do several things to reduce their chances of being wounded in attacks, even ones carried out by a trained shooter. We use an acronym to describe these steps: MDACC, which stands for motion, distance, angle, cover and concealment.

First, shooting a moving target is much harder than hitting a stationary one, especially if that target is far away. Most tactical shootings happen at distances of less than seven meters. Indeed, there are very few people who can consistently hit a stationary target beyond 25 meters with a handgun, much less a moving target. Most people can put 25 meters between themselves and an attacker in just a few seconds, so motion and distance improve a target's chances of getting away.

The angle at which a target runs away is also important because shooting a target that is moving straight away is easier than shooting a target running away at an angle, since the second scenario would require the shooter to swing the barrel of the weapon and lead the target, a difficult task even for an experienced marksman. Both require a good deal of practice, even with a rifle or shotgun. If the target can run at an angle behind objects like trees, cars, office furniture or walls that obstruct the shooter's view of the target (concealment) or stop bullets (cover), that is even more effective.

It is important to distinguish between concealment and cover. Items that provide concealment, such as a bush or tree leaves, can hide a target from the shooter's line of vision but will not protect them from bullets the way a substantial tree trunk will. Likewise, in an office setting, a typical drywall-construction interior wall can provide concealment but not cover, meaning a shooter will still be able to fire through the walls and door. Still, if the shooter cannot see his or her target, they will be firing blindly rather than aiming their weapon, reducing the probability of hitting a target.

In any case, those hiding inside a room should attempt to find some sort of additional cover, such as a filing cabinet or heavy desk. It is always better to find cover than concealment, but even partial cover — something that will only deflect or fragment the projectiles — is preferable to no cover at all.

The Inner Warrior

Mindset also becomes critical when a person is wounded. In active shooter situations and terrorist attacks, it is not unusual for more people to be wounded than killed; this also relates to the issue of poor marksmanship discussed above. In such a situation, it is extremely important for the wounded person to understand that, contrary to what is portrayed in the movies, most wounds are not immediately fatal and rarely immobilize the victim right away. Their bodies can continue to function to get them away from the attack site and to safety. However, it is not uncommon for people to drop to the ground when they are shot and freeze in panic or go into shock. This gives the shooter an opportunity to approach them for a point-blank kill shot.

It is very important for people to realize that most gunshots are survivable. Certainly, once a target gets out of the immediate danger zone they should seek first aid or treat themselves with improvised pressure bandages to stop the bleeding and avoid going into shock. Modern trauma medicine is very good, and as seen in the Aurora shooting and the Boston Marathon bombing, most victims wounded in these types of attacks will survive if they receive prompt medical assistance.

It is no mistake that training regimens for special operations forces soldiers and serious athletes place so much emphasis on the mental aspect of combat and sports — that is, learning that the human body can keep functioning and continue to do amazing things even after the mind has decided it wants to quit. That same sense of drive and determination, the inner warrior, can help keep a person's body functioning after they have been wounded.

Again we see how important it is to have the proper mindset when thrown into a dangerous situation. Keeping a clear head and remaining focused on getting to safety greatly improves a person's chances of surviving or escaping injury. Being aware of one's environment lets a potential target know when a situation is deteriorating, and developing the ability to raise one's situational awareness level can help a person avoid dangerous situations in the first place. One can only take these steps after recognizing when one is in dangerous areas and is a potential target. Remembering and using the tools taught in this series will go a long way to keep potential targets from becoming victims.

Connected Content


Article Search

Copyright © Stratfor Enterprises, LLC. All rights reserved.

Stratfor Worldview


To empower members to confidently understand and navigate a continuously changing and complex global environment.