"For three minutes, you are your own first responders. Nobody's coming to save you," police say
COLUMBUS, Ohio — Columbus Police Officer Larry Nelson spoke slowly, pausing to make eye contact with those sitting in front of him and punching the air with a finger on every few words to make it perfectly clear that everyone should pay attention.
"The average law enforcement response time to an active shooting event is three minutes," he said. "For three minutes, you are your own first responders. Nobody's coming to save you in those three minutes so you better have a plan to keep yourself alive. Whatever you do, do something. Doing nothing is no longer an option. Ask yourself right now, not then, 'What will I do when confronted?'"
And that was some of the least intense rhetoric during the class on Civilian Response to Active Shooter Event, or CRASE, he and Officer Catherine Kirk taught to 21 people at the James G. Jackson Columbus Police Academy on the West Side this weekend. The class, which is free and scheduled at least six times a year or by request, was supposed to last three hours. It ran 30 minutes long, but no one objected. Most people seemed as if they would have happily stayed for more. What was being taught — tips for being aware of surroundings, how to plan for dangerous situations, and tactics to "avoid, deny and defend," the newest tagline in emergencies — was that important.
Some of the advice seemed like just common sense, but isn't intuitive, because brains haven't been trained that way, Kirk told the group. Take, for instance, how most assume we will leave a restaurant through the same door we entered. So when chaos breaks, everyone runs for the same door. If you had been asked to be seated near the kitchen where there is always a back door, or had at least already (mentally or physically) walked a secondary escape route, you would be more prepared. Getting out quickly allows you to run and alert others and call for help. "How foolish would you feel laying there on the ground bleeding out and your last thought be, 'Damn. If I'd just looked ahead of time for a second exit'?" Kirk asked.
That situational awareness — taking five minutes, putting down a phone and removing earbuds to observe and assess the behaviors of everyone around — is key and all part of the "avoid" mentality, Nelson said. Things that are important include conditioning yourself to understand more quickly that what is happening is real ("I heard the noise and thought a car was backfiring. Folks, cars haven't backfired since 1986," Kirk said.); learning to breath like someone in combat to slow your heart rate to reduce panic; and to practice not simply responding with an immediate "Everything will be fine. It's all fine."
As to deny, which used to be referred to as hide? Nelson said to lock doors, create barricades and barriers, and take cover behind things most likely to stop bullets (a car's engine, concrete walls, behind a trash Dumpster.)
And the defend tenets are more obvious: Fight, surprise, swarm a suspect, use weapons of availability, etc.
In an interview before the class, Nelson said the training isn't meant to be hand-to-hand instructional. It's meant instead to change attendees' way of thinking. Nelson, who also is Navy chief petty officer, and Kirk, use levity and humor to keep the emotion of the class in check. But they always stress the seriousness of it all.
"It's scary as hell and people don't want to talk about it," Nelson said, referring to what they call "active aggressor events" rather than mass shootings because, as history has shown, the weapons can be vehicles, bombs, knives, machetes or just about anything. "This is where we are in this country and this is what we have to do. I have to dispel all that Facebook and Wikipedia bulls--- from your head and replace it with empirical data and tools about what to watch for and what to do. I want to empower you to have a say in this."
Those messages resonated with 28-year-old Deon Jones, who attended as part of the security team at City of David Church on the South Side.
"They talked about the importance of that decisive moment, that 'What are you gonna do?' moment," Jones said. "I've mentally prepared for that. I know now to be ready."
Pastor Eric Tober, of Faith Community Church in Dublin, was also in class and said much of what he heard surprised him.
"I don't think I fully grasped how the shooters are so uncaring, cold, coming in like warriors very prepared and expecting to die," he said.
He left class more confident than fearful. And that's all Nelson said he could ask for.
"I want you thinking 'I'm going to be the hardest person you've ever tried to kill,'" he said. "I want you thinking 'This isn't happening. Nope. Not today.'"