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How to Respond to an Active Shooter

Medically Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on November 17, 2022

No one wants to be in an active shooting, which is when a gunman tries to kill other people in a confined or crowded area. But if you know what to do in a mass shooting that's in progress, it can help you to protect yourself and maybe others, too.

What's an Active Shooter?

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security defines an active shooter as someone who enters a space and tries to kill other people, usually with a firearm. The place could be a confined building, like a mall or school, or it could be outside at an event or on a busy sidewalk. It’s called an “active” shooter event as long as it is in progress. An active shooting can be a mass shooting if a lot of people are involved. Police have certain protocols for responding to active events as opposed to responding to one that’s already happened.

Sometimes the shooter targets individuals, but sometimes they shoot whoever they can (or whoever tries to stop them). They may plan their actions in advance, or be in an emotional state and attack a certain spot.

An active shooting situation is chaotic and unpredictable, and it can change quickly.

 

 

 

What Should I Do in an Active Shooter Situation?

In more than half of all cases, an active shooting takes place before police arrive. Some of these types of events last only 10 to 15 minutes most are over within 19 minutes because the shooter runs out of bullets, a gun jams, the police get the shooter, or the shooter kills themselves. Police arrive in about 3 minutes on average. So you may need to act on your own to survive.

First, see what you can do to protect your own life. Be aware of where you are, and what’s there that could protect you, like a large piece of furniture, or a nearby room you can sneak into. Pay attention to see if there are others near.

Get away.

  • If there’s a way out, try to take it.
  • Leave even if others nearby don’t follow you.
  • Don’t worry about your belongings.
  • Don’t try to move anyone who’s been hit.
  • Keep your hands so police can see you’re not the shooter.
  • Call 911 when you’re safe.

If possible:

  • Help others get out.
  • Stop others from going where the shooter is.

Hide.

If you can’t get out of the area, try to hide somewhere. Choose a hiding space that:

  • Gives you protection if the shooter fires either a separate room or a space with large obstacles like furniture
  • Stops the shooter from seeing you (like behind a cabinet)
  • Doesn’t trap you if the shooter comes near

If you can’t hide:

  • Crouch down low.
  • Don’t huddle in groups.

If you’re in a room:

  • Turn off the lights if you’re in a room so the shooter won’t be able to see as well.
  • Cover doors or windows if possible so the shooter can’t see.
  • Barricade the door with any furniture that's there.
  • Lock the door if possible.
  • Escape through a ground-floor window, if it's safe.

Stay quiet.

If you can’t get away or hide and the shooter is nearby:

  • Silence your phone or any other devices on you. It’s a good idea to know how to quickly mute your phone.
  • Turn off other sources of noise, like radios or TVs.

If possible:

  • Call 911. Even if you can’t speak, you can stay on the line so the dispatcher can hear what’s going on. If you’re in a room with others, pick one person to make the call.

Take action as a last resort.

If you think the shooter is going to shoot you, you can fight back as a last resort if you choose to. Decide what to do and commit to your plan. Here’s how to disrupt or injure the shooter:

  • Throw items at the shooter.
  • Yell.
  • Get physically aggressive.

What Should I Tell a 911 Operator When I Call?

Call 911 only when it seems safe to do so. Even if you can’t talk, leave the line open so the dispatcher may be able to hear what’s going on. If you can talk, tell them:

  • Where you are
  • If there’s more than one shooter
  • What the shooter(s) look like
  • How many weapons they have
  • How many people have been shot, if any
  • How many people could be affected
  • If you know of any explosive device on the scene

What Should I Do When the Cops Arrive?

The police will first head to an area where they hear shots. They will not stop to help people who are shot their goal is to get living people out to avoid more casualties.

Expect the police to:

  • Carry guns
  • Loudly shout commands
  • Wear uniforms, bulletproof vests, helmets, and other tactical gear
  • Work in teams of four people
  • Use pepper spray or tear gas if needed
  • Push people to the ground for their safety

When the police arrive:

  • Listen to their commands.
  • Don’t scream.
  • Try to stay calm.
  • Keep your hands up and spread out your fingers.
  • Don’t talk to them or hold on to them.
  • Don’t ask them questions.

Rescue teams usually follow the police officers who will try to get people out. They will try to help anyone who is shot or hurt. If you are safe and those teams haven’t arrived, you can try to get others who are hurt to safety or you can try to help.

After you’re out of harm’s way, the police will keep you in a safe area until the shooter is captured, dead, or they know the shooter has fled the scene (and other shooters aren’t still there). They may question you. Do not leave the safe area until they say it’s OK to go.

How Do Police Respond to Active Shooters?

It’s a good idea to understand how police respond to active shooters so you’re familiar with what they may do.

In some cases, a police officer may already be on the scene. A police officer on the scene can decide if they can try to stop the shooter. They’ll also try to call in the rest of the force and emergency services. There might also be an off-duty police officer at the shooting location who may not be in uniform. Either can play a vital role in helping before other officers are notified and arrive.

Once they know about the shooting, police will respond to the scene and try to get people out and protect people. They may split up so officers can try to stop the shooter at the same time, but it depends on the situation.

What Should I Do After the Active Shooting?

Going through a traumatic experience may affect your mental health. Everyone responds differently. You may have access to counselors on the scene. If you’re struggling with your emotions after that day, seek out counseling.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

U.S. Department of Homeland Security: “Active Shooter: How to Respond,” “Active Shooter Recovery Guide,” “Active Shooter Attacks," "Attacks in Crowded and Public Spaces.”

Schwerin, D., et al. Active Shooter Response, StatPearls Publishing, 2022. 

Ventura County Community College District: “Active Shooter Presentation.”

U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation: “Police Response Time to Active Shooter Attacks.”

Colorado School of Mines: “Safety Guidelines for Active Shooter Situations on Campus.”

International Association of Chiefs of Police: “Active Shooter.”

 

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