How to Survive an Active Shooter Incident such as Fort Hood

Directions for the best chance to get out alive

Posted Nov 07, 2009

  Get out if you can. Hide safely. Call 911. Time is critical.

  I teach my public safety students how to come out with the most people alive, both citizens and responders, as a national instructor with APCO International. APCO is the largest public safety education organization in the world.

  Get out if it's safe to do so; hide and call is what I teach my own children.

  At APCO, we also teach shooter risk assessment within a community and communications strategy that saves lives during active shooter mayhem.

  However, in this moment I am also a Marine mom with a son serving in Afghanistan. The shooting at Fort Hood is close to home for me. It's in my belly. The two roles of instructor and Marine mom collide and I step in to try to help people make sense of what's happening.

  My son will be home soon. I've prayed for months for him to be safe in the war zone, near air strikes and ground fighting. I've prayed for him to be back safe at his base, even if it is just a few months reprieve.

  And here it is. It stares at me like a person. The words crawl over me like a responder crawling over the injured at an active shooter scene, hunting for the shooter.

  Fort Hood, Texas. 12 dead. 31 injured. The most deadly active shooter incident in history on an American military base.

  Is my son safe when he leaves the Afghanistan battle or is he stepping into a different war zone? I teach this material. I've taught north, south, east and west in 2009. I've answered the questions of hundreds of students but dare I answer my own.

  I wrote a post in July called "Mom, Pretend Like I'm in Arizona". I attempted to explain what it was like to have a son deploying into war and I attempted to give direction on how to survive it.

  I can tell you, I am clearly not in "Arizona" right now. None of us are. It's in our face, real.

  I flew out this morning to Orlando, Florida for enhanced instructor training on another area close to my heart - missing and exploited children. While flying from Detroit into Orlando, I asked the man next to me if I could read his USA Today. The Fort Hood shooting was on the cover and I had planned to write.

  I dragged my wheeled bag through the airport at Orlando International. My backpack loaded over my left shoulder, was partly filled with teaching materials and with a phone and items for my son. I'll see him soon across country. I had items for him because when they deploy, nothing is left behind at the base. In case they don't return.

  Waiting outside for my director to pick me up, I watched the time pass and began to wonder. She pulled up. I got in. And here we go.

  It happened again. She was delayed in picking me up in Orlando because roads had been blocked off.

  Orlando, FL. One dead. Five injured. My cell phone began to buzz with text messages and emails from concerned colleagues, friends and family knowing I was coming into Orlando.

  Are our soldiers safe? I don't know. I'm a civilian expert on these incidents with dozens of case studies and I can't answer that.

 Active shooters are made not born, meaning they are a product of their experiences and environment. It is contrary to military culture to take your own. It is military culture to lay down your life for your military brother or sister. However, everyone has their line and Maj. Hasan crossed that line.

 It is unusual for an active shooter to survive. Most kill themselves or are compromised by law enforcement. If Hasan lives, we will hopefully understand more. We truly know little about active shooters because most do die before we can ask why and how.

  The shooter in Florida gave us an even more rare scenario. His mother convinced him to give himself over to law enforcement. This is rare. Normally, once an active shooter incident starts, it continues until the shooter runs out of ammunition; victims; is killed by law enforcement or takes their own life.

  Yes, they can work in teams. Fort Hood is being investigated to see if there may have been terrorist involvement. However, for now, they both look to be the work of lone gunmen.

  People are asking if Hasan was targeting certain individuals. Although this does occur at times, the mark of an active shooter is to kill, injure and scare as many people as possible - not to target a hit list. However, we are beginning to see this more commonly and the shootings this year in Alabama are an example.

  Hasan was scheduled to be deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan. He opened fire in an area where soldiers spend time getting ready for impending deployment. Perhaps Hasan in a twisted way thought he was doing his charges a favor by eliminating the suffering many would undoubtedly face when deployed.

  Terrorists do often kill people as a result of their activities but that is not the goal. The goal is to promote a political or social stance. If people are killed or hurt in the process, it is considered a byproduct of the furtherance of whatever they are trying to convey, This is one of many reasons why the attack on Fort Hood will be studied carefully.

  Many are asking if it could happen in their own community.


  Active shooter incidents happen in communities small and large and even among those we trust for protection and safety.

  I live in Wisconsin and we had our own active shooter incident in Crandon. The gunman was a police officer for both the local police and sheriff's departments.

  Everyone has their line. We are human. What happened this week at Fort Hood and now in Orlando looks inhuman but it is possible anywhere because we are not machines.

  Is there more probability of additional attacks on military bases right now? Yes. We are now at risk of copy cats and there is no denying that the men and women serving our country have been under intense stress with multiple deployments. We are also in an active shooter quadrant right now due to tough economic times and coming off of an election year. 

  What can you do? What can I do?

  It comes back to a previous post I did on suicides. We need to ask people if they are alright if we are not sure. The first thing I ask my son when he is able to call in is "Are you ok?"

  If you find yourself in the middle of an active shooter incident, there are things you can do to increase your chance of survival.

  If you can get out, get out. If you call me on 911, I can't tell you to run because that gives too much liability. However, I write to you now as an active shooter expert.

  Escape the area if you can. Hide safely. Then call 911.

  When you call, we need suspect information. We can't stop the slaughter until we get the gunmen. 911 dispatchers will ask you for the location of the shooter(s) and a description. They will also ask you for weapon information. We need to know if they have a shotgun, rifle or handgun. This determines law enforcement strategy. We care about victim information but we can't help victims until the scene is secure.

  If you are trapped inside a building or outdoors during an active shooter incident, do not jump behind law enforcement like they are shields. Do not grab onto them. Do not expect them to stop and check on you or comfort you. Their job is to eliminate the threat and then help you.

  If evacuation is impossible, which in many cases it will be, you will have to shelter in place. If you are in a building, you need to make the room look unoccupied. Turn off the lights. Lock and barricade the door if possible. Stay quiet and out of sight. Make sure cell phones are silenced. Work as a team if you are in a group.

  Columbine survivors in one classroom were able to pile 50 students and teachers into one classroom closet for several hours.

  Listen to instructions. At Fort Hood, the sirens were used to gain resident attention and directions were given to find shelter, lock if possible and turn off air conditioning units.

  Our reality with active shooter incidents is that we will most likely have death. It is a matter of how much. Several Virginia Tech professors died in 2007 as they formed a human barrier, preventing shooter Cho from reaching students beyond the doors they covered.

  Are there precursors to an active shooter incident? Yes. Whenever we have someone disgruntled or hopeless there is risk.  Experts have been predicting what we are seeing right now. Areas of particular concern at this time would be: military installations, financial institutions, companies with recent or impending layoffs and any areas with a large congregation of people because the goal of an active shooter is to kill and hurt as many as possible. Do we need to panic as we head into the holiday shopping season? No, but we need to have situational awareness and not be so tunneled.

  If you pray, pray for the victims. Pray for the survivors because they will undoubtedly suffer from survivor's guilt. Pray for the families of the shooters.

  I taught active shooter communications in Delaware a couple of years ago, A younger student sat in the front row conversing with another on break and I listened.

  "We don't have 'em in our town?" she said. I leaned forward and asked her what she meant. "We don't have active shooters," she said confidently.

  Yes you do. Active shooter incidents cross generational lines. They cross age, sex and even size of the town. We have had women active shooters. If you look at the shootings we had in March and April, the shooters were in their 40's and 50's.

  Having an active shooter incident in your town or on your base does not reflect the integrity of that community. The act reflects the despondence of the person(s) who committed the attack, The core of that despondence is what we need to look at.

  Semper Fi.


  Tracy Ertl is an active shooter instructor with APCO International and a 911 Dispatcher with Brown County Public Safety Communications.

  Her company, TitleTown Publishing, will release several titles in 2010 including "ALONE - Orphaned in the Ocean" and "When the Easter Bunny is Naked" -- both non-fiction survival titles and "HARRY-A Teenage Mass Murderer". She is the author of "9 Minutes" -- a 'to be released' look at the Virginia Technical Institute active shooter tragedy of 2007.;

  Current homicide titles include "Torture at the Back Forty" and "Run at Destruction". Ertl will be a national presenter in March 2010 at the 16th Annual Homicide Conference themed "Killing from a Distance". for more information.







About the Author

Tracy Ertl

Tracy Ertl is a 911 dispatcher in Green Bay, an adjunct instructor in active shooter incidents at the APCO Institute, and the publisher of a book imprint, Title Town Publishing.

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