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10 Ways to Protect Yourself in a Terrorist Attack

Preparation is not paranoia. Practical, proactive tips for living the new normal

In the wake of the Barcelona van attack, as our hearts and prayers are with the victims and the families of the deceased, we pray also for the safety of our own families. Research confirms what we know instinctively: terrorism affects not only those directly impacted, but the community at large.[i] In an age of social media, with the latest updates literally at our fingertips, we are affected as a global community.

Concerned that incidents like Barcelona are a preview of coming attractions, we resolve to be proactive not reactive. What occurs across the world today, could occur in our backyard tomorrow.

Think Different: Because Terrorism Can Look Different

While terrorism still involves firepower, suicide bombers, and strategic targeting, we acknowledge the recent trend toward weaponizing vehicles as a low cost, low-tech method of indiscriminate attack. Using vehicles as killing machines requires little preparation or training, and unlike firearms, they require no red tape to acquire.

Adapting to terrorism trends involves expanding our level of awareness and preparedness to include practical considerations. While research emphasizes the need for both preparation and flexibility in the aftermath of an act of terrorism,[ii] preparation on the front end is important as well. Mindful, intentional, practical steps designed to be proactive, not reactive, can protect you and your loved ones. Here are some suggestions.

1. Prepare Your Device: Research where you are going and pre-program the local emergency numbers into your cell phone in case you need to call police, fire, or paramedics during a crisis. Keep your social media pages loaded in case you need to assure friends and family back home that you are safe. Download local news and information apps to facilitate keeping up with the latest developments. Have your flashlight app ready to go in case of a power failure. Once your device is loaded with lifesaving features and apps, remember to bring your charger.

2. Protect Your Self: If you were under attack, what would you use as a weapon? You don´t have to be packing heat, think outside the box. What items do you have in your vicinity that you can use as weapons if you had to? Look around and see if you can identify three.

3. Protect Your Senses: Don´t wear sunglasses that obstruct your full view of your surroundings, or that compromise your depth perception. Avoid wearing earphones blasting music so loud you can´t hear the siren of a fire truck as you are crossing the street, or the screams of pedestrians who spot a moving vehicle barreling your way.

4. Protect Your Space: Whether at home or in a hotel, lock your front door. Lock the doors to your business if you feel threatened during a time of crisis (remember the terrorists who targeted the French satirical weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Paris). Lock your car doors; many terrorist attacks involve carjacking during attempted escape. Carjacking might arguably be even more likely in less populated areas where there will be less witnesses.

5. Protect Your Health: Carry your essentials. If you have to take medication on a regular schedule, have it with you. Have bottled water if you are planning to spend an extended amount of time in a crowd such as at a concert or sporting event. You don´t even want to think about being taken hostage, but you never know when you are going to be delayed. Schools, office buildings, and airports go on lockdown when there is an active threat.

6. Protect Your Resources: Carry identification, credit cards, devices, and chargers. Duplicate important documents such as your driver´s license and passport in case you or loved ones back home need the information when the actual documents are not in your possession. Make plans for your pets at home in case your return is delayed, and remember that many shelters don’t allow them.

7. Protect Your Access to Escape: Note when you are in public, besides the front door, where are the emergency exits? Like the flight attendants advise onboard a plane, sometimes your closest exit is behind you. This includes stairways. Some people will not sit with their backs to doors or to emergency exits. Perhaps you designate someone in your group to remain alert to activity in and around the exits.

8. Protect your Family: Remember the earthquake and fire drills we did as kids in school? Families can have similar drills, just in case. What would you do, and where would you meet up if God forbid you found yourself in the middle of an active shooter scenario? Talk it through in advance. Some parents are afraid to discuss terrorism preparation with their children, although others believe it is better than the alternative.

9. Protect Your Home: Identify safe rooms, meeting spots, and emergency supplies. Criminals report being dissuaded by things such as seeing a car in a driveway, a dog, hearing music or television inside, or a security alarm going off. Make your home as uninviting of a target as possible.

10. Protect Your Neighborhood. Neighborhood watch programs don’t work if no one is watching. Particularly because criminals often are watching you and your neighbors as they case homes and businesses, planning an attack. Be part of a civilian coalition of counter surveillance by staying alert, functioning as the eyes and ears of law enforcement on the ground.

After Preparing For the Worst, Hope For the Best

No one wants to live in fear. This is one of the reasons proactive planning reduces paranoia. Learning about safety procedures and protocol increases your sense of well-being because knowledge is power. Strategizing safety will increase your sense of security.

About the author:

Wendy Patrick, JD, PhD, is a career prosecutor, author, and behavioral expert, with a specialty in threat assessment. She is the author of author of Red Flags: How to Spot Frenemies, Underminers, and Ruthless People (St. Martin´s Press), and co-author of the revised version of the New York Times bestseller Reading People (Random House).

She lectures around the world on sexual assault prevention and threat assessment, is an Association of Threat Assessment Professionals (ATAP) Certified Threat Manager, and president of the ATAP San Diego Chapter. The opinions expressed in this column are her own.

Find her at or @WendyPatrickPhD

[i] Ludmila Chaiguerova and Galina Soldatova, “Long-Term Impact of Terrorist Attack Experience on Survivors Emotional State and Basic Beliefs,” Procedia - Social and Behavioral Sciences 86, 2013, 603–609.

[ii] Aino Ruggiero, “Making Communication Strategy Choices in a Fast Evolving Crisis Situation—Results from a Table-Top Discussion on an Anthrax Scenario,” Social Sciences 5, no. 2, 2016, 19.

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