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What to do in an Active Killer Incident

We recently saw on the news that a self-proclaimed journalist did a live stream of the active shooter incident in Boulder CO. To put this politely- PUT THE PHONE DOWN. An active killing incident is not for you to get followers or to gain social media influence. An active killing incident is an emergency, a tragedy and a crime that is unfolding in front of you. Family members and friends are actively losing people that they love and that is something that should never be used for personal gain. Furthermore, no family member should learn they lost a loved one by seeing it live on social media. Your priorities should be surviving and saving lives.

If you are wondering what you should do in an event like this, we are going to look at some simple things you can do to increase your chances of survival in an active killing event. These are steps that anyone can take regardless of age and physical ability. Most of these tips are applicable in ANY emergency.


  1. Know where you are:

    1. ADDRESS: It is important during any emergency that you know where to tell the dispatchers the correct location. If you go to a location on a regular basis learn the street address and cross streets. It’s not uncommon to have multiple national chain donut shops, convenience stores or restaurants in the same city or town. Many modern Computer Aided Dispatch systems require an address or intersection to generate an incident and dispatch appropriate resources. You don’t want resources being sent to the wrong location when seconds matter. In many cases if you dial 911 from your cellphone, you may get a dispatch center in a different town or even state, this is based on which cell tower you are closest to.

    2. PAY ATTENTION TO THE INTERIOR- A little bit of awareness and pre-planning can make a world of difference in an emergency.

      1. Note where the exits are. During an emergency people tend try to evacuate using the same way they came in. Public buildings are required to have multiple emergency exits. The safest way for you to exit may not be the way you entered. Take the case of the Station Night Club fire in Providence Rhode Island. When a fire broke out the front entrance became a choke point that quickly became clogged with people. The majority of those that perished in the fire were found stuck in the front entrance way. This incident also brings up the point of knowing what ISN’T an exit. Deceased patrons were found in the walk-in freezer and areas of the building that they may have thought was an exit.

      2. Note where emergency equipment is. Look for items like fire extinguishers, Automatic External Defibrillators and even trauma kits. Emergency supplies don’t do any good if no one thinks to utilize them when they are needed. If it is a place you go to regularly, don’t be afraid to ask where these items are kept. If it is your workplace, don’t be afraid to ask for your employer to get items like a Public Access Bleeding control kit. While most places have a first aid kit, the typical first aid kit is for treatment of minor injuries and not major trauma.

      3. Pre-plan where you will go if there’s an emergency. If it’s an emergency, don’t worry about areas that are typically off-limits when you are a customer. If there is an exit sign above a door that says “Off Limits- Employees Only” it’s safe to say you can ignore that sign during a true emergency. In the case of an active killer/shooter look for areas of cover. It’s important to know that an area of cover is a barrier that will stop the bullets or threat. An area of concealment will only hide you without truly protecting you. If you are unable to safely exit the scene, your first choice would be an area with cover.

  2. Get training. Having someone that knows what to do during an emergency is a game changer. Some training that I would call essential for EVERYONE would be:

    1. First Aid Training- Your general first aid course will teach you how to deal with a wide range of emergencies.

    2. CPR- Everyone should know CPR. If the emergency is cardiac related, starting CPR will give the victim the best chance of survival.

    3. Stop the Bleed type course- This course focuses on how to save yourself or someone else from a life-threatening bleed. These courses are some of the few courses available that teach you how to save your own life in addition to others. They typically focus on the use of tourniquets, wound packing and trauma dressings.

    4. Active Shooter Training.

  3. Get equipped.

    1. Personal Items- These are small items that are easy to carry on your person or in your purse. While it’s great to have emergency supplies in your car, that doesn’t help if you can’t get back to your vehicle.

      1. Cell Phone- a phone may end up being your lifeline. It should be used for emergency communication only. (I will say it again- DON’T WORRY ABOUT YOUR SOCIAL MEDIA DURING AN EMERGENCY). Don’t assume that someone has called 9-1-1 during an emergency so don’t ever be afraid of calling 9-1-1. You also want to check to see if your area supports 9-1-1 texting. If your area does support this feature it gives you an opportunity to communicate with emergency dispatchers without making any noise. Make sure it is CHARGED. If your phone is perpetually at 20% this can lead to you being cut off from a dispatcher when they are trying to determine your location.

      2. Flashlight- A small, good flashlight is always good to have on you. If you are in an emergency where it is dark, it may help you find a safe exit. During an active killer incident, keep in mind you may not want to use it while there is a threat present as it may reveal your hiding spot.

      3. First Aid Supplies- At a minimum, you want to have a tourniquet that is recommended by the Committee on Tactical Combat Casualty Care (CoTCCC). CoTCCC recommended tourniquets have been evaluated on things like effectiveness and ease of use. By selecting one of these tourniquets, it’s a safe bet that it will work when you need it. If space allows, other items may include trauma dressings, wound packing material/hemostatic agents and chest seal. You can check out our blog on IFAK/Trauma Kit Basics for more information.

    2. If you are a business owner or manager, you should consider having Public Access Stop the Bleed and Trauma kits installed. These kits are designed to treat life-threatening trauma. A standard first aid typically has more minor care items. Kits should be installed in areas where people may shelter or congregate. You may want to consider multiple kits in case access to one gets blocked.

  4. Be aware of things around you. We all have heard the old mantra of “See Something, Say Something”. We all have some level of intuition that warns us of danger. We need to listen to these internal warnings and prepare ourselves to respond. If we see things that don’t seem right, it’s ok to leave or let someone know. Some things that we may want to look for are:

    1. People dressed in an unusual manner. Is someone wearing a winter/trench coat in the summer? Is someone wearing clothing that looks like they are concealing something? Is someone purposely concealing their identity with a Halloween mask, ski mask, hooded sweatshirt? (Granted during the pandemic, hiding part of your face is part of daily life)

    2. Unusual objects. Are there random backpacks, bags or boxes that seem out of place. There have been occasions where active killers have staged weapons, ammunition or even improvised explosive devices around their intended target.

    3. Unusual behavior. Is someone acting odd? Are they walking like they are concealing a weapon? Are they reaching or fidgeting with their beltline where a weapon may be hidden? Is someone barricading or securing exit routes? Does someone seem overly concerned with things like security guards, cameras etc.?

If you see behavior that concerns you, don’t be afraid of reporting it and making a safe exit.


Because of recent incidents, we are going to focus on what do during an active killing incident. We are using the term Active Killing Incident because it more inclusive of the types of Mass Casualty events we have seen the past. These basic principles apply whether the assailant is using a firearm, a knife, machete, or an improvised weapon. Before we go any further, we want to stress that your main priorities are your safety and survival. It’s also important to note that every situation is different, and this isn’t a check list. For example, you shouldn’t call 9-1-1 until you are in a position where you can safely make the call. Be a “sheep dog”. If you can, direct others to safety, or give them instructions. Many people freeze during traumatic events, even if they know what to do, they may forget even the most simple things until someone reminds them.

  1. Recognize the fact that there is an emergency. Many people try to write off the sound of gunfire as balloons popping, objects falling or fireworks. We need to get rid of the mindset that “it will never happen here or to me”. If you hear something that sounds like gunfire or explosions, you need to react immediately.

  2. Call or contact 9-1-1 or your emergency number. Do this as soon as you can safely make the call. This may not be your first step, or it may not be possible at all. Stay as calm as you can and listen to the call taker. The call taker and dispatchers are trying to get the information they need to get you the appropriate help. Information the call taker may ask for is:

    1. Location- Be specific. If it’s a large building or campus, they need know what building and where in the building (especially if there are multiple wings or floors).

    2. Nature of incident- They will want to know what is happening. They may ask for the type of weapon, number of suspects if there are multiple suspects.

    3. Suspect description- They will want to know what the suspect looks like. The more details you can provide the better.

    4. Injuries. Provide as much information as you can. How many people are injured? What kind of injuries?

    5. Other pertinent details- These may be details that aren’t included in the initial questioning. is there a security guard or off duty police officer engaging the suspects? Is the suspect stationary or moving room to room?

    6. Follow the instructions they give you. They may even tell you to hang up if they have other callers. This is especially important, they are managing multiple calls, dispatching multiple units and handling radio communications. Their goal is to get you the help you need as quickly as they can, and they know the best way to do that.

  3. Run/Avoid. If there is an active killing incident you should get away. Get out using the nearest exit. If you have an opportunity to escape- DO IT! If you are planning your exit from a hiding spot, look at your route and have a backup plan if you need to change plans. Look to see if there is a hiding place or an area of cover or concealment in case you realize that exiting is not a feasible option. If you can see the exit, make sure it is not block or obstructed. When you get outside of the building find a place where you can shelter safely in case the assailant comes outside of the building. Don’t be afraid of breaking a window or door to safely escape. While leaving you may encounter people who need help. If you can safely help a person or people while you are leaving, do it, but do not delay or expose yourself needlessly.

  4. Hide/Deny Access. If you can’t safely escape, now you need to find a safe place to wait out the incident. An ideal location would not just keep you hidden but would also provide protection. While hiding you also want to deny the assailant access to you and more potential victims. Some things you can do:

    1. Lock the door. Past incidents have shown us that these assailants are very opportunistic and are looking for easy targets. Investigations have shown that assailants have gone down hallways and skipped past doors that were locked (even when there are people hiding inside)

    2. Turn off the lights. Make the room look unoccupied. It also makes it harder for the assailant to see potential targets in the dark.

    3. Cover any windows that the assailant could see you through.

    4. Barricade any entrance to the room. Block the door any way that you can. Use furniture, obstacles or anything that could delay the assailant.

    5. Survey the room. You may have access to an exit or window to make an escape. There may also be items like first aid kits or objects that can be used to defend yourself in a worst-case scenario.

    6. Avoid congregating in one area. This makes for an easy target. You also want to avoid areas where the assailant can target by shooting through a door or window. Often the safest place is in the corner on the same wall as the entrance.

    7. If there are other people in the room, come up with a “game plan”. Decide that if the assailant gains access to your room you are going to fight for your life. A coordinated defense by multiple people has the greatest chance of success.

    8. Deny anyone access to your secure area. Once you are locked down in a room you should never let anyone in the room and should not let anyone leave until directed to do so by police. This is a tough judgement call when you may have someone injured outside of your room screaming for help but it’s important to remember the assailant may using a ruse to gain access to more potential victims.

  5. Fight/Defend- First and foremost, YOUR LIFE IS WORTH FIGHTING FOR. This is your last-ditch effort when you encounter the assailant and running or hiding is not an option. You need to remember that if it gets to this stage- your inaction will likely result in your death, at this point you have nothing to lose by fighting for your life. You have the right to protect your life through any means necessary. A few things to keep in mind:

    1. Use anything you can as a defensive weapon. Throw bottles, swing sticks, throw objects- any attempt you make to disable the assailant is better than just waiting for them to pull the trigger. Deploying a fire extinguisher may not only cause the assailant to be unbale to see and breath but can also provide you with a heavy metal object to defend yourself with.

    2. Humans make decisions using what we call the OODA loop:

      1. Observe (You see/hear a dog while riding your bike)

      2. Orient (You see the dog and notice it’s a toy poodle behind a fence)

      3. Decide (You decide that the dog isn’t a threat)

      4. Act (You continue your bike ride without making any changes to your behavior)

By interrupting the OODA loop you are forcing the assailant to reorient themselves to the situation and start the decision-making process over. You need to remember that your typical active shooter is not well trained and thinks they are in control. An interruption in the OODA may buy you that split second to make an escape or gain an advantage over the assailant. Especially if it is a coordinated effort by multiple people. Imagine the shooter trying to get accurate shots while dodging a barrage of bottles and glasses in a bar.

There is a good chance that by defending yourself by force, you and/or others may get injured or killed but this is your last resort. Chances are if you don’t take any action you and/or others getting killed is inevitable. FIGHT FOR YOUR LIFE.

6. Listen to the police. When police first arrive, their priority is to stop the killing. They will be going to the threat. Chances are they won’t be stopping to help injured people in the initial response. This doesn’t mean they don’t care that you’re hurt, it just means they want to minimize the number of injuries. They need to stop the killing before they stop the dying. When you see the police arrive on scene, you need to LISTEN and FOLLOW DIRECTIONS. By following instructions, you won’t be mistaken as the assailant and you are helping them minimize the lives lost. They may tell you to exit the building being that the area behind them is threat free. They may tell you stay still or hidden. If you are injured, they may provide you with medical gear. Many of these mass casualty throw kits include an instruction card. Let the police do their job. I promise you that they are doing everything they can to ensure your safety and the safety of those around you. Police may tell you to put your hands up and even have firearms drawn, at this point they do not know who the aggressors are, just remain calm, they are doing this for everyone’s safety.

7. Prioritize your medical treatments. We are not worried about minor or non-threatening injuries We teach these priorities using the mnemonic M.A.R.C.H. (Note: this is an extremely brief description of the medical care you should give. We suggest that you find a class where you can learn these skills and practice skills in hands on skill stations)

  1. Massive Hemorrhage- Control massive extremity hemorrhage using a tourniquet. Given the situation you should place the tourniquet as high up on the limb as possible. Ideally you would use a CoTCCC recommended tourniquet but it can be improvised. An improvised tourniquet should be at least an inch and half wide and have a windlass. It needs to be more than just a belt. You should also never use items like cords and wires because they are too thin to be effective. It’s important to note that improvised tourniquets have a high failure rate and you should really consider having a proven, effective and CoTCCC recommended device. If the injury is too high for a tourniquet, you can pack the wound with a hemostatic agent, gauze or even a relatively clean cloth and apply direct pressure.

  2. Airway- Airway can be managed in this phase by rolling the patient on their side or using the head-tilt or chin lift you learned in your CPR Course.

  3. Respirations- If they are shot or stabbed in the chest, you should apply a chest seal. You can learn more about chest seals by clicking here.

  4. Circulation- We can control other bleeding and treat the patient for shock.

  5. Hypothermia- When someone goes into shock, they lose the ability to generate heat. When someone becomes hypothermic, they lose the ability to clot blood. It’s very important to keep them warm.

It’s also important to remember that if the scene becomes unsafe or you are given directions by public safety, you should stop medical care and get to safety.


After the police secure the threat, their next priority will be providing medical care and saving lives. A few things may happen at this point:

1. Police Officers will start to provide first aid.

2. A Rescue Task Force (RTF) consisting of EMTs, Paramedics and Police officers will be deployed.

The goal of this phase is to get care to the most seriously injured victims. They will be categorizing victims by severity. If you are injured, you may not be in the highest priority group. Stay patient knowing you WILL get medical care and if you are a low priority that means you don’t have life-threatening injuries.

It is important to continue to follow directions. The orders that are being given are to ensure your safety, facilitate a safe exit and get medical care to those that need it. The police may have you exit the scene with your hands up and you will probably be searched as you are leaving. This ensures that the medical treatment area is secure and safe. You may be told to leave any bags, bookbags and packages on the scene. This is for the safety of everyone.

You may want to call family to let them know you are ok. You will be given a chance to do this but DON’T have them come directly to the scene of the incident unless you are told to do so by police or emergency management officials. Having friends or family respond to the scene will result in more chaos, block emergency vehicles and may expose them to danger. Chances are roads around the scene would be shut down and clogging the roads with traffic may hinder ambulances and other emergency vehicles. You will be told if there is a Reunification Center. This is often a location away from the scene where family members can be reunited. If you are concerned about a friend or family member that may have been involved in the incident, listen to local media outlets and check social media. They will often tell people where to go or share a phone number where you can get further instructions. Don’t call 9-1-1 for this information. The 9-1-1 centers are busy coordinating the response and handling radio traffic.

Don’t leave the scene unless you are told to do so. Police will want to make sure that you aren’t injured and will want to get your information for the investigative phase.

Once the event is over, you should worry about your mental well-being. You have been involved in a serious incident and it’s not shameful or a sign of weakness to talk to a mental health professional.

The bottom line is that an Active Killer event is dangerous, chaotic and scary. Following some simple steps and common sense, you do have the chance to survive. Don’t wait until you are involved with one of these incidents to take basic preparation steps. Listen to public safety and focus on surviving the incident. This is a time to focus on you and not social media. Following the advice in this post won’t guarantee your safety and survival but is based on best practices to minimize risks. Be prepared and stay safe.

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