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Responding to Active Threats, Part Two: Prepare Before, Act During

A security expert says mental preparedness starts before booking a venue.

The most important thing to know before any event is your escape route, says David Lau, a counterterrorism expert and international team leader with the Federal Air Marshal Service. Lau led a MeetingsNet webinar on preparing for the unthinkable at your meetings and shared this Navy Seal saying, “Two is one, one is none.” While the phrase is usually applied to redundancy for critical items in the field, Lau used it as a handy mnemonic to remind planners that in a location with one exit, the attacker will likely be using it, but in a location with two exits you can escape through the other one.

When planners arrive at a venue, it pays to walk around and get familiar with the layout and find the nearest exits from each location they will use. However, not all exits are equally safe, Lau warned. Most casualties in hotel attacks happen in the lobby and around the ground floor. The loading dock may be the nearest exit, but it is a favorite route for a large number of attackers to enter a building.

During the webinar, Lau had a wide range of other advice on preparing for active threats at your meeting or conference: 

Before an Event
Have an emergency plan in place and communicate it to your team. In the U.S., there are more attacks from lone male gunmen than car bombs, so orient your plan accordingly.

Have your team practice OODA—Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. For example, in each room, your team members should know where the exits are and whether they lead to the outside or to another room.

Maintain situational awareness. Lau says planners tend to be very intuitive and pick up on body language. If someone enters a room you are in, note what they are carrying and where they position themselves. Do they look like they belong there?

Keep Your Attendees Informed
Include safety information on your event app or other conference material, including a map of the venue with exit routes from each area and fire assembly points. If there are trained emergency personnel on staff or defibrillators and other first aid equipment in the building, indicate those locations. You should also include information about exiting the building at the beginning of presentations. It doesn’t have to sound ominous, movie theaters point out exits before a film and flight attendants give safety presentations before takeoff.

If an Attack Happens
Lau prefers the phrase “avoid, deny, defend” to “run, hide, fight.” He suggests running implies something aimless, whereas he wants you to consciously avoid the attacker. When running, know where you are going, run at angles to avoid gunfire, and find cover such as loadbearing walls or pillars that can stop small arms fire. Deny attackers access by barricading doors, and be prepared to defend yourself. Lau says attackers rarely take hostages because they are there to kill. On the other hand, they are not there to fight, which is why they chose a soft target.

Make your own exit if you get trapped. Lau says, “Kick off a table or chair leg and make a hole in a sheetrock wall to climb through. If there are drop tile ceilings push out a tile near a wall and climb out of the room to drop down on the other side.” Try to stay calm enough think through your options, and by all means, save your life, not your job, he says, noting that under stress people tend to revert to habits rather than face reality. He gives the example of an employee who initially fled during the 2013 gunman attack on Los Angeles International Airport but then returned to retrieve an important binder. He was shot and injured. 

Communicate what you see happening. If the attacker is using a silent weapon, such as a knife, other people in the room may have no idea what is happening. Shout to people what and where the threat is before you escape so they can also react.

After an Attack
Understand law enforcement’s response. They don’t know who the bad guys are and will make everyone get on the ground. Communicate with your voice only, and don’t make any sudden movements even if you are pointing in the direction the attackers went.

Be accountable. You may want to just go home to your loved ones, but make sure you are accounted for. Emergency services need to know if you are OK or bleeding to death in a hiding place.

Lau emphasized that the mind navigates the body, so being mentally prepared is the best way to handle an emergency situation. To watch the full webinar, click here.

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