By Sean Barron
If you’re sitting in your office, shopping at the local mall or studying in a classroom, then suddenly hear a volley of gunshots and see terrified people running, what do you do?
Of course, it’s critical to know how to respond to such a frightening scenario, but equally important is knowing how not to react, Todd D. Werth, supervisory special agent with the Youngstown FBI office, said during his two-hour seminar Monday in Youngstown State University’s Kilcawley Center.
Werth’s talk was the same day as a mass shooting at a Washington, D.C., Navy command complex that left several people dead and others injured. The rampage was less than four miles from the White House.
“In our society, we need to be prepared for this,” Werth said. “These things can happen anywhere.”
An estimated 120 law-enforcement personnel, students and others attended Werth’s presentation, “Active Shooter Threats: Civilian Responses in the Workplace, Schools and Other Public Places,” which was part of YSU’s Alumni Lecture Series.
Werth, who also served nine years in the Army, noted that people in such an emergency should try to accurately assess the situation, have a designated escape route and evacuate or hide, depending on circumstances.
In some instances, however, evacuating without a clear plan or knowledge of what’s going on can worsen the crisis, he explained.
Also imperative is remaining calm and providing emergency personnel with as much information as possible.
To illustrate that point, Werth played a 911 recording during the Aug. 3, 2010, shooting at Hartford Distributors in Manchester, Conn., in which the caller gives specific details about 34-year-old Omar S. Thornton, a disgruntled truck driver who killed eight co-workers and wounded two others in a warehouse before shooting himself to death. Thornton was about to lose his job.
“He did his best to keep people safe,” Werth said of the caller.
Other measures people should take in such emergencies include calling 911 when safe, helping others escape if possible, refraining from moving those who are severely wounded and leaving belongings behind, he noted.
In addition, Werth said, anyone trying to get away from a perpetrator should run in a zigzag pattern, not in a straight line. Doing so will decrease the likelihood of being shot, he explained.
When trying to hide from a shooter, it’s important to get behind something that can stop a bullet, such as masonry, silence cellphones and other noise sources and lock doors or block them with heavy furniture, Werth continued, adding that people should avoid forming clusters or large groups.
“It can be a matter of seconds whether you make the right or wrong decision,” he said.
The main priority for the first police officers on the scene is to stop the shooter as soon as possible, so those who reach safety should always keep their hands visible and follow instructions from law-enforcement personnel, Werth explained. He added that only as a last resort should a person attempt to disrupt or incapacitate a gunman.
Nevertheless, neither metal detectors nor other security measures are panaceas for stopping all such incidents, he added.
The best safety forces can do is try to make it as difficult as possible for would-be shooters to succeed, he explained. Also, employees, employers and others need to be vigilant and take seriously warnings made by people, Werth contended.
“We do our best to intercede, but some people fall through the cracks,” he said.