It is an unfortunate fact that a terrorist attack in the UK is inevitable. While our security and intelligence services do good work in keeping us safe, as the provisionals used say, 'we only have to be lucky once.'
The attack may come in various shapes and forms from a random and impulsive ‘lone wolf’ attack to organised and coordinated attacks on multiple targets. Moreover, the threat is constantly evolving. We can expect constant improvisation and innovation from the terrorist in both method and design. Technical advances, miniaturisation and advances in chemical engineering among others will all eventually be reflected in the terrorists arsenal.
While the probability of being caught up in any of these incidents is remote, advice for innocents caught up in incidents, and the ensuing melee’, is sparse. Jihadists present a fractured and complex threat across the European mainland, holiday destinations and within the UK. They are committed, in many cases well trained and as evidenced in the Brussels attack, they have a good bomb-maker. The tradecraft of the Brussels attackers though was sloppy and unrefined reflecting the fact that the terror threat doesn’t come in a neat, one profile package. Here then are my thoughts on different scenarios
For individuals caught up in an incident the reason why will matter least. The instinct of survival should have primacy but that is often not the case. Most citizens take a ‘well, if it’s got my name on it…’ fatalistic approach to the prospect of a bad thing happening. They feel events are anyway beyond their control and there is little one person can do. Moreover, in the aftermath of an incident, especially one involving an IED, people are disorientated and shocked leaving many unable to grasp what has happened, far less grip their own vulnerability and seek a route to hiding or safety. This is true of trained individuals and ordinary folk. Bombs are violent, bloody and indiscriminate instruments of war. They create fear through destruction and after the short silence, mayhem ensues. There are however, steps that the ordinary decent public can take to mitigate some of the risk. In the first instance, much depends on luck. There isn’t much anyone can do if you are standing a few metres away from the seat of an explosion but let’s take things one step at a time and look at how we can employ our own situational awareness to increase our chance of survival before, during and after an incident.
Don’t Be A Victim
Taking the fatalistic approach to life may seem to fulfil what is expected of ourselves as Britons displaying a 'business as usual,' phlegmatic approach to life. Indeed, various governments play the same record after every incident, ’This will not change our way of life.’ Well, mine changed as soon as the Provisionals started bombing the Mainland back in the Seventies.. Having the right mindset is critical. Denial, ignorance and complacency are no defence against nail packed semtex packages. Acceptance of the threat is the first step in not becoming a victim. Don't live in a bubble.
Most people exercise situation awareness whether they recognise it as a valuable tool or not. Walking down a dark street at night for example will inevitably create a state of heightened sensory awareness of everything around. While we can’t replicate that same heightened state of awareness throughout the day, (it would simply be exhausting), there is a reasonable medium whereby you are alert to your surroundings. US law enforcement frequently use a system called Coopers colours to describe the five common levels of situational awareness. For ‘awareness,’ read ‘alertness.’
In condition White you are relaxed, tuned out and unaware of events around you. Unaware equals unprepared. The kind of constant vegetative state that many urban dwellers seek refuge in; hood up, plugged in to music, eyes down. People who are 100% dependent on luck for survival; people happy to become statistics, in an ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe that this is happening to me,’ way.
In condition Yellow you are relaxed but aware of what is around you. You are paying attention to activities and sounds around you. You will be in a state where you will not be completely surprised and will be taking normal precautions. You may be running ‘what if,’ scenarios in your mind and have pre planned exits in mind. (This is a dynamic process. For example, when driving down a suburban residential street you probably already say to yourself, ‘the car in front may turn right,’ or 'that child ahead may run into the road,’ and be prepared to brake. That is typical of condition Yellow action). This is the minimum mindset everyone should adopt, especially when in unfamiliar surroundings, in crowds or when with people not known to you.
In condition Orange you are more focused and may have identified a potential threat. Someone following you, for example an unruly bunch of NEDS approaching or something more sinister. If a bad thing happens in condition Orange you should be expecting it and not be surprised. You will have a definite plan of action and escape routes in mind. The driving analogy here might be driving in icy or foggy conditions when you are totally focused and ignore any distractions outside keeping the car safely on the road.
In condition Red the threat identified in Orange becomes real and triggers action, be it flight, fight or hide.
There are some points to note about these different levels of situational awareness. The first is that people cannot operate in a heightened state of alertness for prolonged periods. It is tiring and induces stress which is unhealthy. People should simply practice being in a constant state of relaxed awareness and be prepared to elevate that alertness for brief periods as required. Adopting a minimum level of awareness will anyway, lead to the avoidance of many situations that could otherwise escalate. This process is simply introducing some rigour into what will come naturally to most people anyway but usually in situations they are already familiar with such as driving, watching young toddlers play, using an ATM and even Christmas shopping. You can practice your situational awareness skills easily and at will. Examples include checking exits whenever you walk into buildings, always leaving a gap between you and the car in front when in waiting traffic, watching vehicles in your rear view mirror to see if any are taking the same turns and start people watching. Look at people and work out where they might be from, their education, distinguishing marks, what kind of mood they are in, what their life story is. Observation can be practiced and honed until it becomes intuitive. The British excel at this game. Note our obsession with shoes from which we can derive a massive amount of instinctive background information. This process of seeing, and interpreting, rather than just looking soon embeds itself into the subconscious and becomes part of one’s natural state.
Understand Your Environment
Clearly, you are more vulnerable to attack either individually or as part of a crowd in some environments than in others. Travel to many countries necessitates a heightened state of awareness as indeed a visit to a major attraction in London does when compared to a visit to a village flower show. On a micro level however alertness can often prevent a bad thing happening or increase the observer’s probability of survival if it does. Criminals and terrorists have a significant advantage because they have surprise. That advantage is magnified if the victims freeze rather than react. The bad people though will often plan and reconnoiter their attack. Suspicious activity makes the terrorist vulnerable and they are not very good at camouflaging their behaviour when either marking potential targets or in the run up to an attack. They will be edgy and their adrenaline will be pumping. This is why some take drugs before an attack to dampen the natural response of their bodies to stress. Many adopt an intense stare before an attack. Wearing unseasonal clothing, suspicious bulges under the clothes, unnatural perspiration, avoiding eye contact, mumbling and fidgeting, using hand signals with other perhaps unsighted individuals are all give away signs. A citizen identifying out of character suspicious behaviour will tend not to want to make a fuss. Make a fuss. Better to suffer the embarrassment of a false alarm than to be a quadriplegic for life.
As a young soldier I recall attending a lecture and demonstration of let’s call them ‘sneaky IED’s.’ These would be devices hidden in lamp posts, telephone boxes, gate posts, window boxes and so on. I asked the instructor, who had entertained us with some very impressive bangs, how we might know if one lamp post out of the hundreds we walked past on patrol in Belfast every day might have an IED inside it. He said, ‘the hairs on the back of your neck will stand up.’ What did he mean? Every day, in going about your normal business, your mind processes everything it sees and hears. It might be in the home, the journey to work, in the workplace or place of leisure, your brain is expecting every detail and matches it to what has gone before. It isn’t something that you consciously think about but sometimes, there might be something out of place. A person, an object or things happening in the wrong sequence and while it may not trigger a conscious thought or response you get, ‘a feeling.’ That ‘something isn’t quite right,’ feeling is the ‘hairs on the back of your neck rising.’ Don’t ever, ever ignore it. It may be something unthreatening, something completely trivial and innocent but something has changed and your mind is warning you that something is different.
Depending on the study, brain scientists tell us that our conscious mind processes 40-126 chunks of information per second. Our unconscious mind, on the other hand, is processing upwards of 12 million chunks of information per second. If you’re consciously trying to continually evaluate your environment for threats in addition to actually engaging in conversation with other people, the conscious mind just doesn’t have the bandwidth to do both well and it puts a considerable amount of stress on the mind.
But, if you give the mind the tools it needs to unconsciously identify and rank dangers and threats it can work in the background while your conscious mind is fully engaged with people around you.
If a bad thing happens and you are caught up in a terrorist attack the first and obvious thing to do is dart to the nearest cover and quickly ascertain where the threat lies. You must determine where the terrorist or terrorists are less you run blindly into the danger, or killing zone. Gunfire in built up areas for example is notorious for being difficult to pinpoint because of the echoing around buildings.
If the attack is a live shooter or shooters do not panic or give up. You have a good chance of escape to safety if you keep your head. Knowledge dispels fear. Here is the knowledge.
In most cases active shooters are not well trained and as explained earlier, will be 'pumped up,' with adrenaline flowing and very possibly, under some kind of intoxication. Most casualties are shot at close range. Our aim is obviously to increase that range. Using the acronym MDACC which represents, Motion, Distance, Angle, Cover & Concealment we have all we need to exponentially increase our survival rate. Forget everything you have seen in movies. It is very difficult to hit a moving target, even for trained soldiers and law enforcement professionals. The average target presented to soldiers in Northern Ireland was a moving target with a 3 second exposure. Very few such targets were hit.
Most tactical shootings happen at distances of less than seven meters. Few people can consistently hit a stationary target beyond 25 meters with a handgun, much less a moving target. Most people can put 25 meters between themselves and an attacker in just a few seconds, so motion and distance improve a target's chances of escape. Think and move. If in doubt, seek sanctuary, secure it and protect yourself as best you are able. Then, prepare to fight.
The angle at which a target runs away is also important because shooting a target that is moving straight away is easier than shooting a target running away at an angle, since the second scenario would require the shooter to swing the barrel of the weapon and lead the target, a difficult task even for an experienced marksman. Both require practice, even with a rifle or shotgun. If the target can run at an angle behind objects like trees, cars, office furniture or walls that obstruct the shooter's view of the target (concealment) or stop bullets (cover), that is even more effective. Think and run.
It is important to distinguish between concealment and cover. Items that provide concealment, such as a bush or tree leaves, can hide a target from the shooter's line of vision but will not protect them from bullets the way a substantial tree trunk will. Likewise, in an office setting, a typical drywall-construction interior wall can provide concealment but not cover, meaning a shooter will still be able to fire through the walls and door. Similarly, a car door or the boot doesn't afford the same protection as does the bonnet with the engine block inside. Still, if the shooter cannot see his or her target, they will be firing blindly rather than aiming their weapon, reducing the probability of hitting a target.
In any case, those hiding inside a room should attempt to find some sort of additional cover, such as a filing cabinet or heavy desk. It is always better to find cover than concealment, but even partial cover, something that will only deflect or fragment the projectiles, is preferable to no cover at all.
Let's not mince our words here; bombs are a bastard. When a device is detonated all hell breaks loose. If you are in line of sight of the device then you are at risk from the shockwave, fragments and debris. Distance is the best defence. The blast from even a small device will be magnified inside a building. There will be a shockwave which will damage everything in its path, (including your internal organs), fire, heat, noise and steel and glass fragments travelling at high velocity. If you are some distance from the explosion and are not medically trained leave the area immediately helping the infirm or children as you are able. Do not loiter to take photographs, make telephone calls or seek comfort from strangers. Avoid obvious meeting points such as squares and precincts and avoid crowds. There may be secondary devices planted at such locations.
If you are closer to the blast, and survive, switch on. It is easier said than done given you may suddenly be deaf and shaken beyond any previous experience. Live shooters may be on the loose. Seek cover if you are able and remember, you are at risk from falling shards of glass from buildings for a long time after the explosion.
If you are wounded it's not game over. The body will not give up and cease functioning but the mind is likely to. Escape out of the line of fire is doable if you want it to be. As with every survival situation, the will to survive is everything. Most people do freeze and go into shock which allows the shooter the opportunity to let loose with a close range killer shot. When shot apply an improvised pressure bandage using anything to hand to both the entry and exit wound if there is one which won't always be in line with the entry wound. If you are shot and get to a hospital alive you will probably live, such is the excellence of trauma care these days.
Advice from British law enforcement backs off from fighting the terrorist. Not so in America, as we might expect, where they promulgate the Run, Hide, Fight approach. I favour this. Be under no illusion, if you are cornered and your life is in danger, as a last resort only sudden maximum violence on or at your attacker using any improvised weapons to hand will keep you alive.
- RUN and escape, if possible.
- If safe to do so, use an accessible path.
- Help others escape, if possible, but evacuate regardless of whether others agree to follow.
- Leave your belongings behind.
- Warn and prevent individuals from entering an area where the active shooter may be.
- Keep your hands visible.
- HIDE, if escape is not possible.
- If you are in an office, stay there and lock or barricade the door.
- If you are in a hallway, get into a room and secure the door.
- Close, cover, and move away from windows.
- Your hiding place should be out of the shooter's view and provide protection if shots are fired in your direction.
- Remain quiet with all sources of noise silenced.
- FIGHT as an absolute last resort, and only when your life is in imminent danger. DO NOT seek out the shooter.
- Attempt to disrupt and/or incapacitate the active shooter.
- Act as aggressively as possible against him/her.
- Be prepared to cause severe or lethal injury to the shooter.
- Throw items and improvise weapons.
- Commit to your actions.
Don't expect too much from law enforcement officers arriving on the scene. If caught up in the initial incident they themselves will have adrenaline pumping and may also be shocked. Be wary of first response directions issued under pressure by disorientated officers which may also send you into harms way. When armed officers arrive do exactly what they say. Make no sudden movements and do not approach them in haste or you might get an unwelcome response. They will be extremely keyed up. Mistakes can happen. Avoid shouting, gesturing and pointing and keep your hands where they can be seen. You may be roughly treated by first responding officers. Their priority is to neutralise the threat. They may push you down for your own safety or may treat you as a suspect until otherwise proven. Suck it up and do as you are told. Also, paramedics and doctors arriving will seek out the badly injured first. If they don't come to you think of it as good news. Wait your turn if wounded and rely on self help. They will get to you. After reaching a place of safety identify yourself to the police as a witness. If waiting try to recall the sequence of events and take notes in as much detail as you can remember where possible.
No one except the terrorist wants us to swap a normal way of life for paranoia and fear. That however, does not preclude accepting and understanding that risk exists and some simple steps to elevate our personal situational awareness can help mitigate that risk. Adopting the right mindset which is appropriate to your environment and being ready and able to elevate your preparedness and then react vigorously if a situation develops will all contribute to enhanced survivability. Finally, bloody minded determination and aggression will see you through the darkness should you be embroiled in an incident. Do not ever, give up. That's the point when the bastards have won.
Finally, if it is all too dramatic for you and you had rather not bother my departing advice is move to Glasgow. They've got it taped up there.