How to hide from an active shooter – Look for Cover or Concealment, & always Track the Threat
In an active shooter situation, knowing how to properly choose a place to hide is critical if you are unable to escape safely. By learning about the different types of "hiding,” you can improve the likelihood that you won’t have to engage in a direct confrontation with the threat.
Concealment – If the threat can’t find you, you’re not a target
Concealment is placing a visual barrier between yourself and the threat. Hiding under a desk, behind the curtain or in a tree might not completely obscure you from view, but if the threat doesn’t know where to find you, it might be good enough to keep you safe. However, if the threat knows your location, hiding behind a bush isn’t going to stop a bullet. "Good” concealment is impossible to define universally. "Good” concealment might need to change as the threat evolves or moves. Once your place of concealment is discovered, you need to move! Either find a way out, better concealment, a place of true cover (we’re getting there) or be prepared to make a stand.
Cover – Look for something that can stop/slow a bullet
Cover is hiding from a threat in a place that will provide "ballistic cover” – in other words, some place that can stop or slow bullets. There are two types of cover, offensive & defensive.
Offensive cover is the use of weapons to actively suppress or mitigate a threat. This is most readily depicted in your favorite cop or military show/movie: when a character screams, "COVER ME!” as he rushes across the open courtyard. This command usually results in a barrage of gunfire from his comrades, resulting in the "bad guys” putting their heads down instead of shooting at the now exposed "good guy.”
In real life, Police Officers may use offensive cover to mitigate the threats by pointing their guns at doors/doorways or other places threats might be waiting or lurking. This provides a reaction time advantage if the threat presents themselves.
It’s probably clear why this type of cover is not available to everyone. If it applies to you, understand its value and legal ramifications FULLY before you employ it as a tactic.
Defensive cover is available to everyone. Good cover, like good concealment, is relative to the threat. For instance, if the threat is my son with a fully loaded and operational spitball, "good” cover might include a piece of looseleaf paper. If the threat is a nuclear weapon, all the engine blocks, brick walls and ballistic shields in the world won’t make a difference. If the threat is an active shooter at a workplace, a room full of metal cabinets might serve to keep you protected from the threat. The only way to decide of your cover is adequate is to know the threat.
Maintaining Cover & Concealment, & Tracking the Threat
It is very important to use situational awareness to look for a good hiding spot instead of choosing the first ‘hiding place’ you see. Simply hiding in a shallow coat closet or huddling under your desk (with eyes closed tightly) can quickly become disastrous. If they’re the only options, that’s one thing, but take a moment to survey the options and make that decision consciously instead of defaulting to the easiest spot to hide.
Once the level of threat is identified, it’s important to keep track of the threat’s location. You may have found the best cover in the world against a pistol-toting miscreant, but, if that bad person begins to move and, in doing so, you become exposed, how’s your cover now? Keeping track of the threat, without creating unnecessary risk, is what will keep your cover, or concealment, effective.
If the threat is walking through open areas randomly engaging targets of convenience, a simple hiding spot may suffice until he or she has moved on. If that same threat is actively opening doors, searching under desks and moving through interior rooms, "simple” may not be enough.
When concealing yourself, distance can be your friend. As sight distances get longer, across a parking lot (or music venue) versus across a cafeteria, it gets easier to hide yourself. At those longer distances, it’s harder for the human eye to discern the pattern of a person’s body from other similarly shaped and sized objects like trees, and shrubs, etc. At 100 meters, tall grass may be fine concealment (not cover!), but at 10 meters, that grass won’t do much of anything.
Brief ballistics interlude (How gunfire can help you track the threat)
To understand the threat when gunfire is involved, it’s important to understand the basic differences between firearms.
Pistols (AKA handguns): Use smaller bullets traveling at generally lower velocities. The sound is most commonly characterized as a "pop, pop, pop”. Thick, solid metal, concrete, brick, or wooden objects will stop or, at least deflect pistol rounds. Effectively aimed distances are less than 100 yards, but the bullets will continue to move at lethal speeds for up to 200-300 yards.
Long Guns (AKA rifles): Use larger bullets traveling significantly faster, oftentimes faster than the speed of sound. Typically described as a "crack” when heard (this is actually a small sonic boom as the bullet breaks the sound barrier). VERY thick masonry, metal or ballistic shielding may be required to stop these rounds. Rifle rounds can easily travel through things like cars and houses. Effective distances can range between 100 and over 1000 yards (10 football fields), but these bullets can remain lethal for over a mile.
Police tactics vary when faced with a pistol versus a long rifle. Being able to gather this information safely and pass it on may be extremely valuable.
Knowing these differences can help you make better cover decisions. If the assailant has a handgun, cover in an office setting might include appliances, full, metal file cabinets or steel fire doors. If that same assailant is carrying a rifle, those cover options may be inadequate; looking for masonry walls may be the only option.
5 Seconds of physiology: Humans use both ears to do something called binaural sound localization. Our brain can actually detect slight differences in the time it takes for a sound to reach one ear over the other. When gunshots ring out, slightly turning your head left and right towards the sound can help you pinpoint the origin. It’s nearly impossible on the first shot, but subsequent shots will be easier to track.
When push comes to shove, it will be your situational awareness that will have to help you identify the threat and find the best available cover. Your situational awareness will be informed by what your senses are picking up. Seeing a person with butcher knives may mean that concealment may suffice, while hearing the "crack” of a rifle, informs you what "good” cover means.
What’s better, Cover or Concealment?
If you have the choice between cover or concealment, cover is always best. Defensive cover includes elements of concealment while providing adequate ballistic protection…when appropriately chosen (remember your ballistics, the thin metal desk or the quarter panel of your car may seem "sturdy”, but many bullets are designed to travel straight through them). But if getting away and good cover aren’t options, you should look for concealment. The last piece of the continuum, if you are found despite your efforts to hide, is defending yourself at all costs.