Active Assailants and Running Into Trouble

Active Assailants and Running Into Trouble
June 2, 2023 SDC Development 2
Active Assailants - TorchStone Global

Active Assailants and Running Into Trouble

By TorchStone VP, Scott Stewart

In April, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) Center at Texas State University published their report on active shooter incidents in the United States in 2022.

The report noted that active shooter incidents in the U.S. have increased from 30 in 2018 to 50 in 2022.

While the number of attacks is down from 61 in 2021, the number of casualties in those incidents increased from 243 in 2021 to 313 in 2022.

The increase in active shooter incidents is clear when one considers that there was only one incident that met the FBI’s definition of an active shooter incident in 2000.

Active assailant incidents obviously generate a lot of publicity and create concern among the general public.

Judging from the number of requests we receive for active assailant training, companies and organizations also perceive that active assailants pose a serious threat to their employees and executives.

Active Assailant

While the FBI statistics I quoted above pertain strictly to active shooter incidents, for the purposes of this article, I use the term “active assailant” instead of active shooter because the threat such attackers pose is broader than just armed assaults.

Hostile actors have used a variety of weapons during past active assailant attacks, including edged weapons, vehicles, and bombs.

In some instances, such as the March 2017 Westminster Bridge attack in London, the April 1999 Columbine attack, or the November 2015 Paris attacks, assailants have used more than one type of weapon during an attack.


In response to this increase in active assailant incidents, a great deal of effort has been made to equip the public to protect themselves during such attacks.

One of the first and most widely disseminated educational efforts was Run, Hide, Fight.

One of the criticisms of run/hide/fight is that unless someone understands the nuance of “run,” they could run from a place of relative safety into danger if they just run without first determining where the threat is.

Motion and distance are important factors in helping a victim escape from a shooter.

Distance is also an extremely valuable tool in mitigating edged weapon attacks.

The more distance a victim can put between themselves and an assailant the better.

Herding Victims

However, if a victim runs without first identifying where the threat is, they could be running toward the threat instead of away from it.

Driving prey into a kill zone is a tactic used by hunters from many cultures.

From Native Americans driving bison off cliffs, to peasants and elephants driving tigers to awaiting Indian rajahs, driving prey is an age-old practice.

The concept is also employed in military operations where enemy forces are pushed or channeled into kill zones.

It is also a tactic that has been used in active assailant attacks.

The two perpetrators of the March 1998 school shooting in Jonesboro, Arkansas, herded their victims into a kill zone by setting off a fire alarm, and as students and teachers filed out of the school to their designated assembly areas, the pair opened fire, killing five and wounding 10 others.

The shooter in the February 2018 shooting at the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida also pulled the fire alarm to begin his attack.

The alarm caused students to leave their classrooms and flood into the hallway where the shooter was waiting for them and opened fire.

Making Sense of Chaos

In addition to intentional attempts to drive victims into a kill zone, quite often the scene of an attack becomes very chaotic and confusing.

With panicked people screaming and running, contradictory information, and perhaps even the echoes of gunfire, it can be difficult to determine exactly where the threat is.

Individuals caught in this situation must fight the urge to panic and just join the crowd.

There are numerous examples of people being trampled by panicked crowds during attacks, and even during false alarms.

For example, the stampede caused by a false active shooter report at a Rochester NY concert in March of 2023 resulted in three victims being trampled to death.

While human nature drives people together for protection during and after an attack, that behavior can become a vulnerability rather than a defense in the context of an attack.

Maintain Focus

Individuals must also fight against their body’s impulse to go into shock and freeze—something that frequently happens to people caught by surprise in a violent situation.

Frozen people present easy targets for attackers.

The best way to guard against freezing is to maintain a proper mindset and practice an appropriate level of situational awareness.

A proper mindset entails recognizing that attacks are the new normal now and that they can happen practically anywhere and at any time.

It also means accepting that you must take responsibility for protecting yourself and those you love because law enforcement and security cannot protect every group of people everywhere all the time.

Maintaining the proper mindset is an important counter to denial, which is a major contributor to people freezing.

“This can’t be happening to me—this can’t be happening now—this can’t be happening here.” Denial is deadly, but so is just joining a mass of panicked people.

Unless you know where the threat is, you should work toward the edge of the crowd and seek some form of cover or concealment while attempting to determine what is happening.


At this point, you should be employing the OODA process.

Observe the situation to the best of your ability using all your senses and then use these observations to orient yourself to the situation.

By orient, I refer to the process of quickly determining where someone stands in relation to other actors in an ambiguous or rapidly changing situation.

This entails conducting a rapid analysis using filters such as education, training, experience, intuition, culture, upbringing, etc., to put your observations into the appropriate context.

Once you are oriented, you should have some understanding of the situation and be in a better position to make a sound decision and act.

This brief pause to rapidly conduct OODA can make the difference between life and death.

The purpose of this initial OODA is to determine if an attack is indeed happening, and if so, where the attacker is, what weapon(s) is being used, and what direction the attacker is moving.

Obviously, if you see the assailant, you must act immediately to avoid the known danger—but even as you move away from the known threat, you should be conducting the OODA process to help you identify and avoid any unknown dangers that could be lurking along your chosen path of movement.

For example, there could be multiple attackers, part of the building could be on fire, or a crush of panicked people at an exit could result in injury or worse.

Keep Your Wits

During an attack—or perceived attack—the situation is often fluid, unpredictable, and confusing.

Simple adages like “Run, Hide, Fight” can come in handy, since they are simple enough to remember even when an individual is under duress.

But as people seek to place to run/hide/fight into action, they must also be conscious that their movement could be taking them into a secondary attack zone.

Maintaining the proper mindset and using tools like situational awareness and OODA can help people ensure that they are running away from danger rather than toward it.