From the public libraries to Town Hall, from the chamber of commerce to the schools to the elderly housing complexes, Brookline police officers Casey Hatchett and Peter Muise have been making the rounds lately.
I don't mean regular patrol rounds, here in our leafy Boston suburb. I mean they've been responding to invitations to come and teach residents — hundreds of residents — what to do if they find themselves facing an "active shooter" perpetrating a mass attack.
Sandy Hook is nearly 150 miles from Brookline, but over the past year, the legacy of that town's trauma has become ever more visibly woven into the fabric of our town's life.
I first noticed an offering for our town's medical reserve corps: a workshop called "Protecting Yourself from an Active Shooter: Surviving the Unthinkable." It included the "Run. Hide. Fight." method laid out in the viral video above.
“If you are ever to find yourself in the middle of an active shooter event," the ominous voice-over intones, "your survival may depend on whether or not you have a plan. The plan doesn’t have to be complicated. There are three things you could do that make a difference. Run. Hide Fight.”
Officers Hatchett and Muise include the video in their training sessions, but they also speak more broadly about the town preparations for emergencies and the growing prevalence of mass attacks in American life — well over 300 of them since the 1960s.
It’s not that Newtown changed police practices, the Brookline officers say — but it changed people's attitudes.
"For us, it's something we've trained for, and been thinking about a lot, and doing planning and training around for many years," Hatchett said. "But I think it increased maybe our community's appetite for discussing options."
Several years ago, Muise said, there was some resistance when Brookline introduced school drills to practice what would happen in a lockdown. Now, people not only accept them, they’re eager for more.
"That was very hard to try and sell to people at first," he said. "But once we did, then it was okay, and then it was people coming up to us saying, 'That’s some good stuff. What do we need to do next?' And that’s where we’re at now. What’s the next level? And 'options' is what we have."
By "options," Hatchett and Muise mean the "Run. Hide. Fight.' doctrine that's increasingly espoused by law enforcement.
"To date, the discussion has always been around locking down, hiding and locking down," Hatchett said. "And now, what we’re trying to do, when we meet with people in the community, is to just have them consider that there are options — that locking down isn't always the safest option for them. That if you can get out, and there's a door 20 feet away from you and you can get to safety, that you should take that door. And get yourself and others to safety. And if you can’t, and you can’t hide effectively without being found by the subject, you have to consider fighting."
"And so we talk about situational awareness: As you go about your day-to-day life, consider the scenarios that you're in and what the potential threats could be that are posed to you in those scenarios. We use examples — when you go into a movie theater you look for the exits. If we go regularly to a place of worship or to a particular hockey rink or a mall, if you're someplace regularly, be aware of your surroundings and how you could get out and what might be at your disposal to use as an impromptu weapon if you need one."
The town training sessions also include an assortment of tips — for example, you should know that if you call 911, the call goes to the state police, not the town, so mention the town you're in quickly.
Or there’s the doorstop tip, Muise said: "We tell people a simple doorstop, a 99-cent doorstop, if your door opens in, if you jam it under the door it's going to make it a lot more difficult to open." That may not keep a shooter out of the room you're hiding in, but it surely will slow him down, he said.
For townspeople who feel stress at the very thought that their library or school could turn into a battleground, Hatchett has some reassurance:
'I think it's important to remind people who are thinking about these situations that kids are still a thousand times safer in school than they are during non-school hours," she said. "So our schools are still safe. It’s just: You know better, so you do better. We know that this is a concern and so we prepare for it — just like we have fire alarms and sprinkler systems in our school buildings, and it’s been 50 years since there's been a school fire that has killed a child. Knock on wood..."
It struck me as oddly surreal, at first, to think about the most ordinary of daily venues as potential strategic objects in case of attack: Would you duck behind the candy store counter? Use your ice skates as weapons? It reminds me of World War II movies in which every house turns into a redoubt, every hill turns from a natural feature into a tactical asset.
On the other hand, who wants to live in denial? The public shooting attack "really is an American phenomenon," Hatchett said. "So you can't pretend it's not the reality of what we're living with."
Accepted. And the video and training sessions are clearly valuable — just like fire drills. But do we have to live in everyday fear? And if we do, how much fear do we have to live in?
Sometimes, in the year since the Sandy Hook massacre, I've tried to comfort myself that the odds remain infinitesimal that any given children will fall victim to such horror. But it hasn't much helped. I asked David Ropeik, a consultant in risk communication and author of “How Risky Is It, Really?” to help me think it through. He e-mailed:
At the time that 20 innocent children were murdered by a crazed gunman at the Sandy Hook elementary school, an average of roughly 28 million children per day were in elementary schools across America. That means that statistically, the risk of what happened to the Newtown kids happening to any other children was about one in 1.4 million. That’s twice as unlikely as the annual risk of the average American drowning in the bathtub, five times less likely than the average American being accidentally electrocuted, four times less likely than the average American is to die from being hit in the head by a falling object. In other words, pretty rare.
But those numbers are meaningless, because how a risk feels to us has far less to do with the probabilities and far more to do with the emotional nature of the danger. How worried a risk makes us feel has less to do with how likely we are to die and more to do with how we become dead. That’s why risk comparisons based on numbers are mostly irrelevant for helping us put risk in perspective. Murder is a whole different emotional reality, because imposed risk feels worse than risks we take voluntarily. Murder of defenseless victims is even worse, because powerlessness and a lack of control makes ANY risk feel scarier. Murder of CHILDREN is much worse still, because we are acutely frightened by any threat to what the academics coldly call ‘future generations'.
And the catastrophic death of a lot of victims all at once (mass murder, plane crash, etc.), as opposed to the chronic deaths of many more victims but spread out over space and time (heart disease, diabetes, stroke, childhood leukemia), magnifies the emotional horror even further.
Risk is a feeling, not just a number. What happened in Newtown was emotionally wrenching for people around the world, regardless of how unlikely it was.
In other words, the odds may be small but the emotions are big. I'm thinking that on both a practical plane and an emotional one, training can help. On the tiny chance that an attack hits our town, at least we'll now know better what to do.
Readers, have you considered training on what to do in case of a mass attack? Why or why not?
This program aired on December 14, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.