Terrible Shooting at Century 16 Movie Theater in Aurora Colorado Will Offer Valuable Lessons for Increasing Survivability in Catastrophic Campus Crisis Situations Such as Active Shooter incidents, Terrorist Attacks, Tornadoes and Fires

While a community tries to cope with an almost incomprehensible act of aggression where the lives of many innocent people have been shattered by an unstable individual, others are already at work attempting to learn ways to reduce the loss of human life in future tragedies.

The sheer pain and suffering from yesterday’s horrific attack in Aurora, Colorado was conveyed eloquently by Colorado’s Governor and by Aurora Police Chief Dan Oats at a press conference.  It is truly a reminder of how wonderful people can be to see the tremendous outpouring of sympathy, empathy and support for the victims and their families of this tragedy by people from all across America and distant parts of the world.  The current tally of 12 victims killed and another 58 wounded is painful to even hear.

Even after meeting hundreds of people who have lost a loved one during an act of violence, I cannot begin to comprehend the terrible loss these fine people and their wonderful community are feeling.  While keynoting a session at Johnson and Wales University in nearby Denver, I met with a group of parents and school officials who lost children in two different Colorado school attacks.  It is hard to put into words how difficult it can be simply to know that so many people in one room have suffered such pain. 

Though the media in many cases has been acting in a fairly restrained and more compassionate manner than was the case with the tragic Virginia Tech shooting and many other incidents, invariably, some initial accounts of the incident will prove to be inaccurate.  This was pointed out by Dave Cullen, the author of Columbine in an interview last night.  Having worked a number of cases involving active shooter situations, I have seen these types of inaccuracies in every instance as the press works tirelessly to get us the latest on breaking stories, some mistakes are going to be made.  When I was asked to conduct a forensic evaluation of the Red Lake Reservation school shooting, I found that the most significant aspects of the reasons students and staff died in that incident were not addressed in any media accounts I had read or have read to date.

Time will provide us a better understanding to the extent that we will be able to understand the causal factors that lead someone who is being portrayed as a highly intelligent and gifted scholar to work so diligently to cause such terrible carnage during the screening for a Batman movie.  These types of analysis may bring little comfort to the victims and their families but as we have seen in past attacks, will probably help us learn more about how to identify potentially dangerous people among us.  This type of evaluation has led to improved approaches that have been used to avert many planned multiple victim shootings in schools and in other settings.  As outlined in a blog yesterday, there are also powerful and simple techniques that can help us spot potentially dangerous people even when we have no background information on them.  Pattern matching and recognition and visual weapons screening can be excellent protective measures for instances where an attacker conducts surveillance of a target site or when they are about to carry out an attack at a site.

It is also important to closely examine each tragedy to see what we can learn from it to increase survivability for people in future situations. 

For example, author Amanda Ripley interviewed numerous survivors of mass casualty events in an effort to learn more about human behavior during crisis events.  Her excellent work has taught us valuable lessons that can help save lives.  For example, she found repeated instances where victims stopped to gather their belongings during life and death situations which can reduce the speed of evacuation.   Dr. Gary Klein’s excellent research provides invaluable insight which can help us spot potentially dangerous approaches to emergency preparedness which can lead to crisis plan failure.  His work in helping identify the incredible value of mental simulation is a gift to those involved in emergency preparedness.  Bruce Siddle’s work in the field has helped us identify research based approaches that are now being used in many school districts to help prepare staff to stay calmer and think more clearly under life and death situations.  Col. Dave Grossman has likewise identified improved concepts for preparing people to think under conditions of sheer chaos.  In his comprehensive work Training at the Speed of Light, Author Kenneth R. Murray explains ways public safety and military personnel can improve their performance under tough conditions through appropriate and realistic training concept application.   

If the reports coming from officials in Aurora are borne out to be accurate when the investigation is complete, the men and women of the public safety community and hospital systems demonstrate how proper training and approaches to emergency preparedness can dramatically boost human performance so these types of heroes can perform in amazing ways.  The lightning fast apprehension of the suspect in a situation of this scale will likely turn out to be a tribute to what our law enforcement officers across the nation can and often do under pressure.     

As a non-profit school safety center, our role is to take the concepts, views and research of these and other experts and distill them into a format that can be applied effectively by school employees and students.  As our analysts continue to conduct realistic simulations of school crisis events in one-on-one structured interviews to more accurately test how planning approaches, training and drills can boost or impede the actual performance under life and death conditions, the evaluations of these situations by some of the brightest minds in America will also no doubt teach us more with each tragedy that takes place.  Though this type of evaluation may seem cold to some, it would not be respectful of the loss of life in these horrible situations to allow others to die in future events because we failed to study each terrible tragedy to prevent additional loss of precious human life.

About Michael Dorn

Michael Dorn serves as the Executive Director of Safe Havens International, a non-profit school safety center. The author of 27 books on school safety, Michael’s campus safety work has taken him to 11 countries over the past 34 years.