Would you know what to do if you came face to face with a gunman at a mall, a school or the airport?
FBI Assistant Special Agent Michael D’Alonzo believes the best way to overcome the unknown, is to plan for it.
“We're trying to prepare people. Failing to prepare is preparing to fail,” said Special Agent D’Alonzo. That includes preparing you to RUN, HIDE or FIGHT.
A SURVIVOR’S STORY
A plan is what saved art teacher and mother of two Annika Dean.
“I didn't want my kids not to have a mother,” said Dean.
Dean wasn’t supposed to be in the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood airport baggage claim area January 6.
“I got bumped to an earlier flight but my luggage didn't make it,” said Dean. “I was so tired, the thought occurred to me you know maybe I should just go home and come back later and get my luggage.”
But Dean waited.
“I'd been there maybe 5 minutes when I heard gunshots. As soon as I heard the gunfire, I knew it was gunfire.”
That gunfire was coming from Esteban Santiago, who opened fire that day and killed 5 people, according to authorities.
Dean knew it was gunfire, because she had just gone through two active shooter trainings with the Broward County School District.
“I looked for any options of what to do. I was standing in baggage claim, I couldn't have left. I couldn't have evacuated the doors because I would have been right in his path of where he was walking. I took cover, best I could on the other side of a smart cart and I laid down and I just prayed that I wouldn't be one of his victims.”
Dean credits the training with saving her life.
“More than anything it helped to be calm, in a really scary situation.”
“PEOPLE NEED TO BE PREPARED”
The FBI, along with PBSO, set up an active shooter situation at the Palm Beach International Airport for Contact 5 to participate in.
“Certainly, an airport is an easy target, a bus station is an easy target, a mall is an easy target. Churches are an easy target for people as well. They're soft targets and they're easily accessible. You have the most amount of people who may be defenseless. They're looking for easy targets,” said the FBI.
The goal? “What we're trying to instill is, people need to know what they're going to do in a situation,” says Special Agent Michael D’Alonzo.
The drill day started with a safety meeting, or so Contact 5 investigator Sam Smink thought. As she introduced herself, a gunman came into the room, and started shooting.
“People need to start being prepared for scenarios like this,” said Special Agent D’Alonzo.
When the shooter came into the room, Sam Smink’s first reaction was to freeze and look around. Her feet didn’t move for a few seconds. That delay, according to the FBI, likely meant she would have been dead.
“You don't want to hesitate. You want to know where you're going, whether it's in a bar, whether it's in an airport, whether it's in a meeting room. You need to react, as opposed to processing than reacting.”
Eventually, she ran out a door opposite of where the shooter was standing.
“In this particular instance, I don't think she had any other option. Your immediate reaction is to get out of the room.”
But Sam Smink admits she only knew where to go, because she followed others.
“It doesn't have to necessarily be an active shooter scenario. It can actually be, perhaps we say it's a fire. That a fire occurs somewhere. People know what they are going to do. They know they are going to know where the exit is, they're going to look for the exit sign,” said Special Agent D’Alonzo.
“This could be a mall, this could be a restaurant, could be a bus station. So at any one of those places you need to be evaluating where you are, your surroundings, your situational awareness and be able to make the determination that this is what is best suited for me to survive.”
In another scenario, the FBI put Sam Smink and several others in line at a PBIA ticket counter. While they waited, a man with a gun began shooting after walking through the doors. He was aiming for a woman at the ticket counter, but there were others in his way.
Sam Smink’s first reaction was to hide. She ran in the direction of the ticket counter, and ducked.
Breaking down the scenario afterwards, Special Agent D’Alonzo said, “You went to the best direction because you knew you had people who had blocked you in from behind. The people that were in the back of the line, ran away. Their best exit was not trying to run over you.”
Sam Smink was aware that a counter was in front of her. She had noticed it while in line. Special Agent D’Alonzo said it was a smart move, “Know where your exit is. Know where your path is.”
Looking back on January 6, Annika Dean says “I don't like to think about what, how I might have reacted had I not had the training.”
Because of her training, Dean said she didn’t panic, freeze, or hesitate.
“As soon as I identified where the shooting was, and that shots were actually being fired, I just tried to look for my best possible cover. I was to the right of him and he was walking toward my area. I was standing in baggage claim, I couldn't have left, I couldn't have evacuated the doors because I would have been right in his path of where he was walking. “
Dean hid when faced with an active shooter, Sam Smink ran and hid, but what about the other option, fight?
The FBI says the fight option should be a last resort.
“The last scenario you're looking at is, there is no other alternative but to fight. “
The fight option, according to the FBI, is not about being a being a hero.
“Do you mean wrestle someone, take the gun away? I can't say. It's going to be, the person is going to have to make the determination based on their skills, based on their abilities, based on their training and based on what they are prepared to do.”
The fight option is about keeping yourself alive.
“From what we've seen throughout the world, help is not going to arrive instantaneously.”
In the scenario, Sam Smink was hiding behind the ticket counter. Special Agent D’Alonzo said “You're behind that counter. And I'm watching from a distance and I see the shooter actually coming over the counter, looking for his target. At that particular instance, you don't know whether it's going to turn on you or not. In that particular instance, if he happens to see you, then you're an easy target there. In that particular instance, you may want to fight. Could somebody have possibly grabbed the person's gun and then maybe caused a misfire.”
“You're going to be considering, how do I necessarily confront, but protect myself at the same time. Is there an opportunity, is there an avenue, is there a gap where you are going to be able to confront that person, confront that threat you have in order to stop and protect yourself and those around you,” said Special Agent D’Alonzo.
“IT’S NOT ABOUT FEAR”
The FBI also stresses, preparation is not about fear.
“We're not trying to cause here a paranoia, where people are afraid to leave their homes. Absolutely not. We're not trying to instill that in people, where the safest place is in their house. But we are trying to say you can go out and you can go out with your family. You can have a great time but you can also be aware of the safety concerns around you. Know where your safety exits. Know where you could take cover.”
Dean says what the FBI teaches is similar to what she learned in Broward County active shooter training. It’s advice she now tries to practice daily.
“I don't spend as much time on my cell phone, I try to look around, be more aware of my surroundings and encourage my kids to pay more attention. I don't like my kids to be on their phones at all. I want everyone paying attention to who is around us and what's going on. I definitely don't take things for granted as much.”
“There truly isn't a right and a wrong. People need to think about what they will do in a scenario or do in a situation, so that they don't have to hesitate. The goal is to save time, save seconds,” said Special Agent Michael D’Alonzo.