The speed and deadliness of recent high-profile shootings have prompted police departments to recommend fleeing, hiding or fighting in the event of a mass attack, instead of remaining passive and waiting for help.
After the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, some police departments began telling officers to act immediately rather than wait for backup.
The traditional advice to the public has been “don’t get involved, call 911,” Mr. Wexler said, adding, “There’s a recognition in these ‘active shooter’ situations that there may be a need for citizens to act in a way that perhaps they haven’t been trained for or equipped to deal with.”
Mr. Wexler and others noted that the change echoes a transformation in police procedures that began after the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, when some departments began telling officers who arrived first on a scene to act immediately rather than waiting for backup. Since then, the approach has become widespread, as a succession of high-profile shootings across the country has made it clear that no city or town is immune and that police agencies must be prepared to take an active approach.
“We used to sit outside and set up a perimeter and wait for the SWAT team to get there,” said Michael Dirden, an executive assistant chief of the Houston Police Department. “Now it’s a recognition that time is of the essence and those initial responders have to go in,” he said, adding that since the Virginia Tech University shooting in 2007, the department has been training first responders to move in on their own when they encounter active gunfire.
Research on mass shootings over the last decade has bolstered the idea that people at the scene of an attack have a better chance of survival if they take an active stance rather than waiting to be rescued by the police, who in many cases cannot get there fast enough to prevent the loss of life.
In an analysis of 84 such shooting cases in the United States from 2000 to 2010, for example, researchers at Texas State University found that the average time it took for the police to respond was three minutes.
“But you see that about half the attacks are over before the police get there, even when they arrive quickly,” said J. Pete Blair, director for research of the university’s Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center and an author of the research, which is set to be published in a book this year.
In the absence of a police presence, how victims responded often made the difference between life and death, Dr. Blair said.
In 16 of the attacks studied by the researchers, civilians were able to stop the perpetrator, subduing him in 13 cases and shooting him in 3 cases. In other attacks, civilians have obstructed or delayed the gunman until the police arrived.
As part of the research, Dr. Blair and his colleagues looked at survival rates and the actions taken by people in classrooms under attack during the Virginia Tech massacre, in which Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 students and teachers before killing himself.
In two classrooms, the students and instructors tried to hide or play dead after Mr. Cho entered. Nearly all were shot, and most died. In a third classroom, Prof. Liviu Librescu, a Holocaust survivor, told his students to jump out the second-story window while he tried to hold the classroom door shut, delaying Mr. Cho from coming in. Professor Librescu was killed, but many of the students survived, and only three were injured by gunfire. In another classroom, where the students and teacher blocked the door with a heavy desk and held it in place, Mr. Cho could not get in, and everyone lived.
“The take-home message is that you’re not helpless and the actions you take matter,” Dr. Blair said. “You can help yourself and certainly buy time for the police to get there.”
Kristina Anderson, 26, who was shot three times during the Virginia Tech attack, said that every situation is different but that she thinks it can help for people to develop a plan for how they might act if a mass shooting occurred.
“Everywhere I go now, I think about exits and doorways and potential places to hide and things to barricade and fight back with,” Ms. Anderson said. “Some person has to take action and lead.”
Two instructional videos, one produced by Houston’s Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security and the other by the University of Wisconsin’s police department, recommend that civilians fight an attacker if options like escaping or hiding are not available.
Dennis Storemski, a former executive assistant chief in Houston’s police department and director of the public safety office that produced the video, called “Run. Hide. Fight.,” said the decision to produce it emerged from a realization that while first responders were “fairly well prepared” to deal with mass shootings, the public was not. The video has received over two million hits on YouTube, and the office gets requests every day from other police departments and government agencies that would like to use it, Mr. Storemski said.
He said initially, the suggestion that victims should fight back as a last resort stirred some controversy.
“We had a few people that thought that was not a wise idea,” Mr. Storemski said, but that in some cases fighting back might be the only option.
Susan Riseling, chief of police at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, said the Virginia Tech episode changed her thinking about how to advise students because it was clear that Mr. Cho had “one goal, and that seemed to be to kill as many people as possible before ending his life.”
The department’s video, screened during training sessions around the state but not available online, tells students to escape or conceal themselves if possible, but if those options are not available, to fight. In the video, students are shown throwing a garbage can at an attacker and charging at him as a group.
“If you’re face to face and you know that this person is all about death, you’ve got to take some action to fight,” Chief Riseling said.
What she worries about most, she said, is that spree shootings are becoming so common that she suspects people have begun to accept them as a normal part of life.
“That’s the sad part of it,” Chief Riseling said. “This should never be normal.”