Image by Gerardo Mora

On June 5, 2017 there was a workplace shooting at Fiamma in Orlando that left five people dead.  This tragedy is a good example of the dangers of denial in an active shooter event.  This article will cover some to the reasons why denial is so common and some ways to overcome it.

In a June 23rd Orlando Sentinel article a survivor gave her account of the incident.  Here are the key points of her story.

  1. She arrived for work during business hours, but found the doors locked and the lights off.  Since the doors should have been open and the lights should have been on, this should have been her first sign something was wrong.
  2. She went to an alternate door.  When she entered she stated “I heard gunshots when I was walking to go in, and I thought ‘God, is that gunshots?’  And I thought no.  Gunshots have a very loud and distinct sound.  If your first instinct is “gunshots,” assume they are gunshots.
  3. When she entered Fiamma she saw a man slumped in his chair and she “thought he was sleeping”.  If it was uncommon for this person to be sleeping, this should have been another indicator something was wrong.

Then she ran into the shooter, John Neumann Jr.  He pointed the gun at her, but instead of firing he told her “Get out”.  She ran for her life and survived.

Why did she continue to go into the business when there were so many signs that something was wrong?

The Problem – Denial

Psychologists think they know why.  It is a common cognitive bias that they call Normalcy Bias.  Normalcy Bias is a form of denial where we underestimate the possibility of a disaster, even when we have ample proof that it is happening or can happen.

In her outstanding book The Unthinkable author Amanda Ripley writes:

The human brain works by identifying patterns.  It uses information from the past to understand what is happening in the present and to anticipate the future.  This strategy works elegantly in most situations.  But we inevitably see patterns where they don’t exist.  In other words, we are slow to recognize exceptions.

We tell ourselves everything is going to be fine.  In an attempt to convince ourselves that nothing is wrong we dismiss warning signs.  We assume that since things have always worked out in the past, they are going to work out now.  But what if this time is different?

The “It Can’t Happen Here” Syndrome

Another form of denial that we commonly run into is what I call the “It Can’t Happen Here Syndrome”.  People think that bad things happen to other people and at other places, but never to them. 

A couple of years ago I was speaking to a senior property manager of a large class A facility in midtown Atlanta about our active threat response training program.  He told me that, while the program sounded interesting, his building did not need that type of training because “those types of things don’t happen in this part of town”.  This is the same part of the city where there  had recently been two fatal workplace shootings.

It is this type of denial that keeps people from planning for an active shooter in or around their business.  If something is never going to happen here then there is no need to plan create a prevention and response plan. 

This is also the type of denial that causes a delay in action.  When put under sudden, extreme stress our ability to logically assess the situation and chose the correct action is nonexistent.  We must already know our response options so that we can take rapid action.   And taking rapid action is the best thing you can do to help save your life.

At one point, everyone who has been involved in an active shooting situation could say “those types of things don’t happen here”.  The employees at Fiamma could have said it, until June 5, 2017.  The politicians practicing for the Congressional Baseball Game for Charity could have said it, until June 14, 2017.  The employees at the UPS facility in San Francisco could have said it, until June 14, 2017.

Active Shooter = Black Swan Event

In his book Fooled By Randomness Nassim Nicholas Taleb introduced us to the concept of a Black Swan Event.  Taleb says that Black Swans share three characteristics:

      • They are rare events that are beyond our normal expectations
      • They have a major effect
      • They are rationalized, in hindsight, that they could/should have been predicted

This is an excellent description of active shooters.  Despite what people say in hindsight, nobody that is in the area of an active shooter expected it to happen.  If they had expected it they would have probably taken steps to prevent it or not even been in the area. 

How to Overcome Denial

Taleb the argues that black swans are extremely difficult to predict.  Because of this we should plan accordingly.

  1. Accept the fact that active shooter events can happen anywhere.
  2. Pay attention to your surroundings.  Every environment has a baseline of normal activity.  Take note If several activities are deviating from the baseline and start assessing the situation.  Example: the doors are locked and the lights are off during business hours, there is a series of loud noises that sound like gunshots and co-workers look like they are sleeping.  These are all deviations from the baseline of normal activity.   
  3. Orient yourself to your surroundings and take action.  If this is an area that you frequent, like your work, school or church, you should know where all the exits are and where the rooms that have doors with locks are located.  

Having a basic response plan that takes into account your available options and taking immediate action are the best things that you can do to help you survive an active shooter event.  All of that is for naught if you fall victim to denial and disregard the indicators that tell you something is terribly wrong.