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Know Your Exits: Safety Advice Following the Colorado Theater Shooting

July 23, 2012
An expert offers five public safety tips following the July 20 Colorado movie theater shooting.

The nation is still reeling from the horrific July 20 movie theater shooting in Aurora, Co., where alleged shooter James Holmes burst into a midnight showing of The Dark Knight Rises and opened fire, killing 12 people and wounding 58 others. In the wake of this tragedy, a safety expert spoke with EHS Today to offer tips for staying safe in crowded public places.

“When you go into a movie theater, you escape from reality and are not thinking about daily life,” said David Nance, a personal safety expert who developed the SABRE Personal Safety Academy. “You’re not aware of much else that’s happening around you. [The audience members] were very vulnerable in that situation, and you can imagine why they were confused when the shooting started.”

The gunman entered Theater 9 of the Century 16 multiplex in Aurora shortly after the movie began and opened fire on the audience. Reports indicate that many in the theater initially thought the gunshots were a stunt or part of the show. Nance acknowledged that people often mistake the sound of gunfire for fireworks or a car backfire. He urged people to “assume the worst” and be prepared to act immediately if something out of the ordinary occurs.

“I would encourage people to understand what a gunshot sounds like as more and more of these [incidents] take place,” he said. “Assume when you hear a sound like that that it is a gunshot and take precautions immediately.

Five Safety Tips

Nance, who has trained over 3,000 law enforcement officers and teaches prevention and techniques on how to escape an attack, offered the following suggestions for staying safe in public places in the event of an emergency:

Know your exits. “Whenever you are entering a public area, whether a public theater, area or restaurant, always know your exits,” he said. “Knowing your exit is so important. That’s first and foremost.”

Seek the aisle. In movie theaters, never sit in the middle of the theater, where you’ll be trapped if there is a fire or other reason for evacuation. Sit as close to the aisle as you can.

Face the room. In a restaurant, airport or other public place, sit with your back to the wall, not the larger room where someone can come up behind you.

In the event of an emergency, flee the situation as soon as possible. “Know where the exits are and move toward them as quickly as you can,” Nance said.

Visualize for safety. When you enter a public place, visualize that an emergency – like a fire or even a shooting – could happen there and consider how you can respond. Nance said that this type of visualization can help you stay calm and collected during an actual emergency. “If you never have [visualized the scenario], then chances are you’re going to freeze or be too reactive in that situation,” he said.

Nance referenced the 2011 Tucson shooting, which killed six and injured a dozen others, including Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, as well as the 2011 Norway massacre to illustrate that while rare, these tragedies do happen occasionally – so it’s best to be prepared.

“You have to one, understand that these things take place, and two, make preparations for what to do,” Nance said. “If it’s not a shooter going into a place of work or a public place, it could be protests and riots ...You have to remain calm, and as soon as something like that has happened, you have to take action.”

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