When I heard Captain Jeff Kranz talk about training to survive an active shooter, I knew I wanted him to visit my classroom.
Last summer, Captain Kranz visited my department (Marquette’s Office of Marketing and Communication) to talk about what to do if an active shooter opens fire in a public space. He went over what police have learned in the years after Columbine, and shared how these situations are often survivable by using the basic Run Hide Fight response.
I thought Kranz could help provide a training opportunity for the future communicators in my media writing class. More than that, his expertise might even save a life.
Throughout Kranz’s presentation, he stressed the importance of having a simple plan to fall back on. When the brain is under extreme stress, it goes to what it knows, even if that’s not logical. That’s why people sometimes hide under tables from an active shooter. They’re reverting back to childhood.
It’s also true that communicators need a plan to practice for times of emergency — when we’re subject to the most stress. On my shelf, I have a red communication binder that contains what to do during a crisis. It details some of the simulations we’ve done, including the time a fake tornado hit campus. I should probably dust it off more often.
Before we started the class crisis simulation, we reviewed the basics of media writing: Who, What, When, Where, How, Why. Paying attention to details. Questioning what’s true and what’s false. Basic stuff, but it’s harder than it seems when you’re under a lot of stress.
Then we started the emergency.
NOTE: If you are skimming this article, the following is just a test of the emergency broadcast system.
Initial Safety Alert Text: Shots fired reported. Shelter in place. More details to follow.
I separated the 18 students into two teams. One was student media, and one was official university communication. Everyone had a different role to play, from intern to editor to senior director of communication.
One minute passes.
SAFETY ALERT: MUPD is responding to the report of shots fired at 14 & Wells. Shelter in place. Possible active shooter. Run Hide Fight
Two minutes pass.
A tweet pops up on the screen of a police officer hovering over a possible victim.
Five minutes pass.
Breaking News: reports of a large police presence on campus. They have a team on the way.
I could see the fear and uncertainty take hold of the classroom. But I could also see students try to rally and figure out a way forward. There were some differences in the groups. One struggled to define their roles. The other clustered in a tight-knit circle and collaborated, even as their roles blurred together.
Seven minutes pass.
Breaking News: photos of growing police presence.
The clock keeps ticking. It seemed much longer than it actually was, students later said. Stress and fear distorts the sense of time. Students called the actual campus police — and get nowhere.
10 minutes pass.
After trying to reach dispatch, student media finally gets through. The dispatcher asks if this is an emergency call. When told no, they will only say it’s an situation and to shelter in place.
After 25 minutes, Captain Kranz holds a press conference. Students ask him questions. It turns out that what was thought to be active shooters all across campus were false reports, and tweets spread misinformation.
When we ended the simulation and took a deep breath, I asked the class how the experience went.
“We panicked,” one student responded.
That’s normal and to be expected. But the goal is to learn how to deal with panic in a fake emergency so you don’t freeze up in a real one.
Afterward, students reflected on the lessons they learned from the simulation.
“I felt like we had been writing and reporting on the shooting for nearly 45 minutes but in reality it was only about 25 minutes,” wrote Danny Cady. “That was jarring. Losing track of the time could end up being a massive error where misinformation takes hold of the story and more panic ensues as a result.”
“Just going over simulations like this to familiarize a group with how to work under pressure can make everyone more comfortable in case a real crisis ever occurs,” wrote Andie Hannan. “As Captain Kranz said, if it’s predictable it’s preventable.”
“I quickly learned the importance of only reporting confirmed information,” Sophia Millay wrote. “This is because amidst a crisis there is almost always streams of false information being reported online. It is the job of the crisis communication team to sift through this information and only report what will keep the community at large safe and accurately updated.”
“It was easy to freeze and keep quiet while others tried to understand the situation occurring,” wrote Molly Abboud. “But to create the most beneficial communication, everyone must give their perspective and experience to handle the situation correctly.”
One student hit on the importance of practice.
“A chapter can only teach you so much,” Sydney Wagner wrote. “So actually applying the knowledge from the chapter allowed me to learn what it is like.”
Thankfully, we didn’t actually have to communicate any of this in a real situation. But hopefully now they feel more ready for not only how to deal with a crisis, but how to prepare for a crisis.
I’ve long been a believer and champion of learning through doing.
After this exercise, I’m also a believer of learning through pretending.