How to Survive a Disaster: Advice From an FBI Profiler
You can’t prepare for a massacre like the Colorado shooting, but you might boost your chances of surviving, writes Abigail Pesta.
While there’s no way anyone could prepare for a sudden mass shooting like the theater attack in Colorado, there are some things you can do in life to increase your chances of survival during times of danger, says Mary Ellen O’Toole, a former criminal profiler for the FBI. The key, she says: don’t trust your gut.
“In a crisis situation, our gut instincts do not always serve us well,” says O’Toole, who worked for the FBI for 25 years, studying cases ranging from the Unabomber to Elizabeth Smart, then wrote a book called Dangerous Instincts: How Gut Feelings Betray Us. “We give ourselves so much credit for this inner voice that will tell us what to do. It’s almost magical thinking.” A more reliable way to go, she argues, is to always take note of your surroundings, especially the exits—at a ball game, in a bar, at a restaurant or hotel—from the instant you enter the venue. “Look around. Know how you got in, how to get out. Know who’s around you. When danger strikes, you become emotional; you lose your ability to think critically,” she says. “You don’t want to wait until then to start looking for an exit.”
O’Toole, now an instructor at the FBI National Academy, where she teaches a course to police called “Interviewing of Psychopaths,” is quick to note that there is simply no way people could have trained themselves to be ready for the sudden deadly attack in the dark movie theater in Colorado. “I would look foolish if I said people could have prepared,” she says. “It was completely shocking—no one expected someone to come in there and try to kill them. Some people thought the gunshots were part of the movie, which is totally understandable. And there are limited exits in a theater. But you do want to be able to size up the situation as fast as you can and increase your chances of getting out.”
In general, she says, people are often not in tune with their environment. For instance, employees in office buildings don’t necessarily know the fire exits. Concertgoers don’t pay attention to the doors. Air travelers zone out or read magazines while the flight attendants point out the escape routes.
Another important thing to know, she says, is that people often go into a confused sort of stupor, or delayed reaction, when danger strikes. They don’t necessarily get up and move immediately, as their brains are trying to digest the unexpected things happening around them. This is what reportedly happened in the 9/11 attacks; many people sat at their computers for a few minutes when their building was hit, stunned. “We all react at a different speed—we all don’t have the same response rate to a crisis,” says O’Toole. “It takes people different amounts of time to realize that they need to get out.” Still, she says, no matter where you fall on the spectrum of reaction time, just knowing that your body’s natural response might be to go into a slow-motion state can help you fight that response and act quickly in times of crisis.
O’Toole says there are steps people can take to protect themselves in everyday life as well. For starters, she says, when it comes to strangers, people often consider themselves a good judge of character, again trusting their gut, or “mystical thinking,” as she calls it. They let people into their lives and into their homes based on superficial factors. For example, she says, “when people have a certain status in life, we give them a lot of leeway and the benefit of the doubt. If somebody has an important position, they have a status that we think gives them immunity from committing a crime. People’s tendency is to explain away behavior from these people that might otherwise seem questionable.”
O’Toole says that in many criminal cases she investigated, people who knew the perpetrator would first say they were surprised by the person’s evil deeds—and then later admit that there were warning signs all along; they simply rationalized them away.
O’Toole believes these warning signs will come out about the Colorado theater shooter, James Holmes, a student who was reportedly getting a Ph.D. in neuroscience at the University of Colorado Denver. “He planned this out carefully; he had to purchase the supplies. He lived in a building where there are other people. There may be friends or family members who saw other sides of his behavior,” she says. “Often these types of offenders do give people indicators—even if unintentionally—of what they’re planning, and people just don’t see it. People rationalize it, or think it’s a joke. They don’t take it seriously. But these offenders often post manifestos and leave signs.”
She cites warning signs at Columbine, in which the young shooters created videos about their deadly plans and went to target practice before the shooting, and at Virginia Tech, in which the shooters in both attacks went to a firing range ahead of their killing sprees. In the Red Lake high-school massacre in Minnesota, she says, the shooter often talked about Columbine: “He was very interested in the Columbine shooting—and not in a way that was empathetic, but in a way that was more indicative of his wanting to outdo Columbine.”
O’Toole says she’s “not trying to scare people, but to educate people.” By tuning in to your environment and paying attention to the red flags that pop up among people around you, she says, you could save your own life, or someone else’s. Case in point: it was a pair of observant campus-police officers at the University of California, Berkeley, who rescued Jaycee Dugard. The two female officers noticed that something looked slightly off-kilter about Dugard and her two daughters when they were distributing flyers with their captor, Phillip Garrido, on campus. The officers decided to look into it, discovering that Garrido was a convicted sex offender and that Dugard had been kidnapped 18 years earlier.
“We don’t want to feel like we have to live our lives for some very rare and terrible event,” says O’Toole. “But you can put yourself in a safer position, in plenty of ways, even small ones. Have that door locked, close the garage, put down the shades. Pay attention to your environment, wherever you are. The reality is there are people who want to hurt us. Once it happens, it’s too late to go back and do anything about it.”