Fight, Flight, or Freeze: The Reality of High Stress Incidents 

 February 13, 2019

By  Craig LaPine

Muscle memory.  Train like you fight.  These are popular maxims in tactical world – whether military or law enforcement.  The premise of muscle memory is that you perform an action so many times, and in the same way, that it becomes more reflex than active action.  Over the course of my professional career, I’ve fired hundreds of thousands of rounds; I’ve conducted “speed reloads” of both my rifle and pistol tens of thousands of times; and I’ve performed “immediate action drills” on innumerable malfunctions.  The result is – regardless of the situation – that I am able to perform these actions with very little conscious effort.  The importance of this type of repetition is simple:  when I really need these skills – when the stress is high, uncertainty reigns, and time is not on my side – I need to be able to perform these essential functions without hesitation.  My life, and other’s lives, may depend on it. 

Now let us apply this general construct to school faculty, staff, and administrators.  How many repetitions do they have in responding to a lockdown alarm?  Applying bleed control items to a traumatic injury?  Taking appropriate actions in the face of extreme danger, both to themselves and the students they are responsible for?  The answers, unfortunately, are something like “a couple, if any.”

So what?

During an “incident” – a medical emergency, a non-custodial parent on the loose after school hours attempting to take their child from the building, or the worst case scenario, an active shooter – the ‘Fight, Flight, or Freeze’ response will activate in rapid fashion.  

Part 1:  The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS).  The SNS fires that first kick of adrenaline, followed by dumps of both epinephrine and norepinephrine.  Tunnel vision begins to set it, and auditory exclusion turns the volume down so much that I’ve seen grown men simply unaware of another person screaming in their ear – all byproducts of the SNS reaction that allows you to focus on the threat.

Part 2:  High-Order Cognitive Abilities.  When faced with extreme danger or other high stress situations, the brain focuses on one thing, and one thing only:  your immediate survival.  The drawbacks to this are the degradation of high-order abilities, such as critical thinking, decision making, and communication.

Part 3:  The Action.  You will literally take action – doing what is necessary – in a highly-focused manner; OR you will bolt – with a response time between sensory input and action of milliseconds; OR, in the worst case, you will freeze.  No running, no fighting, but a simple lack of any action whatsoever.    

Without the training repetitions, can you improve school faculty and staff’s ability to respond?

Author Malcolm Gladwell famously asserts that you need 10,000 hours or 10,000 repetitions worth of experience to become an “expert,” to be able to simply “do” with little active thought.  Expecting school faculty, staff, and administrators to attain this level of proficiency with safety and security-related tasks is simply unrealistic.  So the question becomes “how can we better prepare our school faculty, staff, and administrators to effectively respond during high stress incidents?

Planning, preparing, and training will help to eliminate the unknown and foster a propensity for action, mitigating (in some cases) the hesitation/failure to act as a result of SNS response.

Plan.  Schools have done a wonderful job with developing Emergency Response/Action Procedures – the how-to for a range of emergency scenarios.  BUT.  Schools need to work towards procedures that are simple and concise – fewer words, not more.  Accept the fact that you cannot have a step-by-step plan for every contingency; however, you MUST discuss possible response options for less-than-ideal circumstances (e.g., lockdown when kids are at recess/in the cafeteria, early release students moving about the school, etc.).  Empower your staff to take action.

Prepare.  Review and discuss your Emergency Response/Action Procedures with faculty, staff, administrators, AND students.  Do this more than once or twice per year – the “as required by…” stipulation.  Bring your first responders in to these sessions, ask them about what to expect during different types of emergency scenarios.

Train.  Conduct table-top exercises, walk-though/talk-throughs, limited scale drills, full scale drills.  Train as much as you can, as often as you can.  Don’t limit training to just your Emergency Response/Action Procedures.  Train on CPR, Basic Life Support, Stop the Bleed, AED use, etc.

Enable.  Technology is a powerful enabler.  The following are some – but not all – of the enablers the PrePlanLive team believes to be essential for school safety & security:

  • There is no reason every member of your faculty, staff, and administration cannot have access to a simple Mass Notification Tool; whether a mobile app or panic button, you NEED to get the initial tip-off that something is happening out to every responsible adult in the building – and to first responders (this is a supplement to calling 911, NOT a replacement).  
  • If you can receive an incident notification, shouldn’t that message tell you what to do as well?  Mobile access to Emergency Response/Action Procedures should become a standard.  
  • Schools spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on surveillance cameras, yet first responders still have difficulties obtaining off-site access – Secure Remote Access to live camera feeds MUST be a consideration for all systems (as well as the selection of systems that conform to ONVIF Profile C).  

The use of enabling technologies reduces the number of action steps a faculty or staff member needs to remember.  Mass Notification Tools announce “there is a problem;” the subsequent notification, delivered to mobile devices, provides one-click access to Emergency Action/Response Procedures – effectively telling faculty and staff what they need to do for that specific emergency.  Simultaneously, first responders receive advanced Building Intelligence about the school, as well as secure, authenticated, and low-impact remote access to live camera feeds within the school.  By reducing reliance on the critical thinking/active decision making and communication skills of faculty and staff experiencing extreme stress, we (A) create efficiencies, (B) drive proactive response, and (C) enable communication where it otherwise may not occur or occur effectively.

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Craig LaPine
Craig LaPine