Freeze, Flee or Fight? Training Makes the Difference

By Guy Higgins

On August 20th, three young Americans, a United States Air Force airman, an Oregon National Guardsman and a university student, all friends, were on a EuroRail train when a man armed with an AK-47 assault rifle, a 9mm handgun and a boxcutter entered their car and attempted to shoot passengers.

The guardsman elbowed the sleeping airman and said, “let’s go.” The next seconds are history. The three Americans tackled the armed man, disarmed him, knocked him unconscious and, with the help of a British businessman, tied him up. They then tended to injured passengers.

After the event, these heroes said that they didn’t think of anything, they just acted. One of them said that their training kicked in – but only when they were tending to the wounded.

The fact, though, is that they were mistaken. They consciously applied their training in first aid when helping the injured, but their training kicked in at the first instance. Otherwise, they almost certainly would not have responded quickly enough to prevent a massacre. How can I be so certain?

Well, it turns out that human beings have extremely well developed evolutionary responses to threatening situations. Those responses are to freeze, to flee or to fight. The training that the airman and national guardsman had received instantly triggered the fight aspect while everyone else on the train either fled or froze in place. The train crew has been subjected to some criticism for fleeing, but the crew had not been trained, and they responded in a very human manner. The British businessman responded in an equally human manner – freezing until the attacker was subdued and then, prompted by the action of the three Americans, he willingly joined in ensuring that the attacker was incapacitated.

The three men who took on the armed attacker reacted as they did because two of them had training in combat response – essentially the situation in which they found themselves, and this training was the factor that dominated and enabled them to respond with the fight mode rather than freezing or fleeing. The third man, a lifelong friend seems to have been spurred into action after his two trained friends acted.

This has crucial implications for emergency preparedness for all organizations. Professional emergency responders, police, firefighters, or medical personnel are not going to be the first on the scene – members of the organization experiencing the emergency are, by definition, first on the scene – you are your own first responder.

Since you are your own first responder, it is vital that you (your organization) have plans to respond to emergencies and that you train on those plans – learn them, practice your role, and understand what must be done.

Dr. Leonard Marcus of Harvard, a research psychologist who has studied emergency response, describes the inevitable human freeze/flee/fight response as “going to the basement,” because those responses are governed by the oldest part of the human brain – the limbic complex which is at the base of the brain; the basement. Dr. Marcus has learned that no one can avoid “going to the basement” in a crisis, but that emergency response training (particularly training to a plan) is the best and fastest way to “get out of the basement.”

You are your own first responder and, therefore, need to have emergency response plans and train to and practice those plans. In an emergency, particularly a violent emergency, seconds count, and you can’t afford to spend any time in the basement. With training, you will quickly leave the basement and enter the “let’s go” phase of the crisis.

It’s all about Predict.Plan.Perform.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *