The concept of “desperate times calling for desperate measures” has always been somewhat of a social more throughout history, and has, more modernly, become the theme of the hour in most current events news.
By definition, the popular idiom mandates that when faced with dire circumstances, taking equally dire action is necessary to survive. It also insinuates an improvised reaction to something unexpected and extreme, rather than freezing up and panicking in the face of adversity.
It’s no secret that we belong to an unpredictable and eruptive world culture, but despite how frequently horrific tragedies like mass shootings and terrorist attacks occur at any given point on the globe, it’s impossible to be fully prepared for them at all times and in all conceivable places.
Sure, it’s been expert-proven that threat assessment and preparation can drastically decrease the element of surprise and, as a direct result, the number of casualties usually involved in these circumstances. But what happens when it’s 2 a.m. on a run-of-the-mill Sunday morning and everyone has their guards down at a venue where the point is to try and escape the stress of reality?
As was tragically proven at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub or even at the Parisian Bataclan last November, most cases of extreme violence and surprise attack can be matched, in the moment, only by instinct and readily available resources--but, as we’ve also seen happen too many times, those resources are usually lackluster at best when faced against assault weapons.
So, in cases like these, what’s a person to do to survive?
Most research and expert opinions will stress some combination of fleeing, sheltering and/or defending (if it comes down to it) in the event of a mass attack.
“Your options are run, hide or fight,” Washington D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier said on an episode of 60 Minutes aired in November 2015 shortly after the deadly Paris attacks, echoing the United States Department of Homeland Security’s 2013 funded message of “Run, Hide, Fight.”
“I always say if you can get out, getting out’s your first option, your best option... If you’re in a position to try and take the gunman down, to take the gunman out, it’s the best option for saving lives before police can get there.”
However, in most circumstances where guns are involved, trying to overpower an attacker isn’t a viable option, especially if it’s a one-on-one scenario. Additionally, while fleeing the scene and searching for help is certainly the best option, exits normally become hotspots for fire once the gunman has established him/herself on the premises.
Exits are prone to severe bottlenecking when everyone runs in the same direction at once, making the likelihood of getting wounded while trying to flee the building much greater. This leaves a third--and more common--option, which is to take cover and keep from being seen.
While experts like J. Pete Blair, the executive director of the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training Center at Texas State University and co-author of Active Shooter: Events and Response, warily calls hiding a “passive action,” it is, more often than not, the only available and safe solution.
Anyone who studies the matter will tell you that buying time is the key to successful hiding; you want to give yourself enough time to clear your head and assess the situation and your available options.
This, however, is where the main problem with hiding comes into focus: where, in a normal public setting, is one to hide in order to remain out of sight and buy enough time to either craft a game plan or wait for police intervention? After all, time is of the essence, and when dealing with one or more attackers, there isn’t much of it available. Finding a place that offers the most opportunities for reaction in the least amount of time can be the ticket that stands between a good and bad outcome.
Most places like a nightclub, restaurant or concert venue do not have an array of desks or other heavy objects to hide behind, and concealing oneself underneath something like a table or a bar does not offer enough seclusion to stay out of harm’s way for long. Active shooters commonly look for higher casualties and less effort. The more barricaded you are, the better.
Which is why in cases such as the Paris attack and, more prevalently, during the Orlando shooting, people seeking refuge in bathroom stalls is a go-to instinct, especially when these are often the only accessible places in which to find a split second of reprieve when exits are being blocked and access to other rooms isn’t an option.
Since there are usually no alternative exits in restrooms, most experts advise against seeking one out and running the risk of being cornered at a dead end. However, toilet partitions can be tools used to an advantage when push comes to shove and desperate times start calling for desperate measures. They’ve even started implementing bathroom safety tactics in places like preschools, instructing young children on how to properly hide in a bathroom during a lockdown procedure in the event they can’t manage to get anywhere else.
Even so, it is important to take this material with a grain of salt. This article is not intended to serve as an ultimate guide to surviving a large scale attack, and should not be read as such. Previous experience and strategic logic have shown that public bathrooms are not the ideal place to run during an attack because there are limited chances for escape and no alternative routes out. But, when resources are limited as they often are, it’s important to know the what the options are for the one resource that’s almost always readily available.
Not all toilet partitions are made equally, and some of the flimsier materials won’t offer the same type of aid the more sturdy bathroom partitions installation can afford. The amount of success you’ll have utilizing stalls as a tool in an emergency comes down to elements of design and manufacturing.
In a previous article written to break down the viability of commercial door protection against an active shooter, we highlighted the integral difference between cover and concealment when seeking shelter as described by Shooting Illustrated. Simply put, cover protects, concealment hides. Knowing the difference between the two is eminent in how you proceed after hiding, specifically in bathroom stalls.
Most bathroom stalls will not offer much in the way of protection from a stream of bullets, especially if a high caliber weapon is being used. Partitions are popularly made from some sort of powder coated metal material, which contains a light honeycomb core and is not likely to do much in the way of stopping or severely halting a bullet from any type of weapon. More solid materials like stainless steel may stave off some of the impact, which might be enough to evade major damage or fatal contact, but none will provide a complete block to ammo. Concealment and a few precious moments of added time are what a bathroom stall has the capacity to offer you.
While single occupancy stalls and full-height doors and walls are becoming much more popular public restroom designs for privacy concerns, many venues still have and continue to install standard-height powder coated metal partitions to save on cost and increase efficiency. These are more conveniently installed, but are much more accessible to an intruder. This is the type of stall design the Orlando victims sought refuge within. Since there are large gaps from the material to the floor and the ceiling, the more successful hiders are the ones who position themselves so they can’t be seen.
In this scenario, crouching on top of a toilet seat and making yourself as small as possible will make you much harder to detect in the event that the shooter enters the restroom and does a quick scope of the area. Most active shooters prioritize quantity over quality and go for easy victims, meaning the more invisible you can make yourself the less likely they are to seek you out in a crowded environment.
An example of this strategy in action comes from the night of the Pulse nightclub shooting when Orlando, a 52-year-old patron of the club, crammed himself on top of a toilet in a separate, smaller stall so the shooter couldn’t see his feet. He managed to survive the attack. This, of course, can be attributed, to a certain extent, to good fortune, but this tactic, and separating from a more conspicuous crowd of people, was able to buy Orlando extra time until police arrived and pulled him out.
Remembering to crouch on top of the toilet and contort your body to as small a position as possible will allow you to be less of a target if and when bullets start flying haphazardly.
Since typical toilet partition materials are not manufactured in a way to withstand rapid fire, acknowledging that stall unit and partition design and installation have everything to do with helping to prepare an environment for safekeeping is necessary in this conversation.
Many of the design elements that help to conceal individuals in the event of a shooting also overlap with much of the design reform happening as a result of the privacy concerns wrought by the transgender bathroom wars. Precautionary privacy measures are certainly beneficial in a public restroom setting for many reasons, violence security now being one of them.
Just as in the realm of privacy concern, single occupancy stalls are certainly the most desirable in the event of an active shooter as there are solid walls and a door with a secure lock involved. While commercial wood doors (which are typically used on bathroom stalls) will rarely stop a bullet from entering, the thickness and sturdiness of the material will ultimately slow the bullets down, making it much more likely that if the individual inside is hit, it will not break the skin. The sturdy lock on the door and virtual inability to see inside the stall without forcing the door open make it infinitely more difficult for a shooter to gauge if there’s anything worth reaching on the other side. In this case, the shooter will most likely turn the other way rather than waste time trying to jimmy the lock or waste ammo shooting aimlessly toward the other side.
Full height stalls and doors in a multiuser bathroom can be just as effective in this capacity, as these still typically have solid doors with solid locks and thick walls that can more effectively sustain bullet fire (though this shouldn’t be relied upon as a tried and true shield). The more enclosed and secure the stall, the more individuals that can successfully hide within the unit without it becoming too conspicuous and attracting the attention of the shooter.
Unlike the instance in Orlando during which a visibly overcrowded handicap stall attracted the interest of the assailant, ultimately leading to more fatalities and a hostage situation, multiple bodies crammed into a fully enshrouded stall doesn’t look or seem any different to an outside viewer than if one person were hiding out. So long as everyone silences cell phones and keeps their mouths shut, this can be an effective--albeit last resort--way to protect a lot of people when other solutions are few and far between. However, in the unlikely event that the shooter does start randomly firing at stall doors, a more crammed stall increases the likelihood that serious or fatal injury will occur to the individuals standing closest to the doors.
When full height or single occupant stalls with commercial doors and locks are not an option, there are ways to upgrade standard partitions to increase the overall privacy and, therefore, the visible accessibility into the stalls. Partition distributors often offer elite grade panels and hardware that increase the height of side and door panels while also making the gaps between the door and side panel virtually nonexistent. The security of a full-length door and walls is no longer as strong, but the significant increase in stall height and decrease in visibility into the stall make it much more difficult for a shooter to gauge whether or not someone is hiding on top of a toilet seat.