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The War-Gaming Sheepdog

By:  William P. Flinn

It’s a normal sunny day.  You and your spouse decide to go shopping.  You pull into the parking lot at the local “Wally World” and experience the normal amount of bad driving and rude motorists that occurs in a shopping center parking lot.  The store is bustling today with all the shoppers picking up school supplies for the fast approaching school year.  You go in, grab a shopping cart, and wander around the store.  You’re trying to remember what it is that you needed to get from the gardening section before they close out all the gardening supplies for the year.  Nothing unusual really seems to be going on today.  It is just a lazy day of browsing and trying to figure out what to pick up to make for dinner. 

Then, all of a sudden:  “What’s that noise?”  “Is someone lighting off fire crackers in the store?”  You hear screams.  You see people running in every direction.  Then it dawns on you – there is an active shooter in the store.  It could be someone robbing the place, or perhaps just some poor misunderstood lunatic who came in to cause some random chaos.  You just see the confusion in their eyes, overwhelming the people around you.  “Where do I go?  What do I do?”

Same “Wally World,” but this time it’s a bit overcast outside.  The clouds are building, and the wind is picking up.  You heard there might be rain in the forecast, but that is really nothing out of the ordinary for a late summer day.  You are in the store when all of a sudden the lights go out and you hear severe shaking and loud snapping coming from the rafters above.  People are running looking for cover from the falling light fixtures and ceiling pieces that are raining down.  The tornado sirens are going off.  Once again, confusion sets in.  “Where do I go?  What do I do?”

In this day and age, even going to the store is a risky undertaking.  Albeit that the risks are usually small, there is still a certain amount of anticipation that goes into our everyday lives.  Whether we know it or not, risk analysis is something that even everyday citizens do naturally in order to make decisions about where to go, what to do, and when to do it.  If I don’t go to the store right now, my risk is that I won’t have anything for dinner.  But if I do go to the store right now, the place might get robbed while I am there.  If I don’t go to work promptly at 6:30am on Monday, the risk is that I’ll get fired from my job.  But if I do go to work on time, one risk is that a disgruntled employee will go ballistic and tear the place up.  If I walk down that dark alley to get to my car more quickly, the risk is that I’ll be robbed and hurt. 

Shopping centers, schools, and places of worship are all prime targets for acts of intentional violence.  Natural disasters can happen anywhere and at any time.  But what separates total chaos and disaster from survival is your ability as a sheepdog to know what to do in those situations to get people to safety and minimize casualties.  This is where proactive risk analysis and purposeful awareness really play a part in your ability to survive and get others to safety.  I’d like to take you through a journey in this article to show you a technique known as “war-gaming,” which is really just a partnership between proactive risk analysis and purposeful awareness.  War-gaming has been used in many different situations to play through some potential crisis scenarios, and to help responders figure out what to do in response, and help predict possible outcomes.  As a sheepdog, you too can take advantage of war-gaming as a method to add to your preparedness toolkit and be the difference between chaos and comfort.

Proactive Risk Analysis and Purposeful Awareness:

Part of having a normal risk analysis mindset is asking the “what-if” questions.  And it’s this risk analysis mindset and asking the “what-if” questions that can be a huge asset in surviving an unexpected crisis situation.  Proactive risk analysis, then, simply means that you are asking these “what-if” questions well in advance of a possible event, and beginning to formulate in your mind some possible reactions to those events.  Proactive risk analysis also means that not only are you thinking about the most likely risks, but that you are thinking of a few “off the wall” risks as well. 

Awareness is also an important aspect of being able to anticipate and quickly react to an emergency situation when it happens.  You have to be aware of your surroundings and what is going on around you at all times, and be able to focus that knowledge in order to take the proper action.  This is something I like to refer to as having a “purposeful sense of awareness.”  Having a purposeful sense of awareness does not mean that you are living in the land of paranoia, nor does it mean that you have to make the act of shopping into a well-planned combat mission.  So while having an elevated sense of awareness just means that you have to keep your mind out of your SmartPhone while you are walking around, purposeful awareness means that you know what is going on around you AND you are using this awareness to recall what you mapped out during your proactive risk analysis processes. 

The Sheepdog and the “War-Gaming” Mindset:

If we couple proactive risk analysis with an improved and purposeful sense of awareness, we then have the ingredient’s for what I refer to here as the “war-gaming mindset.” And it is this mindset which is a vital tool in the sheepdog’s toolbox, and necessary in order to anticipate solutions to a problem.  In proactive risk analysis, you are thinking of some likely things, and possibly some not so likely things, that may happen in a given environment.  In war-gaming, you are taking what you thought of during those possible risk scenarios, and now thinking about what you would do if they happened. And just as with risk analysis, where you were thinking of different possible scenarios, you are now also thinking of different possible solutions and outcomes. With purposeful awareness, you are completing the war-gaming mindset by actually putting yourself in the particular location or environment that you had envisioned, and injecting real-time observations to narrow down the likely risks.  In other words, you are using what you see NOW to inject information into those “what if” questions to narrow down possible reactions.  This is also a way to keep your risk analysis and response information top of mind so that you already have a plan even before the chaos happens.

The War-Gaming Toolkit:

Know Location Layouts and Features:   Be familiar with the places you frequent in order to think through your risk analysis and response for a crisis situation.  Do you know where the emergency exits and storm shelters are in that “Wally World” store?  How about store rooms and other secure areas to which you can direct people and keep them safe in your favorite grocery store?  Have you become familiar with all the exits, hiding places, and even the severe weather shelters in your church?  Do you know where the most likely place is where the emergency first responders will arrive, and can you safely get someone reliable to that location to direct them and describe the emergency?  Knowing all these things can help you to more effectively and more purposefully direct others to safety and minimize casualties.  Explore and take note of emergency exits, safe areas, storm shelters, and other egress routes in the places that you frequent most.

Training in Emergency Best Practices:  Before you can effectively war game responses for many of the scenarios for which you are trying to prepare, you must first have some idea of what are considered to be “best practices” for dealing with an emergency situation.  This is no time to “wing it” and hope your ideas are going to work.  Your responses need to be based in sound principles and tactics.  It’s important to realize that not only are you trying to help the people who are in immediate danger, but you are trying to assist law enforcement and emergency responders by doing the things that they would ideally expect you to do to prevent further casualties, and to prevent endangering them also.  And we’re not talking about lengthy, or even expensive advanced emergency responder training here.  Much of what you can learn that will help you a great deal can be done by taking short online or live instruction courses.  Many of these courses are low cost or even free.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), for example, has developed a number of very good online training courses through their Independent Study Institute, and these courses are all available for free to the general public.  Below are some links to these courses that you may find valuable in helping you to learn some of the fundamental concepts of emergency response:

  • IS-22, Are You Ready? An In-depth Guide to Citizen Preparedness

  • IS-360, Preparing for Mass Casualty Incidents: A Guide for Schools, Higher Education, and Houses of Worship

  • IS-906, Basic Workplace Security Awareness

  • IS-907, Active Shooter: What You Can Do

  • IS-915, Protecting Critical Infrastructure Against Insider Threats

Scenario Based Training: This will help a great deal with needed skill development, and then helping you to visually see some things in 3-D action so that you can more effectively visualize and think through what skills will be useful in which environments and in which scenarios.  Much of this type of training would ideally be live, instructor based training, in which you would actually role-play various scenarios.  In many cases, live fire and what we refer to as “force on force” training is appropriate to the scenarios for which you are trying to prepare.  Standing in front of paper targets just doesn’t prepare you the way that actual live scenarios will prepare you.  Many firearms instruction organizations (including Northern Colorado Firearms Safety Training) have training to help you meet this need.  Don’t stop at the basic training.  Seek out the training that will help you to practice actual scenarios.

Keep Studying, Keep War-Gaming:  Every trip to the store can be a “lessons learned” experience.  In all of your proactive risk analysis, you may not have thought of some things that finally dawned on you this last time at “Wally World.”  Add those new ideas to your war-gaming scenarios, and ask yourself what you would to if that thing happened.  Keep a journal, if that helps you retain information.  Look at your notes from time to time and revisit those thought processes.  Keep up on current events, and use those “lessons learned” that you are able to infer from the incident descriptions.  Many publications, such as those from NRA and USCCA, present reports from various incidents, and give information as to where the events occurred, and what was done in response.  Use that to help with your own war-gaming efforts.

Wrapping It All Up:

Being a sheepdog is a lot of work, if you expect to be able to make a difference.  You are most likely not law enforcement or emergency medical personnel.  Most sheepdogs are just average people, with average lives, but some not so average skills.  You may be the first one on scene in an emergency, and you have no idea how long it will be before emergency services arrive to help.  In the meantime, you need to be able to get others to safety and prevent further casualties.  It may be a violent attack.  It may be a natural disaster.  But either way, if you want to be effective at helping others, you need to have some ideas about what could possibly happen and how to respond BEFORE those things happen.  Proactive risk analysis and purposeful awareness combine to help you “war-game” these potential scenarios so that you are already armed with knowledge and a plan when the time comes.  Additional training is a plus, and applying critical thinking to your environment is a must.  Knowing some best practices in dealing with these types of situations is vital.  And practice, practice, practice.

Be safe out there, be proactive, and be purposeful.  You may be the sheepdog who is called upon to save others someday.

About The Author:  "The Gonz" is an NRA Certified Firearms Instructor (Pistol, PPiTH, RTBAV), US Concealed Carry Association Affiliate Instructor, and an NRA Certified Range Safety Officer.  Additionally, he a trained and certified Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) member, with several years of training in the Incident Command System (ICS) procedures and practices.




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