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How to Survive a Terrorist Attack, According to National Security Experts

The odds of being involved in a terrorist attack are low. But if danger strikes, you'll only have seconds to respond. Here are six things that could save your life if the time comes.

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Emma Kapotes/

Case the room

During the November 2015 attack on Paris’ Bataclan concert hall, a security guard led a group of people to safety through a fire exit left of the stage. But there won’t always be a guard to help. Whenever you plan on spending a lot of time in a public place, make a point of identifying emergency exits for yourself. The more prepared you are before an incident, the more quickly you can react if the time comes.

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Emma Kapotes/

First, run from danger. Then …

In its report on “dynamic lockdowns,” the U.K. government’s advice is to run from danger if there is a safe route out. If you can’t run, hide. If you escape, immediately tell an official what’s happening, and warn others to avoid the danger zone. Separate from gathering crowds; always assume there’s going to be a secondary attack or action. This advice holds true across borders. Several weeks after the Paris attacks, the French government issued a safety poster that advises attack victims to “Flee, Hide, Alert.”

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Emma Kapotes/

Make yourself smaller

“Where there’s cover from sight, there’s cover from gunfire,” advises Ian Reed, a British military instructor and chief executive of the Formative Group security firm. Hard cover, such as a concrete wall, is the best option. At Bataclan, survivors instinctively flipped over tables and ducked behind speakers when the fire started. Always avoid windows and openings.

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Emma Kapotes/

Play dead

If there’s no cover available, immediately drop to the ground and play dead. Lowering yourself to the floor not only decreases your vulnerability to fire, but also makes you a less obvious target, as several Bataclan survivors noted. To make yourself safer still: PUT YOUR PHONE ON SILENT MODE. Speaking to a Swiss news program after the attack, one survivor observed that the shooters seemed to be targeting people whose phones were ringing. Even if you are sheltered in a room away from the line of fire, put your phone on silent until you are 100 percent certain the danger has passed.

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Emma Kapotes/

Barricade yourself

If you find yourself in a lockdown situation where escape is not possible, take every precaution to make your hiding place as secure as possible. In the French government’s attack safety poster, illustrations depict hiding survivors blocking their doors with heavy furniture, turning off all lights and speakers in the room, and putting their phones on silent mode to avoid detection. When a gunman opened fire on the UCLA campus in early June, students trapped in rooms without locking doors got creative: some wrapped their belts around the door’s upper lever to prevent it from opening, some tethered door handles to heavy electronics, and others made bulky barricades from their desks.

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Emma Kapotes/

Help others

It’s the most efficient way for a group to evacuate and avoid jams. Social psychologist Chris Cocking says most people are likely to try to help one another even in extreme situations—like the group of people who cooperated to escape the Bataclan via skylight, or the man who helped a pregnant woman climb back into the venue through a window after she tried to escape and got stuck hanging from a ledge. “There’s an assumption that it’s everybody for themselves,” Cocking says, “but that just doesn’t happen.”

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest