Nightmare Scenario: Burned Out, Then Shot
Consider this terrible scenario: you wake up in the middle of the night and your dwelling is on fire! You grab your loved ones and frantically escape out the front. But an armed attacker is waiting for you and cuts you down as you flee.
It has historical precedent. Fire has been used effectively throughout the ages by warring countries, bandits, and even as a form of execution.
Defenders barricaded inside dwelling could be forced out by setting the structure on fire. Or they could be forced out by the attackers covering the chimney causing the smoke to back up into the living structure, hence the saying, "to smoke somebody out".
Modern criminal examples in the U.S. are, thankfully, very few. I do remember one example of an attack on a homeowner in the 90s started by the criminal throwing a Molotov cocktail through the front window. The criminal was waiting in the front so when the homeowner, predictably, stumbled outside he was subsequently murdered.
And, now, here is an example of this tactic that just happed Aug. 28, 2022, in Houston at a rental complex.
Houston Police said the suspect set fire to multiple units and waited for residents to come outside where he then opened fire on them with a shotgun.
The summary of the story is that Houston Fire Department responds to a residential fire and then has to take cover when they hear gunshots. Houston Police then responds and engages the shooting suspect.
A Houston police officer got to the scene and saw the suspect in the parking lot wearing all black and armed with a shotgun. Authorities said the officer shot and killed the suspect.
This is a complicated scenario. Not only is it an absolute nightmare for the residents but it also presents a tricky response from responding officers.
Think about what we would most likely do as we quickly move to escape the fire. All our attention is getting out quickly and safely. The last thing on our mind is that we could come under fire as we escape. I mean this is Houston, not Aleppo.
Yet, there is an attacker with a shotgun waiting for residents to come out.
It's a nightmare that neighbors like Robin Aaron are trying to escape.
"This guy set the house on fire in the back, went behind his car and started shooting people as they were coming out the door," Aaron said.
Houston PD is saying that a total of four people -- which includes the suspect -- were killed.
The property owner said the suspect that was shot and killed by police had recently been evicted. They also said one of the three victims killed was the 65-year-old on-site manager. Two other people were shot and injured, but only one was taken to the hospital.
This news report establishes a connection between at least one of the victims and the suspect. It's unclear if the other two were connected in anyway to the suspect.
Tactical Considerations for Fleeing Burning Home and Coming Under Fire
However, it's not really my intent to try to figure out the motive or the details of this crime. I'm more interested in the tactical problems this scenario entails. Why? Because of copy cat criminals and because if a human can think of if, that human (or another one) can execute it.
However, this is a very complicated scenario.
So, when faced with a complicated situation or scenario, let's make it less complicated by breaking it into smaller bites. What if we started our planning process by breaking those bites into three separate problems?
Law enforcement response.
First and foremost, we should be equipped and practiced to fight a fire in our home.
More than one-quarter (26%) of reported fires in 2015-2019 occurred in homes. Even worse, three-quarters (75%) of civilian fire deaths and almost three-quarters (72%) of all reported injuries were caused by home fires.
During this five-year period, US fire departments responded to an estimated average of 346,800 home structure fires per year. These fires caused an annual average of 2,620 civilian deaths; 11,070 civilian fire injuries; and $7.3 billion in direct property damage.
Most home fires and fire casualties result from five causes: cooking, heating, electrical distribution and lighting equipment, intentional fire setting, and smoking materials.
Over the five-year period of 2015–2019 as a whole, cooking was the leading cause of home fires and home fire injuries, while smoking was the leading cause of home fire deaths.
Hey, it's incredibly common to have fires in our residence, mostly caused by our own foibles (cooking and smoking). We need to recognize this right up front and prepare.
Discuss plans on evacuating a fire with all family members. Talk about alternate escape routes. Walk through them. Yes, physically walk through them. People need to rehearse their responses and they need to have permission to improvise if they have to. That includes breaking out a window if they have to. I have a young daughter that was terrified of being trapped in her room. I told her to break out the window to escape into an exterior courtyard. And, more importantly, I gave her a baseball bat to prop up by the window which explicitly gave her the permission to break the window in an emergency. And we mimicked the steps needed to a.) swing the bat into the window to break it, then b.) run the barrel of the bat along the sides of the frame to remove all the shards of glass sticking out. This probably had more of a psychological boost than anything because she felt like she had some sense of control over a potentially lethal situation. But by physically practicing the movements and steps to break the window she now knew what to do and how to do it. You can't count on the old "you'll know what to do when the time comes". No you won't. Rehearse now.
Have a 911 script. This is a script up in locations that you might be in during an emergency call. If you or some family members are old enough know what a mysterious 'landline' is or they actually have a landline, put the script there. Most important part of the script? Your address. Get your address out to the dispatcher first. Even if you are cut off or have to drop the phone, they will know where you are. And, accept that you or a family member might be so overstressed by the emergency, you might have a tough time getting out your information. It's easier to just read it.
Get fire extinguishers. Seriously. Why would you not? If you remember our plans for responding to riots here, we have to accept that danger exists and these types of violent events can threaten us. Therefore get a fire extinguisher -- at least one for every family member. Preferably several which can be staged in rooms around the house. Intentional fires set with some sort of accelerant (like gasoline or the burning metal and chemical elements of a professional-grade firework) can take a number of canisters to put out. Have several. Go here to learn which type to get and how to use an extinguisher using the PASS system. You can also see what a fire extinguisher looks like when used as a self-defense tool here. You might find some of your family member take some comfort knowing they are prepared.
Separately, armed response is a HUGE topic. Keeping it general, however, here are some questions to consider.
How are you set up to respond to a lethal force event? Maybe the question is, are you even set up to respond to a lethal force event? It's a high probability that most people are expecting to call 911 and hunker down in their house or perhaps a bedroom or closet. In other words they don't even really have a response to a lethal force encounter. They are essentially outsourcing their security to municipal or county law-enforcement agencies. If you are on this blog, however, you are most likely taking the first steps or already taken the steps to provide yourself with this use of force option. Does your response include defensive handguns? Shotgun? Carbine? Pistol caliber carbine?
Do you have easy access to your emergency tools? This is not a trick question. There really is no right or wrong answer. It depends on your household, your family situation, and your ability to keep your tools secure from others. Some people with kids have safes or locking devices. People with no kids can store their defensive firearms in bedrooms, closets, or behind a door. Some people have defensive firearms stored in several rooms around the house. I have a teammate that hangs his carbine from a sling on a hook behind his closet door; covered by a beach towel. Some people have an easily accessible belt which includes their defensive handgun in a holster, extra magazines, a handheld white light, and an individual first aid kit (IFAK). And then there's the proverbial nightstand. Yes, I know that the more accessible your firearm is, the more likely it could be found by a burglar. So you might consider locking your firearms up when you leave the house. You need to find out the system which works best for you.
Can you respond with your tools in the middle of the night? First of all, can you find your tools in the dark? Can you access them? Or do you need a key or a light to dial in the combination? Do you have a white light to identify friend or foe? Is it handheld or weapon-mounted? Now is the time to find out how your equipment and plans work. Walk through your plan and deploy with your unloaded and safe firearm. At night. In the dark. Refine your system until you are reasonably capable. Then do it 50 more times until you are more than reasonably capable. Then do it once every night for a month to lock in your process and your system. Don't be surprised if you have to make a change to your equipment or your system. And don't be afraid to make those changes. Doing these run-throughs are key to shaking down your equipment and your system. Don't be afraid of looking silly in front of your family members. Do it anyway and become a model for your kids to show them how serious you are about providing a safe environment for them.
Either one of these scenarios are life threatening. Putting them together is hellish. Let's see what we might do to solve this problem.
Believe what you are seeing, smelling, feeling, hearing. We humans can lean toward denial a lot. We tend to not respond fast enough, early enough. The auto industry has found that most drivers (60%) fail to brake appropriately to avoid collisions. Besides being distracted and inattentive, Mercedes found that many drivers did not brake early enough or hard enough. Now many makers provide automatic braking systems to increase the ability to avoid collisions. People report they heard firecrackers during a shooting incident. People think the emergency is not real, it's a joke.
Use technology. Smoke alarms please. Exterior security cameras. Fire extinguishers. Use the technology we now have to extend your ability to detect threats.
Respond first to the most pressing problem. In our scenario it's the FIRE. Take a look at the video below and see the painfully slow reaction by family members when some curtains catch on fire. First of all, let's cut some slack for the 88-year old gentleman in the chair. He's 88 and apparently has some dementia problems from the original description. Family members do respond. But they are not prepared and look to be using buckets or bowls to throw small amounts of water onto the fire which has spread to the ceiling. The water is ineffective. Yet, this might have been controlled quickly with multiple fire extinguishers.
The Burning Platform dilemma. This is when you are on an oil rig in the North Sea. It catches fire. Do you stay on the burning platform? Or do you jump into the freezing cold water? If you stay you burn, but if you jump you'll freeze. This is what those people trapped in the World Trade Center buildings faced after the terrorists flew the planes into the building on Sept. 11, 2001. Of course we know that many opted to jump to their certain death rather than being burned to death. Fire is that destructive.
Think like a sailor. If you have any reason to believe you might be attacked on the exterior of your home, you need to save your ship. When a Navy ship catches fire, there is no escape. All hands have to concentrate on putting out the blaze. There is no where else to go. We all become firefighters now. If you are hearing and seeing neighbors being attacked as they evacuate, concentrate on saving your house from the fire.
Escape with purpose. You have to go. The heat and smoke of the burning platform is forcing you out. We have to evacuate because our most pressing problem is the fire. Maybe I was able to slow it down enough with my fire extinguishers to call 911 for help, but I know help certainly won't get here in time to save me from the fire. Most likely when the fire department shows up they will concentrate their efforts on slowing the spread to other dwellings anyway. If you have not put out the fire yourself, you are going to need to evacuate. Here's another thing, the fire department will not respond if there is any sort of police situation happening. Fire department assets will stage at least a block away before the police department gives them an all clear. You see in the above story from Houston, the fire department took cover when they heard gunshots. They most likely called for PD and did not move to fight the fires. Knowing this, we will have to get out. So let's move with a purpose. We are going to exit and immediately head for a place with cover. Are we hearing any gun shots? Screaming? Yelling? Ideally we move in the opposite direction from any of this.
Distance and cover. We have to take into consideration these clues of some sort of conflict or violence and the pressing need to get away from the fire. Is there a building, a wall, or even a truck where we can run for shelter from both the fire and gunfire?
You need to identify the bad guy(s) as such. You know they are the bad guys because they are actually shooting at you or others. Not because they look suspicious. Not even if they have a gun in their hand -- that might actually be a neighbor who has been forced out of his house too. If I decide to engage, I am responsible for every round I put downrange. Someone might be yelling at you, "for God's sake do something!". It is incredibly tempting to launch some bullets towards the threat without exposing myself. Tempting, but not effective nor smart. This is why you should get training and practice shooting around barricades. I need to be able to articulate why and how I took every one of my shots.
Law Enforcement Response and You
Here is the third consideration in this scenario: police are going to be responding.
This might be quickly or not so quickly depending on where you live. At this time, it's still reasonable to assume they are coming. You might be able to hear sirens in the distance. I will tell you my experience is that most cops have great respect for firefighters and feel an obligation to protect them -- they have a sense of urgency when responding to firefighters or EMS teams in trouble. In some towns, they have friends and family in those departments.
As I said in the beginning of this article, this scenario is tricky for responding officer. Most likely the initial calls into 911 are chaotic and confusing. Fire? Gunfire? What? Are those two different calls? When the fire department radio traffic confirms there is gunfire, the responding officers are getting more amped up. They are playing out in their minds what the situation might look like when they arrive based on the crazy traffic over the radio.
The attacker in Houston was armed with a shotgun. Now responding officers are at a huge disadvantage if they are only responding with handguns. Hopefully the first units there will have a long gun (either shotgun or patrol rifle) to balance the equation.
Remember this when they start arriving. They know they are entering into a hot zone, an active shooter situation. This is critical: anyone and everyone who is armed at the scene is the potential attacker to responding officers.
As they arrive, this is the time to holster your handgun, ground your long gun, and take a non-aggressive posture. If you are not in immediate danger and know where the bad guy is you can put your hands up and use one arm to point in the direction of the attacker. If you are still in danger from the attacker, take cover and stay down while the officers arrive and respond. They will begin directing you and others.
Don't talk and comply with any and all orders give at the scene. Don't talk, don't try to explain you are the good guy. Cops are trying to quickly secure the area and make order out of chaos. Be quiet and comply. That is the best and safest thing you can do right now.
There are a number of cases of armed good guys who have then shot by the cops when they arrive. My personal experience has been that cops are pretty good at quickly analyzing who is a threat and who is not. However, if you are a fighting age male expect to get ordered to the ground. If you are a total pipe hitter you might expect to be covered at gunpoint. We don't know if we match the description of the suspect. Even if we don't, the standard challenges of "police, don't move" and "show me your hands" are what we can expect.
Be quiet. Comply. Show them you are not the problem. There will be plenty of time to explain when they do their field interviews after the scene is secured.
This kind of scenario is all shades of terrible as Hock Hockheim would say.
Train for each of the three scenarios. Train them separately to a high degree. Then walk yourself through the transition between all three.
If we thought you'd never have to face this sort of scenario in the future, we would have not bothered discussing it. The sad fact is we need to prepare for these types of scenarios as our society continues to fracture.
Train like your life depends on it.