Don’t Evacuate into a Parking Lot

I recently taught a class that covered the skills an armed citizen needs to respond to a terrorist bombing attack. In the class, I spent a lot of time talking about the concept of the “secondary device.” The secondary device is some hazard that is designed to injure or kill additional victims or first responders some time after an initial attack.

Most commonly, secondary devices are bombs set to detonate a short time after another explosive device has gone off. A common tactic for bombers is to place one bomb and then detonate it. They place a second bomb at the site to which victims may be evacuating or where first responders might be staging. The secondary explosive often does more damage than the primary.

You probably saw [the recent] attack on a tourist hotel in Tripoli. Up to five gunman armed with rifles, grenades, and body armor entered the front lobby of the hotel and began shooting guests and staff at random. As people fled from the attackers out the back doors of the hotel, they gathered in the rear parking lot. The terrorists then detonated a pre-placed bomb loaded into one of the cars parked nearby. Nine people total were killed in the attack. The guns and grenades were the primary attack and the car bomb served very effectively as the secondary device. Some of those deaths could have been avoided through some better planning on the part of the fleeing victims.

Think about most of the public buildings you spend time in. If a bomb goes off inside, a fire alarm is pulled, or people start shooting, where is the most likely evacuation spot? The parking lot. Unfortunately, this is probably the worst possible place for large numbers of people to amass.

The problem is that there is no way to ensure that one of the cars in the parking lot doesn’t contain a large bomb or even an additional team of terrorist gunmen. It’s relatively difficult to kill large numbers of people with a bomb inside a building. It’s almost impossible to bring a large bomb inside a building without being noticed. The maximal realistic payload is a backpack or duffel bag bomb weighing 20-40 lbs. That will certainly kill some folks, but it is nothing like the impact of 500 lbs of explosives in the trunk of a car. Additionally, walls and furniture inside a building soak up a lot of the blast and shrapnel, further limiting casualties.

It’s much easier and more efficient for the terrorists to place a bomb in a parking lot evacuation site and then drive victims outside by using either gunfire or a small bomb inside. It’s a tactic that has been used successfully for years. Why take the risk of getting caught carrying a large bomb into a building when you can place an even larger bomb outside without any risk at all? To show you what kind of damage I’m talking about, watch the car bomb video embedded below. It’s a 500lb car bomb we made and detonated in one of the bomb classes I attended. It’s a big explosion and would kill a whole lot of people in a parking lot.

So, what’s the solution?

DON’T EVACUATE INTO A PARKING LOT! It’s just too difficult to protect yourself around hundreds of uncleared cars. Almost any other evacuation location would be preferable to a parking lot. Look for an open area with no cars, areas of disturbed soil, or trash receptacles. Ideally there should be some hard cover available nearby.

Some of you are likely thinking “This isn’t Tripoli. I don’t have to worry about car bombs and secondary devices here in America.” You are wrong. You might have forgotten about the bomb placed in a car in Times Square a couple years ago. Or how about the secondary device explosion that detonated after one of Eric Rudolph’s abortion clinic bombings? Bombs are set off here too.

Even if you aren’t worried about explosives, think about your evacuation site in relation to active shooters. The Columbine school shooting was initially planned as a bombing. The killers were waiting in the parking lot evacuation site to shoot the students fleeing from the bomb they had placed when they were first engaged by the school resource officer. The school shootings in Jonesborough, Arkansas were perpetrated by two middle school kids who pulled the school fire alarm and then shot students who were evacuating the school. Another active killer at a Florida College had the same plan but was stopped before he could execute it.

Predictable evacuation sites are bad places to be. They are even worse if they can hide large bombs and teams of active killers. Look at the public buildings you frequent. Take the time NOW to identify an evacuation site that isn’t the parking lot and plan your evacuation strategy in advance. Thirty seconds of pre-planning could one day save your life.

Greg Ellifritz is the full time firearms and defensive tactics training officer for a central Ohio police department. He holds instructor or master instructor certifications in more than 75 different weapon systems, defensive tactics programs and police specialty areas. Greg has a master's degree in Public Policy and Management and is an instructor for both the Ohio Peace Officer's Training Academy and the Tactical Defense Institute.

For more information or to contact Greg, visit his training site at Active Response Training.

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