Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Calm Under Fire at the Discovery Channel

Last week, a man walked into the lobby of the Discovery Channel building in Silver Spring, Maryland and took three people hostage.  He was heavily armed and had what appeared to be explosives strapped to him.  The building was locked down and then evacuated.  When the incident was over, the hostages were unharmed and the perpetrator was dead, shot by a law enforcement sniper.

So, imagine you're at work and a man with a gun and explosives comes in, yells a lot, tells people not to move, and you run.  You call 911, from inside the building or from outside.  What do you imagine you would say, and what would you sound like saying it?  I'm not asking what you should say, or how you should act, but how do you imagine you would actually behave?  I know I've had to call 911 for much less serious situations which were much less threatening to me personally, and while I say what needs to be said I am pretty agitated and upset. 

Over the weekend, the 911 tapes from the Discovery Channel incident were released.  Clips were played on various television news broadcasts, and summaries were printed in the press.  What is truly remarkable to me in listening to these is that the callers uniformly sound calm and are able to give extremely detailed descriptions of what is going on, what the man has in terms of weaponry, and how he acted when he entered the building.  No one is crying.  No one is screaming.  No one is yelling for police to hurry.  They say what needs to be said, they appear to be very accurate, and they remain calm.

To what can we attribute this calm and accuracy on the part of people who had just narrowly escaped being killed?  There are probably a number of things at work here.  First of all, the man who was responsible for this was a known quantity.  He had been arrested outside the building before and, until two weeks before, was under a court order to stay away.  His picture was posted around the building as someone to look out for.  This means that when people called 911 and described him, they weren't only working from what they had just seen, but also from pictures they had seen and information stored in their long-term memory.

Having pictures of this man posted around the office also served another purpose.  On some level, everyone who worked at the Discovery Channel and saw those pictures had considered the possibility that something like this might happen some day.  They may not have believed it, and they may not have imagined the specific details, but the thought that this man was dangerous and could harm them had already crossed their mind.  When it actually happened, they didn't have to process something brand new.  Instead of thinking, "Something horrible is happening and I don't know what to do with it," they could think, "The horrible thing that I feared is happening."  That left more brain power available to notice the details.

My daughter also points out another important fact*.  When we're scared, our senses are heightened and our memory for what we perceive is also heightened.  This can turn out not to be very helpful, because we often remember the wrong things.  In this case, however, it seems that people remembered the right things.

Finally, it's important to note that feeling out of control and acting out of control are not the same thing.  We can imagine that, under these circumstances, we'd be scared out of our minds.  And certainly being scared out of our minds can affect how we act.  But people often experience a remarkable ability to do what needs to be done in an emergency, and fall apart later.  Bravery does not mean not being scared.  It means doing what you need to do even though you're scared.  I think we can all agree, there are a lot of brave people over at the Discovery Channel.

* You know you're bringing your work home when your 12-year-old child can analyze a crisis situation and come up with insightful commentary!

Ross Douthat at the New York Times had an excellent piece yesterday about what we should -- and should not -- draw from the politics of the perpetrator in this incident.  I highly recommend it.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at www.SchoolCrisisConsultant.com
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