Active shooters and bombings are rapidly becoming the norm, and the average citizen and beat officer are far more likely to come into contact with domestic terrorism then any counterterrorism specialist. The responsible citizen and the beat officer alike have to adapt their training and their mindset to meet the new threat. Firearm training can adapt by incorporating off-line-of-attack, odd firing positions and rapid, multiple threat engagements, on top of existing fundamental drills. Creating a common knowledge base on how to treat gunshot and blast injuries is also necessary. But one of the most critical and most discussed skills is situational awareness, or SA.

SA has a lot of facets. It includes such general concepts as reading the news and paying attention to global trends, to such specifics as reading people’s body language, spotting weapons and bombs, identifying exits and choke points, and having a loose plan in the event that something kicks off. One of the things I think we neglect is to understand the difference between cover and concealment, and then identifying cover and concealment in the real world. Good on the range is one thing – good in a fight is another.

So some quick review: Concealment is anything that breaks the line of sight between you and the enemy. Heavy brush, drywall, or a couch are all common examples. Cover, on the other hand, is something that will stop bullets, at least for a period of time. Concealment has its uses, but hiding behind an upended table won’t provide any ballistic protection.Of course, there’s no magic formula. The situation will dictate the best course of action. You do, however, need to understand the situation as best as possible. As most of these attacks occur in an urban environment, I want to take a few minutes and discuss where to find cover and concealment in an urban setting.

Concealment can be an excellent tool, and it shouldn’t be discounted. If you don’t have cover, you’re still better off not being seen, and if you can move to cover under concealment, that’s all the better.

As for cover, we can typically expect heavy lumber, thick trees (over 8” at least), brick walls and masonry, and some light metal structures to provide a short period of cover. That kind of light weight cover will degrade rapidly, though, and if your enemy is shooting heavy bullets it may be completely ineffective. For instance, I have seen 7.62×39 rounds from an AK punch through two layers of red brick.

Heavier steel beams and concrete support structures should provide significant ballistic protection. One of the most common objects in an urban environment, which provides excellent cover if used properly, are vehicles. However, only the engine block and the pillars will be effective. In my experience and as far as I’ve seen elsewhere, door panels, trunks, and tires have been largely ineffective in stopping even pistol rounds.


Example of engine and pillars that potentially provide ballistic protection.

I took my children to an indoor playground today and found myself in the middle of, essentially, an empty warehouse. The play structures, padded flooring and chairs all provided a little concealment and no cover. The only cover I was able to locate in the building were four steel supporting beams, each about 6 inches wide. The last time I was at the mall I noticed that the floors were concrete but aside from the supporting beams there was no real cover in a huge building filled with people and walls. Even how much of the supporting beams provided cover was deceiving – the beams in the wall appeared to be 24 inches wide, but the I-beams inside were only 12 inches wide. The rest was a plaster façade.

Of course, any cover is better than no cover, but it highlights the importance of identifying what can reliably stop incoming fire and what cannot.

The flip side of this discussion is, where do your bullets end up going? In a mall, or indoor playground or most restaurants, the bullet will continue to travel through intermediate obstacles, retaining lethal velocity, far further than you can see.

Red Fire Hydrant In Park

Fire hydrants are small, but can still be used as effective cover in a pinch.

So what does all that mean? It means that SA – in this context – means actively identifying cover when you walk into a building, getting a quick snapshot – as best you can – of the building’s layout, identifying entrances and exits (which is where people will run for in an emergency), and finally selecting and planning your fields of fire. Ask yourself:

  • Where is my closest cover?
  • Where is the closest exit and where does it lead?
  • For any given line of attack by an aggressor/active shooter, where will my bullets go if I miss or the round over penetrates?
  • What are my options to attack?
  • What are my options to retreat?

Having an answer to these questions – even if the answers are imperfect – will make you an asset, rather than a liability. I’m all for the Second Amendment, but it bothers me every time I spot someone carrying a gun and not paying attention to their surroundings. It does nobody any favors for a legal gun owner to get shot, or to put rounds downrange without thinking about what’s past their backstop. And even if you don’t carry a weapon, knowing how to get out of a bad situation will drastically improve your survivability.

So next time you’re in public, take a minute to look around. Stay frosty, know your exits, and drink water! Timaeus out.