Belmont Club

Convoy to Scatter

The phrase “shelter in place” has been used at least twice in the last few hours. The first was in reference to a shooting at Fort Hood. “The incident began shortly after 5 p.m., when Ft. Hood tweeted and broadcast an alarm that all personnel should take shelter in place” The second was to do with Kent State. “Kent State campus puts shelter in place after gunfire.”


What is “shelter in place”?

The phrase appears to have originated in connection with a hazardous environmental contamination. It was part of civil defense and disaster preparedness. The CDC says:

“Shelter-in-place” means to take immediate shelter where you are—at home, work, school, or in between. It may also mean “seal the room;” in other words, take steps to prevent outside air from coming in. This is because local authorities may instruct you to “shelter-in-place” if chemical or radiological contaminants are released into the environment. It is important to listen to TV or radio to understand whether the authorities wish you to merely remain indoors or to take additional steps to protect yourself and your family.

Homeland Security has a very similar definition: “Shelter-in-place means selecting a small, interior room, with no or few windows, and taking refuge there. It does not mean sealing off your entire home or office building. If you are told to shelter-in-place, follow the instructions provided in this Fact Sheet.”

Gradually the word has morphed to mean to hide somewhere in case a roving shooter guns you down. Wikipedia notes: “The phrase has also erroneously been used, instead of the more accurate lockdown, to describe precautions to be taken by the public when violence has occurred or might occur (particularly in shootings) in the area and the perpetrator is believed to still be in the area but not apprehended. The public in the area is advised to carry out all the same tasks as a typical shelter-in-place but without the key step of sealing the shelter up to prevent outside air from circulating indoors, in this scenario people are simply urged to lockdown – stay indoors and “close, lock and stay away from external doors and windows.”


There is some debate over whether going into lockdown does any good in the face of an armed gunman or team.  Some people think it’s useless.

School safety expert Ken Trump told ABC News that he thinks the Sandy Hook teachers did what they could to protect their students.

“It does sound as though the teachers did everything humanly possible, down to risking their lives, to protect the children in this Connecticut school,” Trump said.

The school’s principal and five other adults died in the Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Conn.

“Teaching kids to lock down, securing your rooms, and, in some cases, teachers stepping forth to protect the children at the risk of their own lives, is something that we see occurring more and more over the years in school safety,” Trump said.

How effective were these tactics against Adam Lanza?  There’s a growing body of experience about what happens in when shooters invade schools and malls. The Mumbai attacks and the Westgate Shopping Mall attack in Kenya are valid data, so the question deserves an answer.

At around the time of the Mumbai attacks I received an email from a recently retired US Marine Captain who followed the attacks with great interest and who expressed a frustration at not being at the hotel when the attackers tried their stunts. He felt sure, he said, that he could have turned the tables on them somehow. But he mentioned something curious. “They used buddy pairs,” he wrote.


In Iraq, he said, the Marine units sometimes fought in these buddy pairs rather than fire teams, with one man covering the other during the weapons reload process. Because that’s the Achilles heel of the shooter, when you have to change mags. And knowing this, he said, the Mumbai attackers operated in said pairs.

One of the problems with shelter in place is what happens when the attackers get smart.  When the gunner finds a roomful of kids, sheltering in place, it’s a target-rich environment.  And the only opportunity the victims have to to overcome the shooter is the reload process. Fortunately Adam Lanza had no buddy to cover him. If there were a pair of Adam Lanzas, or a pair of Fort Hood shooters then things might have proven more difficult.

The other source of data about sheep vs wolves is naval history. Interestingly things work better for the sheep when there’s a sheepdog. During the Second World War convoys were often accompanied by destroyers. Two convoy battles illustrated the contrasting results of convoy JW 51B and convoy PQ 17.

In the case of JW 51B the convoy was attacked by a very powerful German surface force. The British convoy escort commander Robert St Vincent Sherbrooke, who told his merchantmen to run the other way while he took on the German attackers with his puny destroyers, notably the HMS Onslow. Time and again he attacked, despite heavy damage to his destroyers and grievous injury to himself, delaying the Kriegsmarine until the cruisers HMS Sheffield and Jamaica arrived on the scene. None of the 14 merchantmen in his charge were lost. Sherbrooke won the Victoria Cross.


In the case of PQ 17 the sheep were told to leave the sheepdogs. “Convoy to scatter,” said the admiralty.  And the result was disaster. Alone and slow, the merchantmen were picked off.

The experience of JW 51B was re-enacted on a far vaster scale in the Battle off Samar when the entire Japanese battle fleet descended on a force of US escort carriers guarded only by a few destroyers and destroyer escorts. It was probably the finest hour of US destroyers. The bulk of the escort carriers escaped as the DDs took on the whole Japanese fleet. LCdr. Ernest E. Evans, captain of the Johnston, received a posthumous Medal of Honor for doing a Sherbrooke. Or perhaps Sherbrooke was doing an Evans. The sheepdogs had proved their worth.

One is tempted to conjecture that lockdown or even an organized flight works best with a sheepdog, even if the sheepdog is only minimally fanged. The sheepdog can throw the attacker’s plans for a loop and makes defense much more effective. By itself, a lockdown may be useless but in conjunction with a sheepdog,  its effectiveness may be enhanced dramatically.

Conjecture: you are always better off with a sheepdog if a wolf shows up.

I am almost tempted to think that if that Marine Captain had indeed been present in Mumbai during the terror attack, he would have found some wrench to throw in the attacker’s works. Wasn’t that how it worked in Flight 93?  When people think and do something motivated by the instincts of survival, they can often be quite effective, especially if they have a fang or two. Of course that is often not how the bureaucracy wants things. They want you waiting for instructions. But doing something intelligent in an attack is probably what works.


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