Sydney stabbing attacks: what security experts say to do in life-threatening situations

<span>People should trust their gut if they saw someone behaving strangely, one security expert said after the Sydney stabbings.</span><span>Photograph: Reuters</span>
People should trust their gut if they saw someone behaving strangely, one security expert said after the Sydney stabbings.Photograph: Reuters

Australians are in shock after two separate stabbing attacks in Sydney that occurred within days of each other.

A stabbing at a western Sydney church on Monday night has been deemed a terror attack. In a separate attack on Saturday at Westfield Bondi Junction, Joel Cauchi allegedly fatally stabbed six people before he was shot dead by police

The prime minister, Anthony Albanese, said on Tuesday it was “understandable” people were “feeling uneasy”.

Security experts have offered tips about what people can do if they find themselves in a situation where there is a “real and impending threat to life”.

However, managing director of Pride Security Group, Richard Theodorakis, cautions there is only so much people can do to prepare for the worst.

“It’s usually out of our control. And that’s why so many people are worried, because it’s an unpredictable event. Anytime something’s unpredictable, it’s hard to practice for, and to try and understand what to do best.”

Be aware of your surrounds and trust your instincts

All the security experts Guardian Australia spoke with said it was critical that people were aware of their surroundings while they were out and about.

Nepean Regional Security managing director, Gina Field, said people should trust their gut if they saw someone behaving strangely.

Theodorakis said it was also a good idea to be aware of the exits when entering a shopping centre you haven’t visited before and to take situations seriously.

Digital distractions like phones and headphones could be distracting influences meaning people may not be aware of what is happening around them.

Try to remain calm

If a situation begins unfolding, experts say one of the hardest and most important things to do is to try to stay calm.

Theodorakis said that was critical to fight “brain fog” and “tunnel vision” that occurs in emergency situations.

“Also in panic, we forget to do the simple things – that could be calling police, finding somewhere to hide,” he said.

La Trobe University psychology associate professor Neelofar Rehman said “calm in a storm is impossible” but there were ways to trigger the body’s calming response to make better decisions.

Related: Sydney is reeling from two high-profile stabbing attacks – why was only one deemed a terror incident?

“The brain is designed for survival. No amount of convincing is going to talk you out of panic,” she said.

She recommended people focus on breathing out.

“Breathing in is harder at a time when we are panicking. We can hyperventilate or get more panicky. But if you try to breathe out gently, you can narrow down the focus to the here and now and initiate an action to go to safety, rather than just run in panic.”

Create distance and alert authorities

Security expert Theodorakis said putting distance and barriers between yourself an offender was critically important.

“The first thing we always say is stay calm and look for cover because putting a barrier between you and the attacker is the simplest way to reduce some of that threat,” he said.

“Then the first immediate step has to be to alert somebody.”

“If you can, containing that threat or the offender is the best way to buy time and reduce the chance of them getting to more people,” he said, noting it could buy police more time in getting there.

“Every situation is different. Sometimes you have no choice but to intervene and try and stop them.”

Field advised against confronting the attacker if at all possible.

“If you’ve got an aggressive person, you might be able to defuse the situation but if you’ve got someone that’s wielding a knife, you’re certainly going to go into fight or flight mode,” she said.

“Don’t confront the attacker because you’re not trained. Move away from the scene, contact the appropriate authorities and report it.”

Field said it was also important to alert other people in the vicinity to the threat so they could also escape and tell others.

Kids in emergencies

Children were especially vulnerable in these situations and Theodorakis advised adults to pick them up when possible.

“The smaller they are, the easier it is to grab them up and remove them from the situation.”

He said it was key to get them out of sight.

Associate professor Rehman explained that everything was a bit harder when people also had kids with them but there were ways to try to keep them safe and as calm as possible.

She said that while children would respond to the environment, they would also take cues from parents and adults they know.

“Hold the child close to you,” she said.

“As you’re holding the child closer and as you’re trying to breathe, a child’s brain will inevitably start responding to you trying to calm your body. It doesn’t require words, it’s the body to body communication between you and the child.”

She said speaking quietly when possible could also help.

Know what is legal

The New South Wales premier, Chris Minns, has reminded residents that there was no such thing as “taking the law into your own hands”.

“You will be met by the full force of the law if there’s any attempt for tit-for-tat violence,” he said.

“You are diverting police equipment, investigation power, as well as resources, away from the investigation of this crime.”

Security experts also warned against arming yourself.

While it is illegal to carry a knife in NSW, Theodorakis said it was also risky and advised strongly against it.

“The risk is potentially losing that knife to the offender and maybe he didn’t have one in the first place but now he’s got yours,” he said.

The aftermath

Associate professor Rehman said people needed to be gentle with themselves after witnessing an attack.

“It’s really, really important for people not to put themselves down that I couldn’t keep calm,” she said.

“That’s not a sign of you losing your mind. That is perfectly normal response to an abnormal situation.”

She said in the days and weeks after a dangerous event to “go gently” and do activities which are “life-giving, which make you feel connected to other people, which give you a sense of being more safe”.

And Field said people shouldn’t be blamed for not reacting appropriately or according to training.

“Learning to stay safe is a personal decision but it doesn’t change the liability of the site or the area - and it doesn’t shift the responsibility of people being injured.”

  • Luca Ittimani contributed reporting.

• In Australia, support is available at Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636, Lifeline on 13 11 14, and at MensLine on 1300 789 978. In the UK, the charity Mind is available on 0300 123 3393 and Childline on 0800 1111. In the US, call or text Mental Health America at 988 or chat