Responder Zero

Before those with the authority to help, those who choose whether or not they have the capacity to help are on scene. If your time comes, will you be an asset?

March 23, 2020


In the West, we have 1st Responders - those who act in an official capacity to safeguard life and property. The police, fire, and EMS responders are who we call when there's an emergency, and their dedication saves countless lives.

Contrary to the title, however, 1st responders are rarely the first people to respond. Typically, the first response is initiated by a citizen who calls for help - which is unarguably the first link in the emergency response chain. Without activation and communication, 1st responders would have to rely on luck and being in the 'right place at the right time' in order to help. As many people know, response time for emergencies is often substantial. As of 2013, FEMA recorded an exceptionally good year, with response times being around 6 minutes and 35 seconds. That's incredibly fast, given the requirements of the job, but we shouldn't take it for granted for one major reason:

According to the Rule of 3's, the most dangerous threats to life have already occurred within the first three minutes, and a lot can happen in 6 and a half minutes.

With the rising tide of people carrying tourniquets along side their guns, we need to think about 3 things:

  1. What we are and aren't willing to get involved in.
  2. Our level of skill.
  3. The risks associated with being "responder zero".

While the citizen's response to emergencies can have a tremendously positive impact, it isn't without risk and consequence.

Responder Zero

The very first thing we need to ask is "What am I comfortable getting involved in?" No matter what the situation is, there's probably some risk involved, whether it's trying to help stranded motorists, or trying to intervene in a robbery. The overarching considerations are, in order:

1. Scene safety,

2. The threats created by the situation itself, and;

3. Liability on the tail end.

Given all this, it's easy to justify not investing any of your time in other peoples' problems. If that's the case, that's reasonable and we won't think less of you.

Even if that's so, however, things still happen, and you may still end up your own emergency services. At the most basic, being a competent "responder zero" is a lifeline for yourself, your family, and those you care about.

Risk and Consequences

In the last few years, it's become increasingly evident that citizen involvement in immediate, Type I situations directly influence the outcome, and usually for the better.

Even the FBI has acknowledge the role of the citizen in stopping active shooters, and as much as 20% of attempted abductions of a minor were stopped when an adult stepped in. As we discussed in "Be Prepared...", preparedness without action is pointless. We prepare so that when we're put in a position, we can help. Our goal is to be an asset in any given situation, not a liability.

This doesn't obligate you to action, but as with all things, capability gives us options, and it's our responsibility to understand how those options shape our decision making.

So why wouldn't we act?

It's dangerous. One of the first thing that 1st responders learn is "Is the scene safe?" and "can I protect myself from threats?". While in uniform or on payroll, you'll have PPE/BSI (Personal Protective Equipment) and legal obligations to act according to your mission.

With that obligation comes certain protections and resources to help the professional first responder... but the citizen must choose to react without the tailwind of organizational support. Even an event as common and inane as a vehicle collision could expose you to fumes, explosive hazards, cuts, bloodborne pathogens, or mentally unstable people. What happens if you contract hepatitis or AIDS from helping someone? How about if you're killed or injured when a passing rubbernecker hits you with their car?

More complicated and dangerous situations such as robberies, domestic violence, active shooters, or the like almost ensure that your involvement will result in *some* liability, and quite likely harm or death. How do you determine if your involvement is for the best?

In Understanding Emergencies, we discuss how there are so many potential disasters we could be awash in fear and confusion if we don't find an intelligent way of sorting them. We use the metrics of "Probability and Proximity" and "Duration and intensity". This allows us to focus on what's likely to happen so we can create realistic plans that address the common threats.

As Responder Zero, we need a similar "risk vs reward" matrix... and that's not a small task. It's immensely personal, and requires a trifecta of mental preparedness, equipment, and of course: skill.

Getting Involved

If you're responder zero, it always pays to know some of the first responders. Happy coincidence in this situation, my friend Danny was on patrol for this accident to which I was the first person on scene.

Let's be perfectly clear about something: 

We don't always choose to get involved.

I rarely mention it, but I walked out of Carl L Darnell hospital on April 2nd with a post-op spouse and a newborn baby, just about 4 pm. I was on about 6 hours of sleep over the previous 48 hours... and I wouldn't in a million years dream of being armed in a gun free zone on a military installation, so there was no looming threat of prosecution if I'd found myself caught up in an exchange.

We got out the gates with sirens blaring behind us, too tired to really care what was going on. I got home and crashed hard... when I woke up, I had almost 40 text messages asking if we were ok.

We very nearly didn't have a choice about being involved. Five of the injured victims were at the medical building just a couple hundred feet from the parking lot. What would I have done if the shooting had started 5 minutes earlier?

I'd have ran to the car, got my family in it as fast as possible, and drove away. The risk and the consequences associated with it were just too high.

Having stepped in to catastrophes that ended in death or violence on a few other occasions, and others that were just pretty routine problems like car accidents, the borders of what I'm cool sticking my nose in are pretty well defined.

The Venn diagram to the right is my personal guide to whether or not I'm willing to risk involvement. All four of these areas need to overlap, or I'm going to be a good witness and nothing else.

Believe it or not, that's actually pretty important, and sometimes the most we can hope for is to relay information that helps people who have a duty to respond and an obligation to investigate move in the right direction.

One of the most basic skills is recognizing when you can't help.

Followed closely behind is 'when you shouldn't'.

The Antell Case (and how it affects the Venn)

One of the most poignant examples of a citizen interfering with a violent situation is the case of Bradden/Antell.

Antell, a prior Marine and father of 3, witnessed a woman who was just shot. He observed as the shooter got into his vehicle. Mr. Antell grabbed his handgun and attempted to stop Mr. Bradden, who stepped out of the truck, shot Antell twice in the head, and continued shooting him in the chest. Mr. Antell, sadly, passed away instantly leaving his family behind.

Antell had everything in the Venn to make an informed decision about intervening. He had an urgent threat who'd already attacked someone who was defenseless. He had the skills to address the problem and from the testimony, enough of an understanding to decide preventing Mr. Bradden from leaving was a worthwhile effort.

So while the Venn is a useful guide, there are some situations that are "hard pass", and some that require us to move with less information that we'd like.

Go/No-Go Situations

To whittle the Venn down further, there are situations that instant set off my "nope" alarm, and you should have these, too, whether or not they're the same.
Briefly, here are a few:

  1. Domestic Violence and Marital disputes. Having responded to a few both as a regular dude and while in uniform, and it's one of the most tense things you can respond to. Let the police handle these.
  2. Drug related problems (including overdoses). Not only does the risk of disease transmission go way up, the unpredictability associated with drugs makes it not worthwhile.
  3. Shootings that aren't Type I Situations (Those that directly threaten me or my people).
  4. Intervening in fights - I refuse to be the "break it up, guys!" peacemaker... those guys always get hit, stabbed, or shot.

On the other hand, there are situations I *will* stick my nose in, even if I'm not perfectly equipped to deal with them.

  1. Anything that looks like kidnapping or abduction. At a minimum, I'm going to be a good witness, but when someone is being taken against their will, you're in a unique position to chance the outcome.
  2. Car wrecks, especially those in more remote areas. What level of involvement is up to circumstance, but I'll always stop and check. Despite stories of ambushes using broken down cars as a "lure", there's almost ZERO credible evidence of this happening, and there is zero evidence that it happens regularly enough to make it a major concern. That said, be judgmental.
  3. Injuries or incidents involving children. As we mentioned in "abductions", 1/5 attempted abductions are unsuccessful due to an adult investigating. Be careful, but you could literally be the difference between a family forever wondering what happened to their baby, or having them safely home with a renewed appreciation. These situations require a lot of discretion, so look for signs of 'absolute' panic. For an example, check the video below/left from Scholl Security Group. This woman isn't faking it.

Again, these are some of my considerations that help me decide whether or not to act. Yours may well be different, but ultimately, they come down to two broad considerations. Let's discuss them.

Escalation of Violence and the No-Go Situation

As we discuss often, lethal force is a 'fluid' situation, and the way we perceive it changes with the situation. As Responder Zero, when we approach a situation in some phase of the force continuum, it's an absolute gamble on where it will stop, which is the primary 'lesson learned' from the Antell shooting.

To complicate matters further, we can't assume that we can use lethal force without having our lives disrupted or ruined.

In a practical sense, this means if we have the drop on someone, we have to be extremely mindful of whether or not the person can be legally engaged, or if there's an obligation to challenge them verbally.

Another point of discussing the Antell murder is to highlight exactly this: 

You can do everything right, and still end up dead.

Antell, by all accounts, had the training and equipment and had an understanding of what had happened. Where things get a little fuzzy is when he chose to act; the lethal threat had largely passed, and Bradden was attempting to flee.

Attempting to detain a man who's already shot someone is like being lost in the fog. They might set that gun down, blow their brains out, or shoot you, and there are simply no reliable predictors of which action they'll take.

Society and law expect that because they're no longer shooting that they're done committing violence, but that's not how it works. You have to assume that such a lull is only an end of the lethal threat in the eyes of a court. On the ground floor, where the violence is playing out, that shooter is still every bit as dangerous as he was when he was shooting people.

We understand he is committed to killing and dying, and a threat of detention from someone who holds no legal authority isn't going to be enough to pressure him into just surrendering. Staying armed and holding a defensive posture within the store with the victim could have eliminated these risks, shifted emphasis to treatment of the injured, and still led to an outcome in which the criminal was apprehended and dealt with.

This presents us a classic "catch 22". If we shoot first, knowing that the shooter, just moments before, was using lethal force, we increase our chances of surviving at increased risk of prosecution. Fundamentally, this is something that we believe sets ISG apart:

There's a directly proportional relationship between violence of action and risk of prosecution.

If we attempt to give the violent actor an opportunity to surrender, we likewise surrender. We surrender our initiative and put them on equal footing, reducing our chances of a favorable outcome. The mania experienced by people who have altered mental status due to extreme familial stress, drugs, or the testosterone fueled frenzy that comes with ego collisions make intervention a total zero sum game. Unlike police or military, in which situations are uniformly governed by protocols and ROE (rules of engagement), we can't simply default to training for violence of action... which is truly the most effective approach.

So, what should we do with 'Catch 22's'? 

Avoid them like the plague, and work on judgment when training for violence as much as possible. That means reassessing in-fight, using no-shoot/shoot targets, and thinking outside the box. Remember, force is an option, not your only option.

Society's Vulnerable and the "Go" Situations

On the other hand, there are situations where I'm categorically willing to help however I can. Situations involving forcible captivity, violence against children, or accidents in which immediate medical aid might save lives are all within reach for most people who understand the ISG philosophy.

Crucial to this, however, is (as always) scene safety, and it's not enough to simply talk about car crashes or abductions anymore. Terrorism and active shooters, while still statistically rare, do happen, and the situations they create aren't as simple.

For example, the Boston marathon bombing (which has been studied exhaustively by the NCBI), the Ariana Grande concert attack in London in 2017, the 2015 Paris concert attack, and the horrifying 2004 Beslan School siege all have horrible lessons to learn about the amorphous scene that unfolds during mass attacks.

First and foremost, before you rush to assist anyone, whether in a roadway crash or a blast... *wait*. The events listed above had some combination of the following, that made immediate rescue impossible:

  1. Secondary explosives.
  2. "Stampeding" as panic sets in.
  3. "initiation" attacks that were followed up by shooting.
  4. Hostage taking by armed insurgents.

Arguably, no one has done more public good or research on this topic than Greg Ellifritz, who's Article "Armed Citizen's Response to the Terrorist Bomber" should be required reading.

While the incidences of these kinds of attacks are still reasonably low, there's an extremely important point embedded within: you have to ensure the scene is safe enough that you can help without being killed yourself. When we look at the composition of these mass attacks, they're the "worst case", which makes them a good starting point as we consider what we can do to help. We have to anticipate panic, low visibility, auditory exclusion, secondary devices, small arms fire, and depravity of the worst sort. If we do, those scenarios that fall short will be well within our grasp.

For example, the Beslan siege accounted for "Responder Zero". As soon as the terrorists had control of the building and people, they took all the men over the age of 12, marched them upstairs, shot them in the head, and threw them out the window. Remember: in any instance of abduction, your chances of survival decrease the longer the event continues. Escape or mount resistance as fast as possible.

In all likelihood, you'll be killed anyway. Hostage takers are, like we discussed above, doing what they do knowing they'll likely die. Your life means nothing to them.

With that said, once you've allowed a moment to pass to in assessing the scene's safety, it's time to help who you can, however you're able.


The Concept of "Responder Zero" is one that is easy to pay lip service to. It's easy to virtue signal about how you'll step in and act... but it's much harder to actually commit to the work that goes on before hand, and prepare yourself mentally for the potential consequences on the tail end.

No article can give you the answers. The complexity of responding as a regular person is moored by laws governing Good Samaritans and use of force, as much as it is constrained by your equipment, knowledge, and determination.

First responders receive training, have guidelines and protocols, and ongoing skill checks to prevent stagnation and keep them current.

If you're not a first responder already, you should too. As an example, part of your ongoing plan for readiness should include;

  1. A physical fitness regime that keeps you improving or maintaining a good level of performance.
  2. Practice good awareness. Remember, awareness isn't a switch, it's applied. So are distractions. Minimize your distractions and be a part of the world while you're out in it.
  3. Upkeep with martial skills across the spectrum; hand to hand and range training. Shoot a variety of qualifications to keep from stagnating. Do force on force! Get humbled. We need to have the option to match force, but unlike those who live in the profession of arms, we need to cautiously guard how and when we use it.
  4. Basic medical competency, updated as required by the AHA. At a minimum, be 1st Aid/CPR/AED qualified and current. Bleeding control classes are cheap and widely available.
  5. Test your ability to 'rough it' periodically. Get uncomfortable so you're not surprised when discomfort comes around.

These days, 'training' is almost synonymous with going to a weekend course and playing around in your kit.

Get used to working with the things you normally carry. Address the high-risk, high-probability threats first... as we often say, that probably isn't holding down the block with your rifle or raiding a house with your sheep hittin' pipe dogs. It's far more common, less heroic stuff like burglary and accidents.

As a final world on this concept...

Make no mistake: you might quit, but you'll never finish.

Even now, halfway through our lives, the ISG team is continually looking for ways to up our game, be more useful, set our ego aside and find ways to improve where we're weak, and recognize that no matter how good we get, we could have our number punched with absolutely no explanation other than "bad luck". Things change, and we can't allow ourselves to get comfortable with what we think we know.

That's the discipline. If you pick up that torch, you'll be carrying the fire of generations past, who knew weak men create hard times, and you'll light the way for generations to follow.



Support the Responder Zero concept, with or without text

join the pack

Get personalized training & consultation.


Latest articles

Level Up

Overdoses for Responder Zero

Overdosing is a problem that's becoming as universal to many cities as heart attacks and car accidents. If one happens near you, what do you do?


Tier None

In the military and martial culture, "tier 1" refers to the very best - those with the most money and best equipment. We discuss the reality: we're 'tier none'.

Firearm Skills

Why the AK?

In the past, we've discussed how to run the AK, but the question remains: Why choose one over another platform?

The Deep End

The Train

The old American Experiment is on some troubling tracks. Here are some thoughts on what we can do.


Inauguration Day

A short blog post bringing some perspective to the wider world as we navigate Inauguration Day.


2020: Basic Training for the Decade

Here's to hoping for a safe, happy, and productive 2021 - while acknowledging that it was very likely the first in a series of very troubled years.


Mythbusting: Baofengs Radios

You see these radios everywhere; influencers trying to look technically competent post pictures of their Baofengs constantly. Why is that bad? Let's dive in.


The Definitive IFAK Article

The one-stop-shop article for what you need and where to get it. No marketed or paid-for premade solutions here.

Firearm Skills

Guns of ISG: The Makarov

In this article, we will outline below why we believe that the Makarov should be considered as a well-rounded compact EDC carry gun for OCONUS use.Enter the Mak


Bad practice: Is your spouse a Liability?

The case of Mark and Patricia McCloskey have one dramatic lesson to be learned - if you're not discussing security with your family, you're wrong.

Firearm Skills

Guns of ISG: The Cereberus Project

After the 2009 and 2011 ammunition shortages, it hit me that odd calibers are usually out of favor and in stock. But are multi-caliber firearms safe & reliable?

The Deep End

Spheres of Violence 3: The Universal Language

Those encouraging violence in our society are trapping us in a deadly game. We discuss the outcomes and consequences of the "Boys of Low Standing" and violence.

never miss an update.

Get all the newest articles sent to you first.

Thank you! Your submission has been received!
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.