Imagine this scenario for a moment. You’re walking down the street around 4pm. It’s chilly outside, and you’re hustling to your car parked a few blocks away. All of a sudden, you hear a woman screaming, “Fire!” What do you do?
I’ve been asking people for years how they would respond in this situation, and most people start asking me more questions. “How is it being yelled?” “Is it possibly a trick or a trap?” “Where is the person?” “Is there smoke or flames?” But the bigger question lying beneath all of this is, “What the heck am I supposed to do with that information?”
The reality is that yelling fire when someone is attacking you only creates a situation that is totally open to interpretation. It also prevents people from getting involved. In this age of liability and lawsuits, most people find it’s easier to turn up their ipod and keep walking. Especially so, when the situation seems sketchy or unclear. Meanwhile, all this time you’re processing what “Fire” could possibly mean, whoever has yelled it is waiting. And waiting. And waiting. While they wait, you can be sure whoever is attacking them is not just hanging out and smoking a cigar. The situation is going from bad to worse, while the victim clings to hope that someone might hear their false claim and rescue them. I hate to be Debbie Downer here, but fat chance. Hoping others will save us after providing deceitful information is dangerous. We need to learn how to save ourselves, and give those who can come to our aid some more credible information.
Here’s another question for you, from a different perspective. Again, you’re walking down the street. It’s still brisk but not cold. All of a sudden, someone grabs your arm and starts leading you away in a violent manner. You know in this moment what is happening. His violent intentions are clear, but what is the potential outcome? Rape? Robbery? Assault? Murder? And in response, what do you yell? Fire? I doubt it. Hardly makes sense given the context of your frightening situation. Not to mention, your adrenaline is not thinking about fire or anything hot. It’s thinking about survival. I have met thousands of survivors of violence, and not one of them said they yelled “fire” during their attack.
In my 7 years training in self-defense and speaking to over 500 audiences about the issue, this is the biggest myth out there. People really believe they should yell fire if attacked. It gives me chills, all these people banking on hope that someone else will save them using misleading intel, with no backup plan. Those of us in the personal security industry have a lot of educating to do.
So this begs the question, what SHOULD you yell? Is it really a mystery? Usually after I explain that yelling fire just doesn’t make sense for anyone involved, people want another quote to scream. After their hopes for “fire” are dashed, they seek to fill their well once more with another magic word. Here’s a crazy idea…how about yelling what you NEED. Give people specific directions. Imagine you’re walking down the street to your car a few blocks away. This time, you hear someone scream, “Call 911!” What do you do? I think most people will open their cell phones and call 911. It’s low commitment. It’s totally anonymous. They don’t have to get involved. And within 2-5 minutes, real help will be on the way. Why is it such a foreign idea to holler the truth when we need it?
One final thought on this issue. Anytime someone gives you safety or self-defense advice and puts the word “just” in front of it, be wary. Someone’s holding a gun to your head? Just run! Someone is trying to rape you? Just buck them off with your hips! Someone wants your wallet? Just give it to them! Using the word “just” implies that doing one small thing in a very dangerous scenario will save you, and everything will be fine. Furthermore it implies that no action will be required as a follow-up. Trained experts and survivors of violence will tell you this is not the case. Escaping from any violent situation doesn’t require one action, it’s a series of choices involving intuition, common sense and possibly self defense measures. And sometimes, these things might not work. In those cases, is a person “just raped” or “just murdered?”