When in danger, watch the news

June 1, 2007

With a gunman on the loose at his place of work, Kevin Fong and colleagues had to make some quick, difficult decisions

Hi Dee," starts the voicemail message to my wife, "I found a handbag I liked in the store but I think it's the one you said you liked and didn't want to buy it if you were wanting to; oh, and if you're driving to the airport to pick up your parents today don't take Beltway 8, the traffic will be terrible; oh, and Jeff just rang. Apparently there's a gunman running around at the Space Center, he doesn't know where but he doesn't think he's near Kev... well actually he doesn't know which building Kev works in... maybe I should have started the message with that instead of the thing about the handbag. I'll call you back." Click.

I am at work as this unfolds, working in a prefabricated building on the edge of the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston. It's about the size of a farmyard barn, and if you imagine what a Nasa laboratory should look like, it's the complete opposite - no swishing sliding doors, no matter transporters, no gizmos, space age or otherwise. There is an absurdly small window on the back door of the hut, and that is all the visual contact we have with the outside world.

Around 2pm someone walks through the front door and tells us that there's a gunman on the loose. A quick round of "Where, when, who, what and why?"

leaves us no wiser. All we know is that somewhere on the campus is a person with a gun, that there has been shooting and that we are to "shelter in place".

In these situations, knowing what to do is more important than knowing what's going on. Unfortunately, nobody really knows what to do either. We try to work out how to lock the doors before realising they can be secured only from the outside. And then, with that realisation in hand and no one volunteering to make like a modern-day American equivalent of Captain Oates, we are left with a dilemma: do we all cluster around the tiny, solitary window at the back door searching an extremely limited field of view for an armed would-be attacker or just sit inside the windowless laboratory waiting for him or her to burst in?

At times like these there is only one useful course of action: sit down and watch television. This gives you a chance to observe proceedings from the viewpoint of the news helicopters swarming overhead, giving you all the information you need. In this case, the live coverage came with the added bonus of commentary from an overexcited reporter saying he was worried that he might compromise the SWAT team operations by filming them moving up into position while he and his crew in fact continued to compromise the SWAT team by doing precisely that.

It all ended unavoidably in tragedy, with a murder followed by a suicide.

For what it's worth, the response was remarkably measured, from the restraint shown by the assault teams to the press statements. No knee-jerk increase in security measures, no media-driven need to be seen to be doing something; just quiet reflection upon what had happened and laudable attempts to support the people most directly involved and affected.

Dee smiles when she listens to the voicemail message, but only because by the time she hears it I'm sitting next to her in the car and we're on our way to the airport. We're going to be late meeting her parents, whichever route we choose and, for once, it really doesn't matter.

Kevin Fong is a physiology lecturer at University College London, a junior doctor and co-director of the Centre for Aviation, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine. He is a fellow of the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts.

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