Emergencies: Should You Take Command or Follow — Points to Consider

Image shows an older two-story home on fire

A quick course in affirmative leadership and priorities during an emergency, and when to defer authority.

You learn a lot about people during emergencies. In one instance my children, a policewoman and her children, and I were having a nice ride in the mountains. As we gassed up (it was dark), the lights in the convenience store went out, along with the gas pump and overhead lights. I quickly scanned for trouble and headed cautiously toward the store.

Picture shows a row of SWAT team holding riot shields standing in front of a fire
Preparing for civil unrest in your town is much like prepping for bugging in during any other emergency or weather disaster. You should have plenty of food, water, batteries, medicine and first aid, an alternative cooking method, fuel, and lighting for your family for a week.

This young woman backed away from the pump and yelled for me to get in. We were leaving and the hell with whatever was going on inside the store! So much for public safety… Not that she wasn’t correct.

On a much more recent occasion, I was standing at my small town post office when a motorcycle rider and his passenger unaccountably lost control on a bridge and went spinning across the concrete. I ran to the scene and began accessing the situation, while holding a handkerchief to the brow of the most seriously injured individual. My ASAP bag was in the jeep a few miles away (I had walked to the post office).

Breaking up the group of young observers streaming their phones to social media, I barked at a passerby to call 911 and directed another to flag traffic down to prevent another tragedy. When the firemen arrived a few minutes later, only a nod was exchanged. They didn’t know me, but they knew I had acted correctly.

Some folks cannot handle an emergency. They have no business in uniform and certainly have no business taking charge of a situation. Let’s look at the how and why of taking charge and when you should defer.

The How and Why of Taking Charge

A few years ago, I was called to chat with two homeless men who had attempted to break into a church. My backup officer was a man of little experience. He stood shivering, literally sweating and frightened. Sure, everyone and anyone could be dangerous, but this wasn’t the case. A few weeks later, he signed himself into an MMA class to improve himself but eventually resigned.

Two cars in the snow after an auto accident.
It is best to stay off the roads when severe winter weather is predicted. For the times you must go out, be prepared — for you and those you may encounter.

A year or so later during a fire at a church, I was employed by a security guard who read the alarm annunciator incorrectly and wasted precious time leading first responders to the wrong floor. A few months later, a senior Pastor and I stood watching a Tornado run through town as we directed employees to a shelter. While prayer helps, Steve had seen a church flattened by a storm and knew how to take charge.

I didn’t learn until later that he also served as a missionary in Romania and had been chased by a bear in Alabama. He was among the best men I have ever worked with as we weathered storms and dangerous individuals. Every church dealing with the homeless or addicts has a well-worn panic button in major offices. It is a good posting but sometimes dangerous.

We have seen videos of mothers abandoning children during gunfire or weather emergencies. Fathers are not exempt. The untrained without knowledge are the worst offenders. People who have no concern for their fellow man are no good in an emergency. This is simply the reality of an emergency.

storm surge splashing over a retaining wall
A storm can be death on the wing for the unwary and unprepared.

No matter how pedestrian you attempt to keep your life, odds are you will land in an emergency. Some parts of the country are blessed by temperate climate and low crime. The percentages are in your favor, but the possibilities of violent weather and violent people are endless. You must know when to take charge and who you can count on.

I have weathered several dangerous storms. While overseas, I nearly stumbled into a communist riot. A few weeks later, I arrived in Rome days after its President, Aldo Moro, was kidnapped and murdered. Thirty years later, I set foot in Paris a couple of days after Benghazi. I have been inordinately lucky in life, but my planning could have been better. These things were unforeseen.

At Charles de Gaulle, I spotted several French Paras coming into the lobby. It was a privilege and a once in a lifetime event to meet these men. I asked a Sergeant if they were going to Kosovo, I mentioned my son was an Army Captain stationed there. He smiled. No, he said, due to threats against Americans the Paras were called to Paris. I smiled and gave him my sincere thanks, but was also a bit taken aback — kind of like a shark sighting off Long Island.

Mussolini’s headquarters
This is Mussolini’s headquarters – an evil spot in one of the most beautiful places on earth, for most of its history filled with art and culture. Be certain to assess the political climate before traveling.

No matter how safe you think you are, situational vectors can lead to disaster. You may be traveling with someone you trust, or they may be depending on you. You may be cast about with a group of strangers. A survival mindset is the only possible key to surviving. There are times to assert leadership and times to follow the lead of a professional.

While I was trained in public safety, my family comes first. That is the only rational attitude. The immediate beginning of an emergency is when your actions may determine the outcome. Acting aggressively may not be a good fit, while assertiveness may be profitable to your survival.


Doing nothing is the easiest route. Mistakes come from action. You must first assess the situation. If you know what to do, tell the people with you what to do and what actions they must perform to live. Run for the fire exits in one case and locking the doors in another are valid moves.

It is best to admit when age, infirmity, or obesity make you a weak link. It is better than being outed by circumstance. By the same token, avoid pointing out your experience unless necessary, as boasting cancels out achievement and respect.

Moving out of your comfort zone — quickly — is essential. If you have had extensive experience, rely on that knowledge. An old fireman or retired cop is a library of experience. They didn’t live to retire by making mistakes. Their hard wiring isn’t outdated.

Fire Chief at the fire station
Captain Freeman has more fire and EMS experience than most two men together. The value of that type of experience can not be measured in an emergency.

Nurses are usually calm and a great help in an emergency. School teachers, who are used to herding and handling children, are good allies. I mentioned a pastor who was a great help. Another pastor feared his own shadow and of most people he met. He was a mess.

In emergencies, a family unit cannot fall apart. Authority must be intact and respected. As an example of how it should work, I tend to evaluate crime and physical threats most closely. My wife is skilled at evaluating traffic and weather conditions. There is no way we could have predicted the Benghazi debacle. Fortunately, our travel was uneventful thanks to the magnificent Paras, French motorcycle police, and I should add welcoming Muslim drivers and merchants in places we traveled.

While my wife and I once faced a near flood in New Orleans that propelled manhole covers a few feet into the air from water pressure, that was my fault not hers — I bet against the odds. The only person you will know the capabilities of during an emergency is yourself. However, you should have an idea of how the family will perform.

Bob Campbell in a police uniform standing in front of a cruiser
The author knows a bit about emergency.

How do people handle orders and authority? Usually, in many ways. Think about this before you decide how you will take charge during a situation. I was working in a secure location during a storm. We had warning and the building was safe, even hardened. Our basement was once a bomb/fallout shelter.

The basement now held mainframe computers, and structural integrity was excellent. Many 1960s era buildings have this advantage. I stood behind double-pane doors. I watched a bench that was picked up by wind and carried over 20 yards and smashed through a truck windshield. A young scientist came to the door, removed her shoes, and decided to make a run for it. She said, “Bob, I have children at home.”

I had no real authority to stop her. Likely, if the situation was reversed, I would have done the same thing. I did not clash with her. After all, she wasn’t endangering anyone’s life but her own. Fortunately, she made it home fine.

Female soldier in Afghanistan
Some experience is life changing and gives young folks an edge in any emergency. This is my daughter in law in Afghanistan.

There are rules we know well that are broken in every emergency and people die. You don’t shelter in a basement during a flood and neither do you climb into the attic. People drown in their attics. Sadly, this tragedy is repeated in every major flood.

You may reasonably take appropriate action during an emergency and warn people of the obvious. But don’t attempt to restrain them. They may take you with them. Keeping away from windows during an active storm and avoiding downed power lines is sound advice. However, not everyone finds these rules obvious. Often, someone must point them out.

Yelling only makes panic worse. A firm voice and solid direction is more likely to be followed. Be certain to carefully pronounce your words, use few words, and speak clearly. Effective communication is essential.

Once an individual panics, there is little you can do. Panic escalates — it may even be contagious. The only answer is to remain calm and project a calm demeanor and authority. Control your breathing to avoid body tremors. If you have studied the martial arts or meditation, this is easier to follow. Don’t hold your breath.

Woman loading a gun at an indoor range
Many emergencies require more than just training at the firing range.

Planning is needed before you face an emergency. As a trainer, I train for known danger. I also hypothesize how a situation may play out in my mind. I use certain scenarios in training. None of which are too difficult for a student to dig out of.

If you try to imagine the worst, you could die of fright. The body is pumping out chemicals to provide greater strength and endurance. Don’t waste this supercharge on panic response.

Use situational awareness. Look at the whole picture. It is fine to voice concerns but act decisively. When you take a command position, brevity is the goal in communication. Repeat commands as needed but keep it brief.

As an example, “A storm is coming! Move to the storm shelter. Move to the storm shelter.” Courage as the ability to face fear and overcome fear is important. Composure and calmness is most important in an authority figure during an emergency.

When to Defer

While working with a good friend we had well defined areas of expertise. He was a former fire chief. I had extensive police experience. I did interviews concerning industrial theft and espionage — no shortage of those. He handled the two or three fire threats a year. We could cover the other’s territory when needed. When working together, we deferred to the other’s experience on certain points.

Hurricane Katrina survivors
Do your preps include a plan on what you and your family will do during Martial Law? (Photo taken during Hurricane Katrina)

Unfortunately, in the real world police and fire professionals occasionally have ego clashes. A peace officer or fireman on scene is usually familiar with the territory and well trained. Onsite security is another matter. Many have minimal training and are prone to panic.

A young security guard once panicked in the control room and called IT to help remove a mouse. Naturally, our client was most unimpressed. During my time in professional security, I had a long-time peace officer working for me. He was bored with retirement. He was a great asset.

Another gentleman (fallen on hard times) was once the middle weight boxing champion of the world. I was very lucky to get him. The sad sacks and unmotivated types pulled the same salary by contract. Unfortunately, the ability of my crew was all over the board. If security seems out of whack and without a clue, they probably have no clue. Police and fire personnel are another matter. If the National Guard is present, you are likely in the best possible hands. In the end, take your own counsel and accept responsibility for your own safety.

Do you know your limits and when to take charge? When would you defer to another? Share your answers in the Comment section.

About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.

Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Rifle Magazine
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns

Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (3)

  1. 1970, USS McKean,Longbeach, Calif.. Had but a few days left before my discharge.As a GunnersMate,stationed at 5″ 38 twin cannon on the bow. We were going to Naval gun range,for training.Gun Captain sent me below to observe.( I was 3″ 50 cal. and small arms trained) So, outside ‘handling rm., was a deck hatch w/vertical ladder down into ammo magazine. We fired a few shots ,then we heard yelling in the magazine. 4 guys came up that ladder,screaming FIRE ! Not what I`d prefer to hear. Then panic ensued.As I went down the ladder,I remember glancing at the herd of ‘A’ holes and elbows, running and screaming. I secured powder mag. door,grabbed a Co2 bottle hanging 3′ away from smoking 440 DC panel, Remembering my Dad`s words,never use CO2 on,electricity will travel back frosty nozzle&kill you. No choice, so I shot panel&thank Lord, it stopped smoking.Situated beside pallets of Willy Peter,&HE projectiles.


  3. This may be the best Bob Campbell article I have read! And I read them all. My advice–if you live in an area that could have natural weather disasters like hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, landslides, avalanches, tsunamis, lightning strikes, snow storms, ice storms, or (in my case) tornadoes, whew: carefully analyze your particular situation from every angle, come up with a plan, and then physically implement and practice that plan. This is very important because of muscle memory. If you do not have muscle memory you may fail to implement the plan at the right time. Look your abode over with a jaundiced eye for strong and weak points. Do not just think about what you will do if such and such occurs–practice doing it. I speak from bitter experience of the devastating Joplin, MO Tornado of May 11th 2011. I had decided the best place to be in a tornado would be in my cast iron bathtub on the far east side of the house. Hard to access crawl space, no storm shelter. When the windows started busting out of my house I forgot the plan and ran to my attached shop where there were no windows and got under my reloading bench. Worst move ever. I suffered life altering injuries because even though I planned, I failed to practice.

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