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Will You Live or Die?

Winning mindset, the will to live, street survival; there are a myriad of terms we as LE trainers use to describe surviving incidents in which officers came close to dying. When someone inexplicably survives an incident which should have resulted in death, we often have few tangible clues to explain the outcome. Therefore, we try to explain it by crediting the survival to something ambiguous like - the will to live. For the purpose of this article, I will not confine myself strictly to LEOs, but rather include the population in general.

Since 1968, I’ve been in the business of keeping the peace. I’ve been in the military, police department and a federal agency. I’ve seen dozens of cases where individuals have been involved in situations which should have resulted in their death. Instead, these rare “survivors,” did not succumb to their injuries. Why? How do you explain two people suffering the same incident, yet one dies and one lives? Let me attempt to shed some light on the secrets to survival.

Besides my own research and observations in over forty years of LE experience, I recently read a remarkable book: The Survivors Club by Ben Sherwood. The author cites personal accounts of survivors from all walks of life who have experienced critical incidents which should have killed them. The tales are astonishing and miraculous. But through anecdotal information and consultations with doctors and scientists, Sherwood has concisely put together a veritable survivor handbook for everyone.

To begin, Sherwood lays out the Three Rules for Survival:

1.       Everyone is a survivor. This does not mean all of us are super heroes, fighting bad guys and always winning. Rather, it means survivors are regular people who suffer the same failures, disappointments and other challenges as the rest of us. They sometimes win, but also lose. Survivors have their good and bad days, and suffer bouts of depression and gloom. But survivors have something in common. All of them share the same mindset. They make the most out of life and figure out what’s best for themselves, their family and friends. 

 2.       It’s not all relative. Whether you’re a victim of a shooting, a near-drowning or you’re battling a disease, the situation doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the crisis you face is a life and death struggle—and it’s your struggle. Comparing your battle with someone else’s is unimportant. Relativity in this instance is meaningless. So the second rule is simply that your battle is just as important as anyone else’s. 

 3.       You’re stronger than you know. As we live our lives each day we are rarely tested in terms of life or death. It’s only when we are thrust into a situation which could result in losing our life that we discover how strong we truly are. This toughness lies dormant in each of us until we face that challenge that causes this inner strength to explode from our inner being. Survivors later often marvel at what they’ve done, how strong they were and how unlike themselves they became. Survivors often remark, “I didn’t know I had it in me.” 

What it takes to survive.

In the ER trauma world there is actually a formula that’s used to calculate a patient’s chances of survival. Take my word for it, it’s too complex to understand. But in simple terms, survival is a function of a number of factors: age, vital signs, blood pressure and respiratory rate, and, of course, the injuries you’ve suffered. It’s critical to distinguish the difference between injuries involving knives, bullets and brick walls.

If you arrive at the ER with a stab wound to the heart and no vital signs, you have a 37 to 40 percent chance of surviving. Contrast that with a bullet to the heart and no vitals, and your chances drop to just 4 percent. The reason: size of the wound and collateral damage from the bullet, versus one clean wound from the knife. Crashing into a brick wall or any blunt trauma injury is the least desirable type of injury. The blunt trauma caused by car crashes, falls, etc., causes multiple injuries to bones, organs and most importantly, your brain.

What’s so important about the first factor, age? Youth is the key to surviving injuries, particularly brain injuries. Sherwood’s research indicates that the optimum age for a brain injury is between sixteen and eighteen. After the age of twenty, survival rates spiral downward. Most of us in LE know about the “golden hour,” the critical time to get an injured person to a hospital. But luck plays a role in many critical incidents, where did the injury occur? Was it out in an uninhabited rural area, or in a big city just minutes away from critical care? Also, if you are mere minutes away from a hospital, is it one that is a major trauma center?

And then there are things classified as the intangibles, things like attitude and personality. Injured or sick people who maintain a positive attitude fare much better than those who are negative. In LE, we know that if a person thinks they are going to die, there’s a good chance they will. Two other intangibles exist which have an impact on helping people survive. First, the amount of love and support family and friends offer to the patient. There seems to be a correlation between the number of people in the waiting room of an ER who support the patient, and that person’s recovery. Second, people of faith seem to have a higher survival rate. Obviously, no proof exists to support this in a scientific sense, but anecdotal evidence supports the notion that those who call on their higher power survive at a higher rate that those who do not.

What are the magic numbers associated with Staying Alive?

The Air Force’s research indicates two numbers are key to your survival in an emergency. The first number is 98.6, your core body temperature. They recommend maintaining that number at all costs—simply put: cold kills. The second important number is 3, and here’s why:

The Rule of 3 states you cannot survive:

3 seconds without spirit and hope

3 minutes without air

3 hours without shelter in extreme conditions

3 days without water

3 weeks without food

3 months without companionship or love


The last thing I want to impart to you about survival is that luck plays a role in whether you live or die. In Sherwood’s book, luck is define as, “an unpredictable phenomenon that leads to good or bad outcomes in life.” But Professor Wiseman, in experiments, has deduced that, “Luck is not a magical ability or a gift from the gods. Instead, it is a state of mind—a way of thinking and behaving.” Wiseman says we have more control over our lives than we realize, and says only 10 percent of life is purely random while the other 90 percent is “actually defined by the way you think.” Translation: a person’s attitude and behavior determines nine-tenths of what happens in their life.

Having been a trainer most of my professional life, I find the above facts to be extraordinary. The research involved with this thumbnail sketch I’ve supplied about who lives and who dies is unquestionably solid. Please share this article with your colleagues, family and friends. It may very well save a life.

Stay safe, Brothers and Sisters!


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About The Author:

John M. Wills spent 33 years in law enforcement as a Chicago Police Officer and FBI Special Agent (Ret). He is a Freelance Writer and Speaker whose third book, TARGETED, is now available online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Contact John through his website: