You're on a road trip during a winter snowstorm when your car hits...
In This Article
Illustrations by Joe Oesterle
Even if you’re not usually absent-minded, you’ve probably felt the momentary confusion of arriving at home only to find a light was left on. You thought you’d turned it off before you left, but did you just have a brain fart and forget? Did your spouse or one of the kids leave it on? These common oversights can often make your skin crawl for a few moments as you wonder if someone was inside while you were gone. Coming home to an open front door, however, is a more concerning sign that something or someone has been there. You’re incredibly vigilant about locking everything up before you leave, but here comes that eerie feeling again. Did you screw up and forget to lock it this time, or are you about to walk in on an intruder?
You swallow and step back to see if you notice anything else out of place. You think about calling out “Hello?” for a second, but hesitate since you could potentially be alerting an uninvited (and possibly armed) guest to your presence. You’d hoped this would be a simple house-sitting gig for a friend, but you may now have stumbled upon a burglary in progress. What do you do?
Your friend’s house
Snowy and windy; high 38 degrees F, low 12 degrees F
The Setup: A wealthy friend of yours has gone out of town for the holidays and left their house in your care while they’re on vacation visiting relatives. You agreed to check on it every day until they return (except Christmas) to feed the cat, make sure the heater hasn’t broken down, collect mail and any packages that’ve arrived, and perform a general inspection to make sure nothing is out of order. Your friend has told you that they’ve been the victim of porch pirates more than once, so this being the holiday season, the potential for theft is higher.
The house is a bit secluded, and up a winding mountain road with no neighbors in the immediate line of sight or within earshot of any potential disturbances. It’s also a three-story house that’s over 5,000 square feet with numerous rooms, but you’ll only need to be in the kitchen and living room area while you’re there. The house has an alarm system that provides armed security response, but times in the past that the alarm has been tripped have yielded a slow response from the company … if any.
Your friend will only be gone for a few days, so you plan on a handful of routine visits until they return. You’re also told that the only others who have access to the house are the security company who has the alarm code, but no key, and the housekeeper, who has both. You’re also told the housekeeper will not be visiting while the family is away, and that they’re practically a member of the family, having worked for them for the last 20 years with no incidents. You’re also told there is a hide-a-key in what looks like a rock near the front porch. Although you have your own key for the visit, and you don’t know exactly what the rock looks like, the family made mention that it doesn’t look like the other rocks in the vicinity, so it should be easy to spot if you need to gain access. You’ve also been given a login to watch security footage of the house from your phone, using the cameras installed around the perimeter.
The Complication: It’s Christmas Eve and nearing dusk. You decide to make one last pass of the house before coming back in a couple days since there’ll be no mail delivery tomorrow. You can leave the cat some extra food to hold it over through Christmas day. As you arrive, you can see what looks like fresh tracks in the snow, but you attribute it to a few last-minute deliveries or the mail carrier. You’ve arrived a little earlier than normal to get this finished before moving on to your own holiday arrangements, but you begin to notice some things that concern you. As you go to collect the mail from the mailbox, you find it empty and wonder if the mail carrier hasn’t arrived yet or had nothing to deliver. There are also no packages in their usual place by the front door — you were certain that some would arrive today. Maybe the delivery is running late as well? You also notice that the light in the upstairs bedroom is off. You know that light in particular is on a timer and wonder if it hasn’t kicked on yet because you’re here earlier than normal.
As you approach the front door, you see that it’s slightly ajar. Did you forget to lock it and the wind managed to blow it open? Is someone here? The blinking red light on the alarm panel shows that the alarm has been activated and that alone makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up. You look around frantically for something that looks like the hide-a-key rock you were told about, but you don’t see anything that resembles the description you were given. Did someone manage to find it and get inside? Did the housekeeper show up unexpectedly to drop something off for the family? You decide to investigate further, but feel hesitant since you haven’t explored the house in its entirety and don’t know the layout.
Your cell phone reception up here is spotty and dropped calls have happened to you here before. The house also doesn’t have a landline that you’re aware of. You walk into the kitchen and see nothing that looks out of order. As you swing back to head toward the front door, there’s a noticeable “thump” upstairs. Is this a burglar? Is it the cat? Is it someone else who has a key to the house you weren’t told about? If someone is there, who are they and what do they want? Should you call the police or the security company and wait for their arrival? Either way, it’s unlikely that they’ll respond quickly given your remote location — if you can get through to anyone at all. Should you attempt to clear the house and risk coming face-to-face with an armed intruder? Should you run to your car to go get help?
When I’ve been asked to house-sit in the past, whether my friends knew it or not, they usually provided me with a general baseline about their environment. Routines such as the neighbor is a home-body and goes out for a morning walk around 7:30, trash is picked up on Mondays; mail gets delivered in the afternoon, sometimes the girl down the street rides her bike over to see if our kids can play on Saturdays are things that have been relayed to me. While seemingly trivial, those are notes to keep and compare during visits to the house.
Extra questions I could ask if the information wasn’t already volunteered would be: Have you had any issues with crime other than the porch pirates? Are there any weirdos or stray animals in the neighborhood I need to look out for? Has anything serious been posted in your neighborhood Facebook group recently (besides people mistaking cars backfiring for gunshots)?
Making sure I understand the security system and how it works would be at the top of my list. I wouldn’t want to trouble my friend with a call from the security company if I didn’t disarm the system in time. This would prompt a few more questions: What is the notification process if I don’t disarm the system in time? Does it alert your family in addition to the security company? Have you ever had law enforcement show up to a tripped alarm? Do you know what the response time was?
To avoid being mistaken for a burglar, I’d suggest my friend make a contact list for me to keep of family/friends/neighbors who have been made aware of my responsibility to care for the cat and property. This also makes me feel more at ease knowing I have people I can contact who are more familiar with the house in case there’s some sort of mishap.
My cell phone gets crappy reception in real life, so something I do when visiting friends is ask for the Wi-Fi password and connect when I’m there. Having the Wi-Fi password sent via a text and saved to your notes on your phone as a backup is helpful as well.
Something I recommend everyone do regardless of the amount of risk in your daily life is set up your SOS and emergency contacts on your smartphone. Depending on the phone brand and operating system, how the SOS is activated could be different, so make sure you’re familiar with your own. It’s also helpful to know how to dial 911 from the lock screen, so you won’t have to fumble with the keypad when seconds count.
Knowing I needed to go to a secluded home where emergency response times could be lengthy, I’d ask someone to accompany me every time I planned to check on the house. Even if the person I ask is not someone who carries a firearm, a second person is always better than being alone. I’d ask my friend to wait in the driver seat with the vehicle running and have their cell phone at the ready in case we need to make a quick exit.
Because of my crappy phone reception, frequency of travel, and preferring to work from a secure internet connection, one option I’ve explored is the Solis X by SkyRoam. It’s a portable Wi-Fi hotspot and has a built-in camera.
Thanks to the info relayed to me by my friends, I already have the sneaking suspicion that something is a little off and would spend more time observing the scene and outside of the house. If there are tire tracks in the snow, did anyone get out of the vehicle? How many pairs of footprints are there? Where do they lead? Do the tracks look like someone was dropped off? Does it look like the vehicle came and went with no one getting out? The information that I can glean from those questions may sway my actions to either play it safe and review security footage or go ahead and approach the house.
Upon finding the door ajar, now I know I’ve got a problem, which instantly starts a swirl of thoughts and decisions to make. The first one is going to be whether or not someone is on the other side. The second one is trying to decide to peek around the door or hurry up and go back to the car. Then, at some point, a random reminder for the reason for the visit, “Oh sh*t, did the cat escape?”
Even though I can legally carry a firearm, I’d choose to go back to the car, lock the doors, and tell my friend what I saw. From the safety of the locked car, positioned in a safer distance from the house, I’d have my friend call the police on speakerphone while I pull up surveillance footage and wait for law enforcement to arrive.
Knowing our own skills, capabilities, and limits can keep us safe, so I’m not even going to entertain the idea of clearing the house. It’s not something I have sought out training for and the idea of me, an armed civilian clearing a 5,000-square-foot house I don’t know the layout of is outside the realm of reasonable actions for me.
It’s not safe to assume that burglars are non-violent, and therefore caution should be exercised if found face-to-face with the intruder. The training I’ve received over the years to prepare myself for violent encounters will come into play if and when that story unfolds.
By choosing not to enter the home, as evidenced on the security cameras and my friend as a witness, I save myself a whole lot of legal headache and blame. If burglars had, in fact, ransacked the house and left before we arrived, most of the scene would be untouched and untampered. Hopefully this would make it easier for police to do their job in finding clues and catching the bad guy(s).
Area Orientation: The first part of my preparation phase for this type of scenario would be to have my friend give me a detailed tour of the house and property. I’d want to know the locations of all the exterior doors and any other large opening that might serve as an entry or exit point. I’d also note the locations of all security system triggers, such as door and window sensors, glass-break sensors, and motion detectors, as well as the locations of all interior and exterior cameras. Having access to the cameras via my cell phone will allow me to check in and around the house to have the greatest situational awareness prior to entering. It’ll also help in identifying any intruders and thieves if a situation does arise.
I’d also want to know if there’s a safe room in the house, where it’s located, and what supplies are there. Although I plan on having my own equipment on my person, it’s good to know where I might be able to find additional supplies. If there’s a well-planned safe room inside the house, it’ll likely have an alternate form of communication, such as a reliable cell phone or landline separate from the main line.
Establish a Baseline: Next, I’d establish a baseline of the house and surrounding area. What are the normal traffic patterns? What are the local norms? Are there any identified criminal enterprises operating in the area? What’s the typical law enforcement response to crime in this area? What are the local habitual areas (public gathering places) and natural lines of drift (shortcuts)? What’s the baseline atmosphere (“feeling”) of the area?
I’d take a second walk-through of the interior and exterior of the house by myself to eliminate all distractions and observe the lay of the land. What are the natural and manmade obstacles (terrain, walls, fences, cameras, etc.) that would divert or funnel human traffic trying to enter the property surreptitiously? I’d also identify the hide-a-key rock to see where and how it’s currently oriented.
Having this established baseline will allow me to identify any anomalies that present themselves when I go to check on the house. An atmospheric shift, disturbance of the area, a vehicle out of place, items moved from their normal location, or a housekeeper’s vehicle parked outside at an odd hour are examples of detectable anomalies that could indicate potential danger upon arriving at the residence.
Personal Preparation: My personal equipment would consist of my normal EDC, to include a concealed handgun, knife, flashlight, and cell phone. My phone would have my friend’s phone number, the number for the local police department and security monitoring company, and the numbers of any nearby friends or neighbors that might serve as emergency contacts should a situation arise. My secondary communications plan would be my friend’s landline if there’s one, and the identified safe-room communications would be my contingent communications plan. My emergency communications plan would be to drive to the nearest neighbor or convenience store to use their phone.
When checking on the house, I’d place a phone call to my wife to let her know my location and arrival time so she’d know if I was on site longer than reasonable. She’d know to call and check on me if I was there longer than normal, and to contact the authorities if I didn’t answer or return her call within a reasonable amount of time.
Prior to approaching the house, I’d follow my established protocols that I would’ve followed with each prior visit. This would include remotely reviewing the security footage and checking to see if any alarms have been triggered using the alarm system app.
During my drive in, I’d be looking for any baseline anomalies. Are there any vehicles that appear to be out of place? A vehicle and driver looking out of place could be an indication of potential criminal activity in the general area. Are the local residents engaged in their normal activities? People will often intentionally or unknowingly respond to their “gut” and change their routine when there’s a predator hunting in the area. Are there any law-enforcement vehicles patrolling the area? A police presence might act as a deterrent or cause a perpetrator to change their modus operandi on the fly.
Upon arriving at the house, I’d look for other anomalies around the premises. Are there any rocks or vegetation that have been recently disturbed? Are there any footprints or tire tracks in the snow? Are there any lights on or off inside the house that shouldn’t be? Have the window coverings been disturbed?
After discovering the front door is ajar and the hide-a-key rock is missing, and assuming my review of the security footage prior to my approach didn’t reveal the presence of any intruders, I’d assess the situation to determine the best course of action. The blinking red light on the alarm panel indicating the alarm has been activated rules out the likelihood that the housekeeper is making an unscheduled visit, since she would’ve disarmed the system using the alarm code.
Given there were no alarm indications or intruders on the video feed prior to my final approach of the house — otherwise I wouldn’t be at the front door — the most innocuous scenario at this point is that I had somehow left the front door unsecured and the wind dislodged the door just prior to my arrival. The most dangerous scenario is that an intruder had made entry just prior to my arrival. I’ll treat this situation as though it were the latter until I can prove it was the former.
My immediate priority is to find a position of cover and concealment while I complete some administrative tasks. If I’m able to get a cellular or Wi-Fi signal with my cell phone, I’ll review the security camera footage from the time I last checked it to the present. If I’m able to see any intruders on the video feed, I will be sure to download the video and take screenshots of the perpetrators for later identification. I’d also immediately call 911, report the incident, and wait for law enforcement to arrive.
If I review the video footage and don’t see any indication of a break-in, I’d place a call to my wife to inform her of the situation. Based on the information I’ve gathered to this point, I believe my best course of action is to clear the house myself, as there’s no additional evidence of any intruders.
After entering the house and seeing nothing out of order in the kitchen, the likelihood that I screwed up and forgot to secure the door during my previous visit is looking more and more plausible, until I hear the “thump” upstairs. At that point, I’d call 911 and report a possible break-in. Maybe it’s the cat falling off the bed, but I’m not taking any chances.
Although I have the legal right to be on the premises and no duty to retreat in my state, the only other people in the house, if any, are the bad guys. If there were innocent people in the house, then my priority would be to ensure their safety and clear the house, but since there are none, there’s no reason for me to remain inside the house, and doing so would place me at a tactical disadvantage. My best option at this point would be to vacate the house and observe the front door from a safe distance to see if anyone leaves the house while I wait for the police to arrive.
If I do see anyone leave the house, I’ll record as many details as I can (height, weight, sex, clothing, identifying marks, physical impairments, etc.) to give to the police. I didn’t see a vehicle parked nearby, so they must have walked in or been dropped off by a getaway vehicle. I’d be watching to see which route they take when they leave the house, if they’re carrying anything, if a vehicle picks them up, and their direction of travel.
Taking this approach to this situation is the best way to ensure my own safety. There’s nothing in my friend’s house worth dying for, especially not the cat. It’s possible that police have already been alerted by the alarm company, so they might show up at any moment. Staying outside is the best way to prevent being mistaken for a burglar when they arrive, and to avoid implicating myself in what may be a crime in progress.
The entire purpose of this column is to get you, the reader, to think about what you’d do if you were in this situation. It requires some self-awareness and honesty about how you’d be willing to deal with certain situations that have a huge question mark. There are probably individuals out there who’d feel totally comfortable clearing a 5,000-square-foot house alone, but even though you’ve accepted the responsibility of overseeing and caring for a friend’s home and cat, possessions (including dearly beloved pets) are not a higher priority than your own life.
With all the little red flags triggering concerns outside the home, this is one situation where you should be keenly aware of the potential problems that could occur before walking through the door and into an unknown situation. Whether it’s your own house or a friend’s house that you’ve been asked to watch while they’re out town, clearing a house with a potential threat is a huge risk. If the lives of innocents are at stake, it may be justifiable, but it’s unwise to put your life on the line for replaceable possessions. Establishing baselines through observation and orientation and looking for anomalies is the best way to stay in front of a dangerous situation. Avoidance is always the best defense.
Sheena Green is a perpetual student, prior manager at CrossRoads Shooting Sports, and certified firearms instructor. She has attended many shooting, edged weapons, and self-defense classes by well-respected instructors such as Steve Fisher, Steve Tarani, Ed Calderon, and others. She co-leads the Des Moines, Iowa, chapter of The Well Armed Woman. In addition to defensive training, she also enjoys competitive pistol and shotgun sports. p3atraining.com
Chad McBroom is a 22-year veteran law enforcement officer with most of his time spent in the tactical unit. He has spent over 30 years studying various combative systems and focuses on the science of close combat. Chad is the owner of Comprehensive Fighting Systems, offering training in empty-hand tactics, edged weapons, impact weapons, and firearms tactics. He’s also a regular contributor to RECOIL. Check out more at comprehensivefightingsystems.com