Photo: Mark W. Clark
The active shooter is one of the most complex threats faced by American law enforcement. These individuals have no other goal than to kill as many people as possible before going out in a blaze of glory, either facing the police or committing suicide as law enforcement arrives.
There are three elements to any active shooter/active threat incident: the attacker, the target, and the response.
It's a given that the best way to defend against active threats is to stop the attack before it ever happens. Since the 1999 Columbine massacre, police, educators, and even parents have been told to watch for warning signs that students might be planning an attack. Supervisors and employees have also been told to watch for indicators that a fellow employee, former employee, or customer plans to act on a grudge. While it's hard sometimes to prove that this kind of vigilance has prevented actual attacks, as no statistics are available to measure its effectiveness, there's clear evidence that attackers drop hints about their attacks before they strike and these hints, if acted upon, can be used to thwart their deadly intentions.
Stopping the attack before it starts is one way to reduce the carnage; another is to harden the target. Nationwide, schools and businesses have started training their staffs what to do in case of an active attack and they have added new security measures to prevent the killers from gaining access to victims.
The final element of an active threat incident is the response. This encompasses the police response to end the attack, Fire/EMS response to aid and evacuate the victims, and even law enforcement containment response to seal off the scene and preserve evidence.
Because of atrocities like Columbine and Sandy Hook, schools in America have become some of the safest places to be during an active shooter attack. Most schools have solid plans for dealing with an active shooter threat, and they have the most drilled, trained, and qualified staffs of any public sector institution or private sector business.
Educators and parents want to find the best way to protect students. Toward this end, some school districts and private academies have hired private security consultants; others rely on online training programs for administrators and staff.
Safeschools (www.safeschools.com) offers an online training system for school personnel that includes a module on active shooters and how to slow them down and make students safer. "Active Shooters for Administrators" was created by Michael Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International, a not-for-profit school safety training organization based in Ohio.
Dorn is a graduate of the FBI National Academy and an internationally recognized expert on school security. His take on school safety in 2014 is that school personnel need to diversify their training to prepare for much more than an active shooter. "Schools are very good at active shooter training, but they may be missing the big picture when it comes to school safety," he explains.
Safe Havens International trains school staffs for a wide variety of threats. Dorn believes local police trainers can help instruct the personnel at their local schools, including conducting school safety drills or training based on national programs such as "Run, Hide, Fight" or similar three-step response training.
"Run, Hide, Fight" teaches what people should do in an active shooter event, other than wait to be rescued by police. As the name suggests, trainees are told to run if possible, hide if they cannot, and fight if necessary. A linchpin of the training is a Department of Homeland Security-funded video that portrays an ordinary "day at the office," turned into an active shooter situation. There are many law enforcement agencies using this video in conjunction with scenario-based training to teach school staffs how to respond.
The Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) Center at Texas State University offers a course titled "Civilian Response to Active Shooter Events (CRASE)," which trains officers to teach school and business administrators and personnel how to better respond to active shooter incidents. Similar to "Run, Hide, Fight," the basic concepts taught in the CRASE course are to avoid, deny, and defend (ADD). Students are told to avoid the shooter if possible, deny the shooter access to victims by hiding and barricading entry points, or as a last resort, defend themselves if a confrontation with the shooter is imminent.
The one big controversy surrounding this type of training is the schools' long-standing lockdown procedures. School personnel, for example, are trained to lock all students in rooms so they can be accounted for and not allowed to roam freely. This would be part of the "deny" response of the CRASE training. But should this be the first response when there is an opportunity to avoid or run away from the attacker?
Perhaps not. Some experts believe school lockdowns can provide rooms full of victims for an active shooter to attack. School staffs and the organizations that train them in active shooter response seem to be staking a lot on the integrity of classroom door locks.
Learning from the Past
Dorn is critical of "Run, Hide, Fight" and other three-step programs because he says they are not based on evidence from previous attacks. He thinks law enforcement and educators should study past tragedies and analyze what happens in a school violence incident.
There is certainly ample evidence to examine. Some reports show there have been more than 70 school-based shooting incidents since the December 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School. But on closer inspection of the incidents, just 15 of them involved an active shooter at or near a school. The majority of the incidents involve personal arguments, family violence, or drug and gang activity. Dorn feels that schools should prepare for any and all of these incidents.
Dorn says "Run, Hide, Fight" response training is important, but training can't stop there. "It's not reasonable to expect that a math or English teacher can handle the same dynamic training or have the same survival-fight mentality needed to fight off an attacker. This has to be part of the training," he says.
Changing Police Tactics
In May 2001, the Colorado Governor's Office published a report on the Columbine tragedy, which included details about the initial officers' response. The report detailed how the killers fired at officers from the school library and the officers returned fire. Minutes later, they again exchanged fire with officers outside the school, who were protecting paramedics treating victims.
At Columbine officers had engaged the killers within minutes of the initial assault; yet the killers were able to terrorize and slaughter the students and staff unlucky enough to be trapped in the school for 47 minutes before turning their guns on themselves. And even then the officers outside the school were not aware that the killers had killed themselves. It would be several more hours before the buildings were secure and the victims inside the school could be treated. One teacher bled out from a survivable wound during that delay.
These revelations resulted in a radical shift in how law enforcement responds to active shooters/active threats. Gone are the days of waiting for a heavily armed tactical team while there is evidence of an ongoing assault.
The Columbine massacre marked the end of an era for a widely taught police response protocol for active shooters. The "contain and wait for the tactical team" formula for keeping officers safe was no longer an acceptable response to an attacker engaging unarmed civilian targets inside a heavily populated area. Now, some 15 years later, police continue to refine their response protocols to active-shooter and active-threat incidents.
It was also soon after Columbine that law enforcement agencies began conducting scenario-based training at schools. Active shooter response training has continued to evolve with first responding law enforcement officers receiving what was once thought of as advanced medical training and training with medical and fire agencies to enhance potential lifesaving efforts.
Police and Fire
Joint police, fire, EMS response to active shooters is one of the focuses of training offered by Concord, N.C.-based Threat Suppression Inc. The company's CEO Michael Clumpner is a sworn law enforcement officer, a fire captain, and a paramedic. Clumpner sees many benefits from officers cross-training with fire department personnel in active shooter response drills. "Sometimes police just don't think about tools the fire department has for breaching doors," Clumpner says. It's clear from looking at recent active shooter incidents that the attackers have put thought into blocking or slowing down police response. Breaching, removing obstacles, and planning for obstructions should be in the officers' training. Fire personnel have tools for defeating such obstructions, and through cross-training, officers can learn about these tools and how to use them.
Fire departments also have special keys to get through gates and take control of elevators. Clumpner has trained hundreds of officers who police areas with multi-floor office buildings. "I'm surprised at how many officers don't think about controlling the elevator banks when they're clearing a building," he says.
Clumpner's Threat Suppression group also works with businesses to develop security plans and train employees on what to do. He says businesses can learn a lot from schools when it comes to safety planning. "Most businesses have some basic plans for an outside attack, but they don't take into account the attack that may emanate from inside the business," he says. "You can't ignore that a disgruntled employee who's already inside the business can turn violent." There's also the possibility of family violence that can creep into the workplace. These scenarios are much more likely than an active shooter coming through the front door of a business.
In 2009 in Binghamton, N.Y., a lone gunman entered an immigration assistance center and began shooting, unleashing an armed assault on rooms full of people. Police responded within three minutes of the first emergency call for help. But it would be another 40 minutes before they made entry. The officers arrived at the scene and, as trained, gathered intelligence and waited for any stimuli that indicated that an active shooter was inside the building. None was heard. Shortly after, the assailant quickly killed 13 people and wounded several others before shooting himself.
The officers waiting outside did not realize the gunman had killed himself. As trained, they waited for the tactical resources before entering the building. The department has been criticized for the delay. The critics couldn't understand why, in a post-Columbine world, officers waited outside for 40 minutes before going in to rescue the victims.
The Binghamton Police Department defended its response, saying that officers could not have saved any of the injured if they had gone in immediately. Department officials said the officers had no way of knowing the suspect was alone and that he had killed himself many minutes prior to police entering the building.
Police, other public safety personnel, and educators can learn from tragedies like Binghamton and train for the violence that has crept into schools and workplaces in the past few decades. The ultimate goal is to save lives.
Police trainers are finding more intelligent and proven response plans to minimize the violence and render aid to the wounded as soon as possible. Potential victims are also being taught how to save their own lives during an attack. Programs like the three-step training videos that teach potential victims how not to be victims can make citizens think differently and survive an attack.
Much of the focus of law enforcement's active shooter response and citizen training programs has been on school shooters, but it's important to remember businesses are also targeted by these killers. We are doing a good job of teaching schools and workers what to do in an emergency, but we need to translate the schools' plans to the business community.
Police training is always going to be inadequate because of budget and staffing issues. Most officers and agencies would like to train for every possible scenario, but they can't. Assaults can happen anywhere and by anyone using any means.
And when an assault happens, experts say officers need to take two actions to save lives: they need to stop the shooter and render aid to the victims. Many times it's hours after the assault has stopped before medics can treat the victims inside the scene. So officers should think about treating injured victims as soon as they can, even in hostile conditions. We have countless examples of how trauma kits can save lives. All officers should have trauma kits to give victims the quickest and most basic life support measures, even if they are still trapped inside an active shooter scene.