As a society, we would like to believe that active shooter incidents are freak, isolated incidences. But they continue to occur. That’s why my agency, the Phoenix Police Department, is implementing training to prepare its first responders for how to react to active shooters.
Up until 1999, the accepted protocol for patrol officers responding to an active shooter was to establish a perimeter and wait for a tactical team to go in and stop the threat. This was the protocol that was followed in 1999 at Columbine High School. The first officers to respond were onsite within minutes of the initial gunfire, but no officers entered the school for nearly 45 minutes.
The first responders at Columbine followed their training; they set up a perimeter and then waited for SWAT to arrive. In the aftermath of Columbine, law enforcement began to examine the shortcomings of waiting to go in to stop the killing. Many agencies developed new training on how to more effectively stop the threat. This new type of training focused on an immediate tactical response by the initial officers on scene.
Post-Columbine training consisted of instructing responding officers to immediately enter the threat area in a “diamond” formation that consisted of one officer facing forward, with three or more officers taking up positions with various areas of coverage. The team would then move down the hallways in that diamond-shaped formation. Unfortunately, the diamond formation did not allow officers to move swiftly, and officers were often unable to locate the shooter until he challenged the team, ran out of bullets, or surrendered.
Once the diamond formation proved less than effective, agencies started to train their officers to move directly to the threat. This allowed officers to surprise an active shooter, defuse the threat quickly, and reduce casualties.
The tactic of having responding officers move directly to the threat has helped limit the body counts in some active shooter attacks. For example, in 2012 a suspect opened fire on a theater full of people waiting to watch the premiere showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” in Aurora, CO. The first officers arrived on scene within two minutes of the 911 call, and they were able to take the subject into custody five minutes after their arrival.
While improved tactics are now being used in active shooter response, recent mass shootings have revealed additional areas of weakness in law enforcement reaction to such attacks. Last year when a former student attacked the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, FL, there was a school resource officer (Broward County Sheriff’s Deputy Scot Peterson) on scene. But the officer remained outside the campus, allowing the gunman to move freely, killing 17 students and staff.
The actions of the Broward County responding officers in Parkland have been publicly scrutinized by the media. The sheriff blamed the SRO for not confronting the shooter, though the media claimed that there may have been several officers who remained outside the campus as shots were being fired. Days after the shooting SRO Peterson resigned after being placed on administrative leave. He told the Sun-Sentinel newspaper he felt that his actions were justified, as he claimed to have taken a tactical position.
Though the actions of the responding officers at Parkland are still being debated, agencies around the country are using this tragedy as a teaching tool to improve their active shooting response training.
As other law enforcement agencies have modified their policies and training for active shooter response, so has the Phoenix PD. Historically the department’s policy and training restricted a solo officer from engaging an active shooter. Officers were required to wait until more units arrived on scene; then they would move to engage the threat as a three-officer team. The policy was specific: officers would wait until the team was complete, then move to locate the threat. This policy has now evolved. Phoenix PD says now that the idea of waiting to act must be weighed carefully against the possibility of preservation of life.
Sending in the Medics
The important role of EMS and firefighters is often overlooked during active shooter response training. Timely emergency medical response is critical to saving lives.
At Columbine the first paramedics were not brought in to assist victims for more than three hours. During the 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting, medical personnel did not enter into the club. Instead, officers carried victims out for the first four hours, while the suspect was barricaded in a bathroom with other potential victims.
In 2007 at Virginia Tech, the local Emergency Response Teams (ERT) happened to be in close proximity, allowing for a fast response (within 10 minutes of the initial calls). These teams had trained with local tactical medics. As the ERT teams moved through the buildings, the medics were able to render lifesaving aid to the victims. Unfortunately, it is still not common for agencies to have a medic readily available. And even with emergency medics on scene at Virginia Tech, it still took 29 minutes before law enforcement would allow further medical responders in to treat and triage victims.
The Rescue Task Force model was established to allow emergency medics access to the victims sooner. This model allows emergency medics to be escorted into an area under the protection of law enforcement. Though not without flaw, developing a response plan that allows medical personnel to work together with local law enforcement to quickly triage, treat, and transport victims can increase the chance of victims’ survival.
In 2018, the Phoenix Police and Fire Departments began cross-training all street-level first responders to increase communication, response, and teamwork, with the goal of saving as many lives as possible following active shooter incidents. This training was coordinated with local schools and populated venues, allowing all first responders to participate in real-world locations under high-stress scenarios using Simunition marking rounds and role players. The role players were outfitted with AK-47s firing blanks, accurately simulating real gunfire so that a real life event is not the first time our officers encounter that level of opposition. This training allows police and fire to have a better understanding of each other’s function during a critical incident and also to develop trust in one another for when it counts.
Phoenix has looked at the national model of Rescue Task Force, mimicking many of its ideas and objectives, but changed some concepts and tactics to improve safety for responders and improve proficiency. The April 2016 issue of Fire Engineering published an article (“Active Shooter Response: Rescue in the Warm Zone” by Joe Pulvermacher) that discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the Rescue Task Force concept. The goal of the concept is to have the first victim contact by the Rescue Task Force in under 10 minutes from the initial call. But in his article Pulvermacher raised concern that without the law enforcement protection component available, medical personnel could be sent into a situation where they could become additional victims.
Phoenix PD’s answer to this concern was to train all officers and other responders that the Rescue Task Force teams must move with law enforcement protection and that the area identified as a warm zone must be under police security before non-law enforcement responders enter. This allows fire/EMS to aid victims, while under police protection. During training simulations, Phoenix found that response times from first arrival on scene to first victim contact were routinely under 15 minutes, with both protective layers completed. Phoenix Police found this allows for increased safety for all medical personnel and it saves more lives.
Another essential area of concern during active shooter response is communications. A lot of money and effort has been spent on establishing interoperable communications between agencies. But sometimes the people who have to use the equipment during a critical incident haven’t been trained to do so. For example, at the Aurora Theater Shooting, fire and law enforcement had the ability to communicate on a single frequency, but no patch was ever created because the responders were not trained to do so. While the Communications Center was able to relay information between law enforcement and fire, the process was slow and tedious. The communication issues may have contributed to a slower response of medical personnel to assist the victims.
Recognizing dispatch communications as a major factor, the Phoenix PD included its Communications Bureau in active shooter response training. The scenarios began with multiple emergency calls to designated training, non-emergency phone numbers. Prior to the training, call-takers and dispatchers were not provided with any specific details, only that they were participating in a training exercise. The caller gave various pieces of information regarding an incident that was occurring. Often the caller would hang up or act in a manner as if they were involved in the incident as a witness, victim, or even a suspect. The information would then be sent to the dispatcher, who would request officer response to the scene.
During this 911 call, if medical services were requested, the call-taker could include the fire communications team on the call. Expediting this information to fire allowed for a much quicker response.
Prior to these drills, the Fire Communications team had no set protocol on pre-arrival instructions for active shooter incidents. This information included how much time it would take to answer specific questions as well as what questions were pertinent. Because the calls began with various callers simulating victims and witnesses, they were able to identify vital data, developing the nation’s first dedicated active shooter pre-arrival instruction protocol.
During the 2015 mass shooting incident in San Bernardino, initial responding officers felt they were not adequately trained or equipped to provide emergency medical care. Training law enforcement officers to apply tourniquets or chest seals quickly under stress can save lives. The national average time for EMS response is around seven minutes. Add to that the delay of law enforcement having to secure an area for fire personnel to enter, and the response time for EMS at active shooter incidents is about 15 minutes.
In 2011 a subject shot multiple people, including then Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), outside a supermarket in Tucson. Before the incident, the Tucson Police Department had supplied its officers with combat medical kits and trained them to use the tourniquets and other first-aid tools. This made a big difference.
In 2014 as Phoenix was gearing up for Super Bowl XLIX, the concern for the safety of all incoming visitors was a high priority. To address this, the Phoenix PD began issuing tourniquets to select officers and training them to use the lifesaving devices in preparation for the event. After the Super Bowl, the department continued to issue tourniquets to officers and train them in their use. This program has saved the lives of more than 45 people.
Training the Public
Understanding the importance of the role community members can have in mitigating the destruction caused by active shooters, accidents, and disasters, the Phoenix Police and Fire Departments are providing training sessions for community groups and businesses in preparation for a crisis event.
Examples of programs currently being taught in Phoenix include “Stop the Bleed,” which teaches civilians basic first-aid concepts and how to control massive blood loss in emergency situations prior to professional help arriving. “Uncontrollable bleeding is the number one cause of preventable death from trauma,” the website for the Stop the Bleed program (https://www.bleedingcontrol.org) says.
Other programs such as “Run, Hide, Fight,” are also being taught to help community members understand common police and fire response and provide them with best practices in case they find themselves in a crisis situation. This training has been conducted at various locations and presented to community leaders, including local schools and their administrators, university student body leaders, and church and community groups.
As law enforcement officers, we are not only trying to put in preventive measures to help schools, entertainment venues, and churches prepare for these events. We also need to make sure that we are training our first responders to move quickly to stop the killing while allowing the medical personnel to focus on saving as many lives as possible.
Sgt. James Ward has served with the Phoenix Police Department for more than 15 years. He is the supervisor of the department’s Tactical Training Detail.