Active shooter situations often require every bit of training and experience law enforcement officers possess. An ineffective response can mean the difference between life and death for the victims and even the officers.
Sadly, data shows active shooter incidents are on the rise. The FBI identified 160 active shooter incidents between 2000 and 2013, and another 50 active shooter incidents between 2016 and 2017.
In the 50 shooting incidents between 2016 and 2017, 13 officers were killed and 20 were wounded. The FBI says 14 of the incidents ended with an exchange of gunfire between the shooters and police officers on the scene.
While similarities exist between different active shooter incidents, none are exactly alike. They are extremely unpredictable, and circumstances often change very quickly. One important distinction is that the response to these incidents requires more gear than the “routine” call.
In active shooter situations, officers experience a greater need for protection than they do in more common law enforcement operations. This is why more agencies are providing their officers with additional protection, including hard armor and helmets.
Standard issue soft armor provides protection against handgun threats, but many active shooter situations may involve rifles and require the additional protection provided by hard armor plates. This is why some agencies are supplying their officers with “active shooter kits,” a carrier and hard armor plates that can be quickly slipped on in case of an attack.
Remember that an active shooter carrier with hard plates is heavier than your standard patrol armor. If you are issued this gear, train with it to become familiar with how it may affect your performance. Conducting simulated training exercises can also reveal areas in which weight can or should be reduced by removing items or show where it’s necessary to replace gear with lighter or more flexible alternatives. This can be especially important with key protective equipment like body armor.
Some hard armor is made of ceramic or a combination of ceramic and steel. It’s heavy stuff. A better choice for active shooter gear is to buy plates composed of a lighter material called ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene (UHMWPE). Hard armor made of this material can provide NIJ Level III rifle protection at substantially less weight than ceramics or steel. When paired with ceramics or steel UHMWPE can provide NIJ Level IV protection, meaning it will stop armor-piercing rifle rounds.
There are many resources available to help you find information on picking the right protection, and some, like ArmorNOW.com (the company I am associated with), can even provide free continuing education units while doing so.
Technology can also be a vital tool in active shooter response. But because some specialized tech doesn’t get used regularly, it may require a concerted effort to gain familiarity with it. As with a new firearm, officers need to become experts at using the technology they will use in real-life active shooter situations before it’s deployed in the field.
Effective active shooter training enables officers to deal with volatile situations they could encounter while wearing heavier gear. This provides two potentially game-changing benefits: It allows law enforcement to practice responding effectively to active shooter scenarios and it lets supervisors and seasoned officers immediately evaluate the reliability of both the training and the equipment.
In training, agencies and leadership understandably emphasize tactical execution—seek out the threat, address the threat, and minimize casualties. But in real-world dynamic, high-risk situations, helping the victims is a critical task. So keep in mind that the situation could demand emergency medical skills.
Injuries occur at much higher rates during active shooter events, and access to immediate medical help from fire/EMS might not be feasible. When an active shooter incident occurs, agencies may request mutual aid from a regional or state hotline system. And there is no way to know which officer will be the first to arrive at the scene, so impromptu emergency medical care and bleeding control could be necessary.
CPR, chest compressions, applying pressure to a wound, and tourniquet use are easy-to-learn emergency medical procedures that officers should know. When training to perform these skills, it’s a good idea to wear the heavier gear and thicker armor that they will wear during a real incident. Heavy gear and armor can restrict movement and flexibility, making the muscle memory actions learned in training much less intuitive.
Maximize the chance while in training to make sure you’re confident that you have sufficient range of motion to perform basic skills, including bleeding control and applying a tourniquet. Otherwise, make the required adjustments. The adjustments could be as simple as knowing which piece of gear to remove to perform specific functions. In more drastic situations, it could be necessary to find other alternatives for gear and armor, including lightweight ballistic alternatives.
Carrying the Load
The combined weight of helmets, body armor, firearms, and technical gadgets can have a significant impact on the wearer. Typical steel-constructed plates with rifle-stopping power weigh as much as 16 pounds, and moving around with that much extra weight can be both physically and mentally taxing.
In a report studying the effect of weight on U.S. troops, the Center for a New American Security found that heavy loads affect situational awareness and decrease soldier performance by reducing cognitive and tactical performance and mobility. For officers responding to an active shooter, their equipment requirements are similar to that of a soldier.
Situational awareness is like any other skill; you improve it with practice and training. Officers often exchange gunfire with active shooters at ranges of less than 20 feet, so improving instinct and reaction times is a high priority. Conducting tactical drills and practicing techniques while in full gear and in reality-based simulations boosts speed, agility, and adaptability to the rigors of fatigue.
In active shooter situations seconds matter, and police officers need to be both comfortable and agile in heavier body armor and gear. Focusing on training with full gear can help officers achieve the experience and confidence needed to increase survivability and situation outcomes.
Active shooter situations are unlike most other calls officers will respond to, so you need to train to respond to them in the gear you will use. Making equipment a focal point in all training can help you better adapt during critical situations and help improve survivability for you and the victims.
Sgt. Scott M. Harding is a 34-year veteran of law enforcement and EMS who currently serves in the patrol division of the Greenburgh (NY) Police Department. He has experience as commanding officer of the paramedic unit, a field training officer, a special operations paramedic, and a hazardous materials specialist. Harding is currently a member of the Armor NOW Advisory Board.