The frequency of active shooter incidents has increased over the past two decades, doubling from 2016 to 2020. As a result, many people have increasingly sought effective training on this topic. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, participation in 3.5 hours of in-person training was mandatory within L.A. County’s Department of Public Health (LAC DPH) for all staff assigned to any directly related responsibilities. In early 2022, this course successfully transitioned to a fully online version and is now freely available to anyone.
Identifying a Training Gap
In 2014, the director of LAC DPH participated in an active shooter preparedness training event, which prompted a new interest in emergency preparedness measures related to active shooter threats and workplace violence. As a result, developing a training plan and curriculum for all DPH staff, though not necessarily the same training for all staff, began. The director of the Emergency Preparedness and Response Division was the project lead for this assignment. Still, the work was fully coordinated with the director of Organizational Development and Training (ODT) and the agency’s risk manager to ensure the best training solution(s) to meet the staff and agency’s preparedness needs.
During the following year, the Active Shooter Training Project’s members researched the types of in-person and online Active Shooter Preparedness and Response training that were most readily available to agency staff. Based on that research, the agency decided to develop a complete, in-person course for selected segments of LAC DPH staff based on their facility- or safety-related responsibilities:
- Senior facility manager of each of the 50+ facilities from which staff performed their duties
- Building emergency coordinator for each facility
- Floor wardens for each facility, and
- Alternates for any of the above three positions
Based on research findings, project members and agency leaders agreed that the online course through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA’s) Independent Study (IS) web portal – specifically FEMA’s IS-907 (Active Shooter: What You Can Do) – was highly effective. Therefore, this course became the primary mandatory means for providing foundational knowledge on this topic to support all agency staff. By mid-2016, the 3.5-hour agenda and content elements for the agency’s in-person training had been established so that multiple in-person courses per quarter could meet the training requirement beginning in the Fall of 2016 (see Fig. 1).
Overview of the 3.5-Hour Specialized Course
Since completing the FEMA IS-907 online course was already mandatory for all LAC DPH staff, the 3.5-hour course only included a summary of content from that training source. The reviewed content had the workplace violence indicators for prevention activities and the basics of the “Run, Hide, Fight” response options. Additional content not explicitly provided in FEMA’s course was also in the 3.5-hour curriculum to empower staff members with various facility safety leadership responsibilities to complete their pre- and post-incident duties more effectively. However, during an actual violent attack, leaders’ primary responsibilities are like any other workforce member: (1) do not get shot/hurt; and if wounded, do whatever is necessary to survive. Leaders who do not protect themselves are of little value to anyone else.
Of course, participants were never going to be able to practice their response options to the extent necessary to produce muscle memory, so the focus of additional content during the response portion of the curriculum was on the following:
- Preparedness measures before an incident can produce better outcomes than waiting to make last-minute decisions
- Proven security elements were added to the curriculum (e.g., Five phases of security with their respective countermeasures, and Rings of multiple countermeasures). Tool development included a two-page file containing sources of information and resources that reinforce the various security processes and strategies
- A single-page Personal Action Options (Plan/Tool) allows users to identify and document options for implementing each of the three key response strategies (i.e., Run, Hide, Fight) based on their personal capabilities and the characteristics of their typical workspace or another site(s)
- A single-page “Safer” Room Evaluation Tool allows users to pre-identify one or more rooms in their workplace or another site(s) that should provide a reasonable level of safety if they were to encounter an attacker(s)
- Various “target hardening” strategies (e.g., blocking access to individuals) make the shooter’s access to an individual’s position too difficult or time-consuming, so the shooter moves on, or the responders arrive to neutralize the threat
- Online delivery of this course eliminated printed handouts and required that supplemental documents be made available through an online source. Constant and Associates Inc. provided LAC DPH with a new webpage as a community service to meet this need
- When preparedness options fail to prevent exposure to a violent attack, the threatened person must rapidly make decisions, execute identified solution(s), and then reevaluate the situation
- The course teaches the appropriate use of Colonel John Boyd’s OODA Loop (i.e., Observe, Orient, Decide, and Act) as an effective tool for tactical decision-making during highly stressful, adversarial situations
- Urgent decisions during a violent attack must be made without all the desired information, so decisions based on assumptions are sometimes necessary. These mandatory assumptions can be evidence-based instead of simply reactionary by including key statistics and other historical information, which significantly improves their accuracy, reliability, and frequency of success
- The style of the curriculum’s composition is progressive and employs significant use of images to reinforce specific points and the cumulative nature of knowledge transfe
- It is essential to manage participants’ expectations and engage different levels of knowledge and capabilities the participants bring to the course. The course’s curriculum employs a table that challenges participants to consider specific threats and an individual’s ability to control adverse exposure to them. Participants reassess their capabilities at three points during the training, which builds confidence
Progression and Transformation of the Course for LAC DPH Staff
These regular 3.5-hour curriculum in-person courses included groups of pre-identified recipients, ranging from 20 to 80 participants per session, that continued over the next few years. The final in-person delivery occurred in February 2020, coinciding with the world’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic that halted all in-person training events.
Participants provided written evaluations for every course offering and frequently provided verbal feedback regarding the curriculum and the course’s ability to meet their individual training needs for an active shooter event. Examples of how the program transformed based on the participants’ feedback include:
- An additional video and specific content expanded the coverage of the “Fight” option
- This new video includes critical aspects of an actual active shooter attack on an Oregon college campus. One student was killed, and three were wounded before the building’s safety monitor took aggressive measures to disarm the shooter
- Video clips showed news coverage following that incident, the recommendations of a security expert and an FBI manager, and key details of the shooter’s preparatory activities and mental state in the days before the shooting
- All references to shooting-related lessons learned from the extensive hunting experiences of the primary presenter were replaced in the curriculum with similar examples from other experiences due to expressions of sensitivity by some course participants to any mention of hunting activities
- In response to numerous recommendations that the course should be available to any LAC DPH employee who wishes to attend, the project’s planning team decided to offer a 2.5-hour version of the course to any staff
After the pandemic halted all in-person training, the course instructor, supported by the staff from ODT, developed the newly formatted online curriculum. Since LAC DPH had successfully used Webex as the training platform for the agency’s online instruction for its newly assigned COVID-19 contact tracers, that web-based training application was the best approach to deliver the online Active Shooter Preparedness and Response course.
On March 8, 2022, 415 LAC DPH staff took the first fully online version of the 3.0-hour course. From their responses to periodic survey questions, the participants remained actively engaged throughout the entire class. More significantly, most of the 415 participants from this online version of the course submitted evaluations, which revealed satisfaction levels for just over 95% of all submitted evaluations as having either fully met or even surpassed their expectations. This satisfaction level was comparable to the participant evaluations following the last in-person delivery of the class in February 2020.
Entirely Online, Fully Available
The development of the Active Shooter Preparedness and Response training options followed this progression:
- 3.5-hour in-person course for only LAC DPH personnel who held some leadership role;
- Addition of a new 2.5-hour in-person version, which was available for any LAC DPH staff;
- A 3.0-hour online version, which was available for any LAC DPH staff;
- A 2.5-hour virtual course on a YouTube Playlist, which is accessible by anyone; and
- A 2.5-hour virtual course through the Public Health Foundation’s (PHF’s) TRAIN Learning Network for any person with a role in healthcare who registers for an account on this platform.
- Agencies that use the PHF’s TRAIN Learning Platform to manage their staff’s training can recommend or assign the course with confidence that the content has been validated.
- The completed training appears on the user’s transcript.
- Users have direct access to download Word versions of the three tools.
- Users who complete the course have an opportunity to provide a numerical review of the effectiveness of the course.
Many people may not be motivated sufficiently by the threat of an active shooter incident to commit the 2.5 hours required to complete this course or the additional time necessary to complete any personalized tools (e.g., Personal Action Options; “Safer” Room Evaluation). For some, the minimum of 1.2 hours to complete the FEMA IS-907 course will provide a sufficient level of improved capability. However, for those who wish to supplement the information they would typically learn in a one-hour active shooter course, there are additional response strategies and tools from law enforcement, security, military, and emergency management disciplines. These supplemental training and customized tools are now freely available for improved safety and general peace of mind.
Note: As a member of the Emergency Operations Program of Emergency Preparedness and Response Division and a retired captain with 30 years of law enforcement experience with the Los Angeles Police Department, the author was designated as the agency’s subject matter expert on active shooter preparedness and response, as well as for the more significant challenge of workplace violence prevention and response. He was the lead for developing and presenting the 2.5-hour content of the response segment of the 3.5-hour course.
Michael Melton, MA, MPA, retired from the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health in 2022 after more than 17 years as a senior disaster services analyst. His roles included bioterrorism and emergency preparedness, emergency logistics coordination, emergency operations, and Subject Matter Expert for Workplace Violence, as well as the lead for the agency’s Active Shooter Preparedness and Response training. Previously, he served as a U.S. Navy Midshipman, a captain in the Los Angeles Police Department, an expert witness for security and law enforcement procedures, a technical specialist at the National Center for Forensic Science, professor/instructor in criminal investigation and security at L.A. Harbor College, and security screener at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) for the Transportation Security Administration. He holds a master’s degree in teaching/curriculum, a Certificate in Technology-Based Education, and a Master of Public Administration. The author may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.