Law enforcement officers, paramedics, and other responders have received extensive training in dealing with active shooters and the wounds resulting from active shooter incidents. However, the potential force multipliers in all these attacks that are just beginning to receive attention are the potential victims at the scene.
The frequency of active shooter incidents seems to have increased over the past few years, as revealed in the 2013 Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) report on active shooters. As indicated in the report, no organization is safe, and any organization has a chance of being the target of these acts. Law enforcement, as well as other first responder, agencies have done excellent jobs in developing response options as well as medical survival techniques. However, much more can be done to better prepare for such threats.
A Growing Need to Train Citizens
Training available for citizens has lagged behind, even as programs to do such have continually evolved. In many cases, there is an attitude that an active shooter cannot be stopped or that it is the job of law enforcement to neutralize such threats. Although this has been the case in numerous incidents, FBI statistics indicate that 60 percent of active shooter events are over by the time law enforcement or other first responders arrive. Coupled with the fact that the arrival time of law enforcement and other responders averages 5-6 minutes or longer, the number of potential victims multiplies.
Issues surrounding citizen training have hampered measures that would ultimately save lives. One of these issues involves a reluctance to conduct comprehensive trainings to prepare individuals to survive active shooter events. Many organizations require personnel to sit through a short presentation on active shooters only to be given the basics of an active shooter incident, related statistics, and a rudimentary explanation of what they need to do. In some cases, the training involves the following steps to ensure personal safety: go into lockdown (lock doors if possible), turn out the lights, pull the shades, hide under desks, and silence cellphones. These passive options are not wrong, but can become so when no other options are provided.
Actual implementation of measures are, in most cases, never taught or employed within organizations. Current literature and numerous private training companies recommend having more than one option when dealing with active shooters. For example:
Although many organizations still embrace the lockdown-only procedure because it is a quick and easy way to stop or delay a shooter’s attempts, this is not always the case. Questions remain about: what would happen if the lockdown fails; what would happen if the active shooter is able to breach the area that is currently in lockdown; and what options victims would have. To answer these questions, two specific incidents represent the impact of not having an options-based approach.
First was the 1999 Columbine High School shooting. The 9-1-1 tapes of the teacher in the library recorded her desperately trying to protect her students by telling them to stay on the floor and under the tables. She was not wrong in what she was telling the students to do because that is all she knew to do, which is reminiscent of the days of the Cold War and the “Duck and Cover” drills. However, as a result, the students became stationary targets for the shooter.
The second incident was the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. A report released in November 2013 by the Attorney General Office of the State of Connecticut revealed how lockdown was not adequate in an active shooter situation. The school was already in a lockdown mode when the active shooter began the rampage. The attacker merely shot out the plate glass window on the side of the door that was secured and entered the school to commit the crimes. Again there was no wrong in this because this was simply the way it had always been done. This type of incident had never happened there before.
Option-Based Training Programs
Although there is no silver bullet approach to all active shooter events, citizen training can go beyond rudimentary basics to truly prepare all those within a respective organization to survive an active shooter incident. An option-based approach is, at present, the best answer for preparing personnel to survive an attack. The highly successful program developed by the city of Houston called “Run. Hide. Fight.” is an excellent starting point for developing an option-based program. However, this approach should be expanded to include other trainings as well.
In much of the recent literature released by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the option-based approach is the common theme, but could be expanded to provide more opportunities for survival in these situations. New programs should use a dual-track approach to be more effective. The first track provides all the basic options to employ in case personnel find themselves in an active shooter situation. Suggested training topics should include those outlined in the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) Guide for Developing High-Quality School Emergency Operations Plans, which include how to lockdown or evacuate when possible, as well as how to notify personnel of the active shooter’s presence. Other subjects that should be discussed include, but are not limited to, how to barricade and, as a last resort, fight. All are recommended by the previously mentioned document and should be viewed as the baseline document for the second track.
The second track involves the actual hands-on application of these techniques in simulated situations. Again, FEMA’s guide indicates that training and practice are the keys for successful employment of these options. By using a dual-track training process, the skills needed to perform the operation of active shooter survival becomes second nature. Training on numerous options can help people who find themselves in this situation disrupt the active shooter’s path and cause the shooter to take time contemplating the next move. In most cases, these attackers are not targeting specific people, but rather trying to inflict as much harm to people as they can. Removing the opportunity from the crime triangle – capability, opportunity, and desire – disrupts the shooters linear process and reduces the possibility of the attack occurring. The additional time needed to search for targets consequently provides more time for the arrival of law enforcement personnel.
Training & Practice for Success
Although many may feel that the ultimate responsibility for this training should fall on law enforcement, emergency management, or other identified organizational security specialists, this is not always the case. Numerous commercial programs exist today that provide train-the-trainer instruction and should be sought by those previously mentioned. Many of these programs build off the basic “Run. Hide. Fight.” protocol and utilize a dual-track process. Additionally, materials provided through the U.S. Department of Homeland Security provide a starting point for development of an internal training program for organizations that a training specialist could develop.
Regardless of the method chosen, some effort must be initiated to start the process. For the program to be a success, practice is needed to make this a process that becomes automatic and part of the everyday culture. Just like fire and tornado drills have become the norm for many organizations – especially schools – active shooter drills should become part of the organizational process with support from senior management.
Whether someone trained in an option-based response to an active shooter could make a difference or even stop an active shooter is evidenced in a 2015 incident aboard a French commuter train. Three Americans (two of which were military servicemen) traveling together were able to take down an attacker bent on a mass killing with a pistol and a fully automatic assault weapon. The attacker was stopped when the three passengers made a conscious decision to do something, and the fight portion of an option-based response was employed. The shooter was only able to inflict one gunshot wound and other nonfatal injuries before being subdued. The result was a team effort by the three persons to engage the shooter. They had options.
The lessons taught in the black-and-white 16-mm film’s “Duck and Cover” drills in 1951 may have only provided limited protection against an indirect nuclear attack, but there is a key lesson to remember from that film. For those who grew up in the era of the Cold War, the threat was real and measures were taken to learn and practice those drills in school – a dual-track approach. The lessons became second nature and, more than 60 years later, are still remembered by many. Unlike the nuclear attack that never happened, the active-shooter scenario is a real threat that has occurred and will occur again. It is time to resurrect the dual-track approach of the 1950s to address the active shooter preparedness needs of today.
Rodney Andreasen is a retired emergency management director from Jackson County, Florida. After serving approximately 20 years in that position, he retired in December 2020. Before that, he served 21 years in the Air Force, retiring as a Master Sergeant. He currently owns Xspct LLC providing consulting services on active shooter prevention and Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design. He is a graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi with a master’s degree in Technical and Occupational Education, Auburn University of Montgomery with a master’s degree in Justice and Public Safety, and the Naval Postgraduate School with a master’s degree in Security Studies Homeland Security and Defense.