Mass-Shooting Incidents: Planning and Response


A rapid, safe, and successful response to a mass-shooting incident requires preparation. First responders at all levels must learn to work together to deter mass-shooting incidents from occurring in their jurisdictions and to safely respond if an attack occurs. This article provides some basic information, tools, and resources to assist in developing or updating multiagency mass-shooting preplans. The likelihood of a mass-shooting incident is low, but public safety officials must be prepared for these situations. Recent mass shootings and active shooting events in the United States and abroad have demonstrated the need to prepare local, regional, state, federal, and military resources for responding to these events.

This article is designed to help fill gaps in the responders’ knowledge of mass-shooting incidents and to help them prepare for, respond to, and recover from them. There is no national template for effectively responding to a mass-shooting incident.

Note: The information in this article is for informational purposes only and should be used in conjunction with local guidelines, procedures, and laws. The guidelines and procedures discussed in this article should not replace common sense and experience. It is impossible to plan for every situation. New “best practices” and training become available on an ongoing basis. These plans should be updated on a regular basis.


Crisis situations such as terrorist threats, criminal attacks, and active shootings appear to be occurring with alarming frequency. No two incidents involving a mass shooting/active shooter are the same. It appears that the “bad guys” (criminals and terrorists) are more determined, more violent, and more heavily armed than ever before. Public safety agencies must adapt to changes in society so that they can deliver appropriate emergency services in a crisis. Many of these types of events cannot be peacefully resolved or negotiated.

Responders must recognize that there are domestic and international groups/individuals willing and able use weapons against the public and first responders.

Some mass-shooting events begin with a warning or threats. Threats can include alarming behavior, statements, actions, or physical items (weapons, plans, “death lists,” or notes). The threat assessment process is based on behavior, history, intent, and capability. In most cases, the “bad guys” will select a target that will offer minimal risk of capture or disruption (the security measures can be easily overcome).


Law enforcement, fire, EMS, and emergency management all share some of the same priorities during a mass-shooting event. Planning and interagency cooperation for any mass shooting or critical incident type of event should be paramount. Mass shootings can and do occur in urban, metro, suburban, and rural settings. There is a tremendous need for a coordinated effort among all agencies to ensure a safe and effective response. Law enforcement has been training on “rapid deployment.” All other public safety agencies should have a basic understanding of what this is. Responders’ safety is paramount in this type of event!

Preparation is the key to a mass-shooting incident. That includes a clear idea of what your actions will be before the incident occurs. First, review your agency’s guidelines and procedures for responding to a mass-shooting or active-shooter incident. As with any multihazard assessment and planning process, a multiagency exercise (tabletop or functional) would be a good mechanism for bringing all the involved key agencies together to rehearse the plan once it has been completed. Many organizations have historically regarded safety and security as low priorities instead of important school/business functions and responsibilities. Recent events, including numerous mass-shouting incidents, have shattered this sense of security and complacency.

Another important step is to bring all the key agencies together (law enforcement, fire, EMS, emergency management, hospitals, and the school system) to discuss this type of event. Every jurisdiction, big or small, should have a multiagency, multihazard planning group or Terrorism Task Force (TTF). This would be an excellent foundation group with which to discuss issues beforehand.

EMS, for example, may have to provide tactical medics and set up several triage areas away from the scene. Law enforcement will need to provide security and “over-watch” for the fire and EMS units entering the “hot zone” of the crime scene. There is tremendous need to develop a coordinated effort among all the agencies to ensure a safe and effective response. Coordination and cooperation are the keys to success. Develop a plan for strict control of the emergency scene and media access. The suspects may attempt to blend into the crowd. Police should clear all individuals leaving the area. It is important that police, fire, and EMS train together. The disaster site is not the place to “try out” new ideas.


Each year across the United States, several mass shootings occur. It is important that we take the valuable and sometimes fatal lessons learned from these past incidents and apply them to our future training and planning activities. First responders will encounter many challenges during their careers, including acts of violence involving weapons. The command staff of the February 14, 2008, incident at Northern Illinois University (NIU) stated: “Unified command training paid off.” The units reported to a central staging area, from where they were dispatched by the incident commander to various areas on campus.

Mutual-aid companies were requested early, resulting in the response of about 20 ambulances, mass-casualty trailers, extra squads, and engine companies. A unified command post was established near the incident. The fire chief as well as the chief of the NIU campus police and key staff members staffed the post. It was reported: “Things went smoothly. There were no communications issues. We’ve practiced it, and everything came together.” Remember, you fight as you train.


April 16, 2007. A 23-year-old Virginia Tech student killed two students in a dorm and then killed 30 more two hours later in a classroom building. His suicide brought the death toll to 33, making the shooting rampage the most deadly in U.S. history. Fifteen others were wounded.

October 10, 2007.A 14-year-old student at a Cleveland high school, Asa H. Coon, shot and injured two students and two teachers before he shot and killed himself. The victims’ injuries were not life threatening.

November 7, 2007. An 18-year-old student in southern Finland shot and killed five boys, two girls, and the female principal at Jokela High School. At least 10 others were injured. The gunman shot himself.

December 5, 2007. Robert Hawkins, 19, killed eight people and seriously wounded five others in an Omaha, Nebraska, shopping center. He used an AK-47 assault rifle.

February 8, 2008.A nursing student shot and killed two women and then herself in a classroom at Louisiana Technical College in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

February 14, 2008. In DeKalb, Illinois, a gunman killed seven students and wounded 15 others when he opened fire on a classroom at Northern Illinois University, DeKalb. He then killed himself. The gunman was identified as a former graduate student at the university in 2007.

March 6, 2008. Eight people were killed and nine were injured in a shooting in a Jerusalem religious school.

Explosives/Booby Traps

Numerous terrorist, criminal attacks, and mass-shooting events have seen the use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs), so be aware of this hazard and the growing use of secondary devices. First responders must be able to recognize the danger of explosive devices and booby traps and take appropriate measures to ensure their own safety and the safety of others. Booby traps and IEDs can be applied as defensive weapons against responders. Fire/EMS can be targets of violence.

First responders should not attempt to approach, move, handle, or disarm a confirmed or suspected IED. This is a job for specially trained personnel.

Response Issues

Preplanning is critical. First-arriving units have a drastic effect on the progress of the incident. They must quickly and safely conduct their “windshield survey.” Fire and EMS should remain in the staging area until law enforcement secures the scene, when possible.

Incident scenes spread over a large area may need to be quickly divided into smaller branches/divisions. Responders may initially run into victims fleeing the incident. Responding vehicles may attract victims. Gather information from these individuals and direct them to safe areas using verbal commands or public address systems. Immediate interagency cooperation/unified command is essential. Clear communications are necessary for effective operations. Access to helicopters for overhead assessments is a plus.

These situations could become hostage events. Events are likely to occur during business/school hours. Young students may not understand instructions and may hide from responders. Notify all key agencies’ supporting entities as soon as possible (emergency management, hospitals, and so on.). Plan on large and immediate media response. Also plan for a large and immediate response from parents, family, and friends.

Fire and EMS personnel should wear helmets and clearly marked “Fire” or “EMS” jackets. If there is any doubt that a responder will be visible as a firefighter or an EMS responder, the responder should wear a road vest or T-shirt with highly visible lettering. This can apply to other staff such as emergency management, school officials, off-duty staff, and so on. Body armor should be obtained for those responding into the “impact” area when possible.

Fire alarms and sprinkler systems may be activated, adding confusion and noise to the situation. Observe windows for signs of attackers and victims and to identify safe areas, and so on. Responders may have wounded or dead friends or family members among the victims. During these types of events related and unrelated 911-call volume may go up. Staging, command, triage, and treatment areas may have to be one-half to one mile away from the scene because of the distance a round of ammunition can travel.

Tactical medics should be used to support law enforcement operations. Activate the school/college/business internal crisis management team as soon as possible. It will have access to plans and “crisis boxes.” Business/facility/school resource/security officers can provide useful information such as maps, keys, and codes.

Enter the scene only after it has been confirmed that all suspects are confined or neutralized. Only a small number of fire and EMS personnel should enter under these circumstances. Additional law enforcement officers should ensure safe passage. The healthy civilians can help evacuate the walking wounded.

EMS Response Issues

Tactical medics may be the only staff allowed in the “warm” and “hot” zones to provide care. EMS may need to use “scoop and run” and “load and go” from the incident casualty collection points (CCP), established in safe areas inside or outside a location. EMS may need to implement disaster procedures such as triage tags, casualty collection points, and field treatment areas for minor injuries.

Scene Assistance

Activate local emergency operations centers as soon as possible for long-term response, recovery, investigative, and support efforts. Establish a joint information center involving all key agencies and players to manage the local and national media efforts. You may need to establish family assistance centers near the site and other remote locations. Initiate Helpline phone numbers. Consider critical incident stress management for all responders.


An analysis of the fire service and emergency medical service operations and the overall response to the assault on Columbine High School at Littleton, Colorado, on April 20, 1999, is at Incident command, special operations, and mass-casualty emergency medical services are featured.

The key lessons learned from this incident are summarized below:

  • Hostile, multihazard situations—including acts of wanton violence—challenge the fire/EMS service to respond with nontraditional tactics and to operate under a unified incident command structure with law enforcement.
  • Major incidents draw a substantial number of people and assets to the scene. Anticipating and successfully managing that influx are essential to maintaining command and control of the operational environment.
  • Terrorist-style assaults compound the usual risks associated with a major incident. Gunfire, incendiaries, explosives, and secondary devices magnify the risks to responders.
  • There is a great likelihood of mass casualties and of hostage taking, both of which compound tactical response and operations.
  • To adequately prepare for complex incidents involving multiple casualties and multiple hazards, public safety organizations should plan their incident command operations within the context of a regional, emergency management framework.
  • Large-scale mutual-aid operations are critically affected by the sophistication and type of communications and information-transfer capabilities available to the incident commander and to responding units. Interoperability of equipment and frequencies is essential.
  • During terrorist-style assaults, emergency responders are likely targets and thus should practice and use exposure and risk-reduction strategies as they carry out their emergency assignments.
  • High-occupancy public assembly areas are especially vulnerable targets for terrorist style assaults. Incident preplans for each type of occupancy should be developed or amended to address the potential impact of a terrorist-style assault.





This article is intended for informational purposes and to stimulate further discussion and planning within and among agencies. All law enforcement officers now receive “Active Shooter Response” training as part of their basic schooling. Fire, EMS, and other responders should gain at least an awareness-level understanding of mass-shooting events and the threats they present. Please remember to follow local guidelines and procedures. Each community should have a plan in place to address these types of events. The more our public safety agencies prepare, the better they will be prepared to respond to and effectively manage situations that might arise. The community has entrusted us with their safety. Let’s prepare now!

AUGUST VERNON is an assistant coordinator/operations officer for the Forsyth County (NC) Office of Emergency Management. He returned to this position in 2005 after a year in Iraq as a security contractor conducting long-range convoy security. He has been employed in emergency management since 2000 and was a member of the fire service and a fire service instructor. He also served in the U.S. Army as a chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear operations specialist and teaches courses in incident management, mass violence, emergency management, hazmat operations, and terrorism/WMD planning-response. He also provides specialized emergency services planning and training on critical incidents at the local, regional, state, and federal levels. Vernon is a writer for and a member of the IFSTA WMD/Terrorism Committee, is a technical reviewer for Emergency Film Group, and has written more than 30 nationally published articles and the First Responders Critical Incident Field Guide.

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