Active-Shooter Incidents: Planning Your Response-full


Emergency services organizations are still attempting to define their role in active-shooter incident responses. Each agency’s function and participation vary based on factors such as size, personnel, equipment, service level, geography, and training. No definitive levels of standards can be applied to the fire service as a whole. Major metropolitan fire departments can bring more resources to bear on a mass-casualty incident than a strictly volunteer department serving a population of 15,000 citizens. The strategy and tactics that the metropolitan department employs may not be a feasible or wise direction for the smaller volunteer department. It is reasonable to assume that higher and denser population areas will have a greater demand for emergency services. Major cities have championed emergency services response to active-shooter and mass-casualty incidents because of the size of the population they serve. However, the strategy and tactical practices these agencies have developed may not be applicable to the fire service nationwide. This article narrows the broad spectrum ideology of active-shooter response into a framework that can be applied to any department whether large or small, paid or volunteer.

Law enforcement will surround medical personnel and provide protection from every possible angle that a threat could present itself
(1) Law enforcement will surround medical personnel and provide protection from every possible angle that a threat could present itself. Medical and rescue personnel are relatively protected in this type of configuration. (Photos by Mike Legeros.)


Understanding who active shooters have been and the types of incidents their actions have created can be helpful in preparing a proper response. In the United States, most of the active-shooter incidents have involved a single shooter. The most famous exception is the active-shooter duo Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who, in 1999, shot 37 Columbine (CO) High School faculty members and students, killing 13 and wounding 24. This event led all emergency service agencies to realize that a similar type of incident could occur in their jurisdiction and to initiate a nationwide call to action for responders to preplan and be prepared for similar incidents in our public schools. Although it may be difficult, if not impossible, to find a school in the United States that does not have some type of active-shooter plan, the opposite could be said for other areas of public assembly in these communities, many of which have no active-shooter/mass-casualty plan.

Yet, the active shooter has targeted every occupancy type imaginable. The targets have included, in addition to schools, churches, restaurants, movie theaters, grocery stores, malls, parks, government facilities, manufacturing facilities, and office buildings. Prior to the Aurora, Colorado, theater shooting, many municipalities would not have considered their local movie theater as a potential active-shooter target.

The motivations for these attacks have been varied-political motivations, disgruntled employees, mental disability, social beliefs (such as pro-life/pro-choice), animal rights, and protection of the environment, to name some. No jurisdiction is immune to individuals who choose violence as their form of expression. The Cornell University Veterinary School, for example, has been a target of animal rights activists for years.

Considering all this, fire departments and agencies must evaluate any area/facility/event that employs, houses, or is patronized by significant numbers of people as a potential target for an active shooter. Look through your response district for locations that could have high appeal for such terrorists, establish a preplan for each location, and practice the plan with other agencies that will be part of a multicasualty response.

Historically, active shooters have taken their lives on the arrival of law enforcement, and there appears to be no previous incident in which a shooter has hidden to target responders later in the incident. However, this does not mean that these conditions will always apply. Consider, for instance, that the Columbine shooters engaged arriving law enforcement personnel and had planned to participate in an aggressive firefight with emergency responders on the scene.

Published references to these shooters as “cowards who kill themselves at the first sign of returned aggression,” however, may be enough for some of these individuals to take exception to the “coward” label and dispose them to direct their shots toward responders, instead of themselves, to set a precedence.

Law enforcement will proceed rapidly to neutralize any threats as a team
(2) Law enforcement will proceed rapidly to neutralize any threats as a team. This team’s strength in numbers will vary based on response times, resources, and training.


The first step in planning a response is to develop a preincident plan for every potential target facility in your jurisdiction and a response plan for public events that will draw a large number of people. This document will be vital in communicating an action plan and the means to systematically accomplish the established objectives. When developing the plan, consult with law enforcement and emergency medical services (EMS) personnel to ensure that no information that could be helpful to all agencies is overlooked. Included in the plan should be the following information:

  • detailed floor plans;
  • entry and egress points;
  • utility control locations;
  • occupant loads;
  • business operation times;
  • facility points of contact;
  • door and lock construction for interior and exterior doors (this will be discussed in more detail later);
  • window construction;
  • stairwell locations (if the facility has multiple floors, additional personnel will be needed to remove victims);
  • times of high occupancy/low occupancy;
  • floor plans with room numbers and operational areas;
  • if there is a mass-notification system;
  • the locations of the attic, crawl spaces, or other hidden area access points;
  • entry and egress points for emergency vehicles;
  • access areas for stretching handlines and connecting to fire department connections (FDCs); and
  • staging areas for law enforcement and EMS. During the Sandy Hook, Connecticut, shooting, access and egress of emergency vehicles quickly became a problem as multiple ambulances were staged along roadways.

Preplan public events such as parades, carnivals, concerts, festivals, and the like. The Boston Marathon bombing is a somber example of how aggressors will target events with large populations. The venue or the event itself may have little to do with the motive for the attack. It may simply serve as an opportunity. Response agencies should collaborate with event coordinators to ensure that, at a minimum, first aid and security personnel have been briefed on a mass-casualty plan for the event. Ideally, these personnel will have integrated communications and training in mass-casualty triage.

All agencies should review the plan before an incident occurs.

RESPONSE Use of Preincident Plan

Law enforcement personnel will use much of the information in the plan to formulate an incident action plan after the shooter has been neutralized. The main priority of law enforcement is to enter the threat area and rapidly proceed to the shooter’s location to engage and terminate the threat.

After this has been done, the police officers will use the information in the preincident plan to secure and clear the remainder of the facility. For example, they must determine how best to access doors and defeat lock mechanisms so they can check every room, closet, office, and the like to verify that the aggressor is not present.

Law enforcement is responsible for securing and clearing the emergency scene. A secured area has been swept in a crude and expedient manner to identify and neutralize immediate threats. After the sweep, the area is secured by establishing a parameter or posting law enforcement personnel at entry and egress points. This law enforcement presence will be strong visually and authoritative in nature. There will be little doubt that the area is under law enforcement control.

Law enforcement personnel are familiar with some forcible entry techniques, but sometimes fire department personnel may enter the scene with law enforcement members to assist. These firefighters must be trained to operate in such an environment and should be provided with ballistic vests at a minimum. They would have no means of self-defense. Each department must evaluate which approach is appropriate for it. Imagine that the fire department asked law enforcement personnel to assist with interior operations at a structure fire and the law enforcement officer would be provided with bunker gear but no self-contained breathing apparatus or hoseline. Not many law enforcement officers would agree to participate in such an operation. Use extreme caution when placing fire personnel in these areas. The decision to use fire personnel in law enforcement operations should be a well-thought-out and coordinated one devised in cooperation with law enforcement personnel in advance of the response.

Fire department leaders should help bridge the knowledge gap in forcible entry by conducting joint training on it. It would be safer to teach law enforcement personnel forcible entry techniques so that firefighters would not be exposed to potential danger. Once the active-shooter scene is no longer active, meaning no shots can be heard and no signs of aggression can be observed, it is reasonable for fire and EMS personnel to enter the building if the areas from which victim extractions are to be made have an extremely heavy law enforcement presence ready to neutralize any hidden threat.

Removing Victims and Unharmed Occupants

Most police officers will not assist with the evacuation of victims in areas where the shooter has come and gone. They will stand guard in the hallways or means of egress to protect patients and responders. Historically, active shooters will continue to inflict as much injury and death as possible until the threat of force is imminent or returned by law enforcement. There have been no instances of hidden or secret shooters lying in wait among the wounded to engage emergency responders to date. A heavy and alert law enforcement presence should be able to neutralize a threat immediately. All responding agencies must communicate and share information to help ensure success and that the operation is as safe as possible.

Use window construction, stairwell access, the elevator system, and mass-notification systems to help plan the removal of injured and noninjured occupants. It may be tactically sound to remove victims using ladders from upper floors. Being familiar with the window systems in the facility will help you make this decision. Can the window open? Is the window constructed of impact-resistant glass? Is the window blast resistant? These questions will affect your decisions during rescue operations. Furthermore, the window construction may be such that the shooter may not be able to easily engage responders. Ammunition does not easily penetrate laminated and multipane windows. This is not to say that such windows will repel bullets; the direction of the round cannot be predicted once it is fired through such types of glass. Conversely, law enforcement will not be able to engage the threat through such window systems.

Stairwells may be used to evacuate the injured and noninjured occupants. As in high-rise firefighting operations, identify a stairwell for responders to access the floors; use secondary stairwells for evacuation. In facilities with many stairwells, designate specific routes for the noninjured or walking wounded separate from an access stairwell for responders, or consider a rescue-assisted evacuation stairwell.

Reserve the elevators for the use of the severely wounded and those in need of immediate evacuation. It may be necessary to designate an individual to monitor and coordinate the use of facility elevators so that each trip down and back up best supports the entire operation. It is possible to carry litters and backboards up the responder stairwell, but an empty elevator ascending to retrieve victims is a better choice.

The Canned Response

The fire service frequently provides a “canned” response to structure fires, vehicle accidents, hazardous materials responses, technical rescue calls, and other daily responses that are allotted a predetermined number of personnel and apparatus. Law enforcement and EMS will respond accordingly with resources based on the size and complexity of the event. The fire service’s canned responses to these types of incidents have been determined through national recommendations, neighboring jurisdictions, trial and error, as well as preincident plans.

In your preincident plan, you can insert a canned response for facilities identified as high-target values for active-shooter incidents. Agencies can conduct experimental drills and exercises to gain valuable information on the resources needed to mitigate the incident. Consider the number of victims needing extraction, treatment, and transport as well as the facility’s size and complexity. To establish a baseline, conduct drills that require engine or ladder companies to extract victims from facilities. A company’s staffing level will affect the amount of resources needed. As an example, if a four-person engine company can extract four victims using backboards or litters from a facility in less than 30 minutes, it will take four engine companies to extract 15 victims from an active-shooter or a mass-casualty incident.

Additionally, the number of victims will determine how many ambulances will be needed. Agencies need to know the local EMS providers’ policies and procedures regarding multiple-patient transports: Does one patient equal one ambulance, or can ambulances transport multiple patients at a time? Consider also the number of supervisory responders needed. There must be adequate supervisory personnel at the scene to command and control the resources. The size and complexity of the facility are also factors. Responders will be able to access and extract victims from a single-story mall much faster than from a four-story mall with victims on each level. Conduct experimental drills on the most complex facilities to develop a worst-case scenario response matrix.

Once these data have been obtained, formulate the canned response following a National Incident Management System framework. A level 4 incident is one in which the number of victims may be handled with that jurisdiction’s equivalent of a first-alarm structural fire assignment. The initial ambulance response would consist of the number needed to transport the maximum number of patients from a level 4 incident. Local hospitals and trauma centers in a predetermined geographical area surrounding the incident location would be notified of the number of patients and their conditions.

As an example, a shooting occurred at a local fast-food restaurant, and law enforcement has neutralized the single shooter. The first-arriving fire or EMS unit advises dispatch that it is on scene and there are possibly seven to 10 victims. That first unit would advise dispatch of a level 4 active-shooter incident. Since the area has been preplanned, the closest hospitals and trauma centers are known. The number of fire apparatus needed to remove victims and assist in triage is also known. The number and capabilities of ground and air ambulance transport are known as well, which could be up to 10 units. Once the level 4 incident has been identified and announced, the preplanned response would be initiated.

Agencies may also train with law enforcement personnel, who can also declare the incident level as soon as it is known. A level 3 could be another full-alarm assignment added to the first alarm if your department has those resources and personnel, or a level 3 could involve mutual aid from neighboring jurisdictions. Level 2 and level 1 responses can be stepped up from that point based on mutual-aid response times and equipment with personnel that can be brought to the scene. It is not possible to lay out a full canned level scenario because each department is different in size and strength. The agencies should start with the foundation of the level 4 concept and grow the response accordingly with regard to available personnel, response times, and the complexity of the jurisdiction’s facilities.

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