FIRE DEPARTMENT RESPONSE TO “ACTIVE SHOOTER” INCIDENTS

BY MAURO V. “BUZZ” BALDANZA

As I’m concluding this article, the second deadliest school shooting in U.S. history has occurred in Red Lake, Minnesota.1 As the investigation continues, facts will be revealed about the shooter, the victims, the community, as well as the response by the area’s emergency services.

I spoke with one of the law enforcement heads whose department responded to the incident to get basic information for a training session we are doing with five area police departments. He sounded exhausted and had been attending funerals for the victims. I won’t reveal what he mentioned to me, since the investigation is ongoing. One statement I can mention is from the end of our conversation: “We sat up here in the woods and thought it would never happen here.”

Several fire service professionals from around the country shared their views for approaching and handling school shootings in Roundtable in the March 2004 issue of Fire Engineering. As an active police officer of 27 years, and having served as a volunteer fire chief in a city of 35,000, I took great interest in the responses provided by the participants. I was pleased to see that most would not enter the scene. But I was also concerned by some of the perceptions pertaining to police tactics at such incidents.

Police tactics have changed in recent years. It is clear that this type of situation requires all agencies to be on the same page and to have a clear understanding of what actions are needed, who should take them, and when. As one of the Roundtable respondents noted for these types of incidents, “the bigger issue … is how well traditional fire and police organizations are prepared to work together.”

THE POLICE SIDE

The shooting of innocent people, causing injury and death, in communities across this country has changed the way law enforcement responds to these incidents. The location might be not only a school, but an office complex, a fast food restaurant, a warehouse, or an airport-just about anywhere an individual who has become unstable for whatever reason brings a weapon and opens fire on other people. But the weapon could also be an edged weapon (a knife, for example) or explosives placed for detonation. The most common of these situations is often referred to as an “active shooter,” since a firearm is predominately used.

Police officers are now being trained to act in what has been termed “Immediate Action-Rapid Deployment,” more commonly referred to as “active shooter training.” There may be other names, but the intent is the same: Street-level police officers are taking action. As one parent of a student killed in the Columbine tragedy2 stated in an interview with CBS’ “60 Minutes”: “If you are going to tell my child to stay put, you’re going to get her, then either go in there and do something, or take off the uniform and find another job, but that day you are a cop ….”


Not all communities in this country have the benefit of a standing Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) team or Emergency Services Unit that could respond and take an immediate role in this situation. Some teams are part time and assemble when called into action with a varied response time. If no team or unit is available, the situation falls on the patrol officers, detectives, or administrative officers working at the time. We are not speaking about major cities either. A partial list of some of the communities (and their populations) that have experienced active shooter situations in recent year is listed in Table 1.

Some of the more infamous incidents (not included in Table 1) were the Texas Tower in Austin, Texas, on August 1,1966, in which 15 people died; the McDonald’s Massacre in San Ysidro, California, on July 19, 1984, with 21 dead; and the North Hollywood (CA) Bank Robbery on February 27, 1997, with 13 wounded.

LESSONS LEARNED

From all these tragic incidents, law enforcement learned some valuable information:

• Active shooter incidents are spontaneous.

• Suspects’ behavior is unpredictable.

• Preincident signs existed.

• Incidents happen in a target-rich environment.

• First-responding law enforcement officers have been outgunned or did not have training to handle the situation.

• Tactical intervention was too late.

• Multijurisdictional response issues were present.

• Interoperational communication issues were present.

WHAT POLICE ARE DOING

First, we must have a basic understanding of how police officers are now being instructed to handle an active shooter situation. I’m not going to discuss tactical police operations here. I am providing information that will help you understand how police will address such incidents.

Immediate Action-Rapid Deployment. This may be defined as the swift and immediate deployment of law enforcement resources to ongoing, life-threatening situations where delayed deployment could otherwise result in death or great bodily injury to innocent persons. This would be a situation in which aggressive deadly behavior is taking place, the event is ongoing, the activity is not contained, and the individual is actively causing death or great bodily injury.

Most situations are dynamic, evolving very rapidly, as are the individual’s actions. But the situation could also become static: The situation is no longer evolving or constantly in motion but contained, as in the case of a barricaded suspect.

The Time Line of Violence. This is the period from the individual’s first violent action until the individual stops or his actions are stopped, or the individual transitions to another activity. During this transition, the individual stops the violent actions and makes an effort to escape or barricade himself within a location.

Arriving officers will assess the situation, establish command, request appropriate resources and assistance, determine if immediate action-rapid deployment is necessary, and broadcast a situation report to responding units. The broadcast should detail the location and number of individual(s) if known, a description of the individuals if possible, types of weapons if known, safest approach route for arriving units, and the incident command post location.

The first-arriving officers would assemble a Contact Team. The team would have a minimum of four officers. If enough officers arrive, additional Contact Teams may be used. A Rescue Team consisting of four to five officers could also be assembled. A security perimeter must also be established around the location, in case the shooter(s) attempt to flee the area.

The Contact Team has priority to make contact with the suspect(s). The team is responsible for the following:

• limiting suspect(s)’ movement,

• preventing suspects’ escape,

• communicating progress to responders, and

• conducting an ongoing visual preliminary assessment of

    -victim(s), location and medical needs
    -explosive(s), type and location
    -suspect(s), description and location
    -weapon(s), types if known.

      As difficult as it is, the members of this team must move past victims they find while searching for the active shooter. If victims are capable of moving, they will be directed to the nearest exit for assistance.

      The Rescue Team has as its priority the rescue and/or recovery of victims, police, and noninjured civilians. If there are multiple victims, the team or the number of teams could be expanded. This is a coordinated action with the Contact Team and responding personnel. Each must be aware of the other and their operational location within the geographical area of the incident to prevent accidental injury to team members and civilians and to keep the active shooters from confronting the Rescue Team. The Rescue Team will also be responsible for the custody and control of the victims and will initiate the identification and accountability processes for all victims.

      THE FIRE SIDE

      The fire service has been responding to calls for help for years assuming that the calls are true fire calls or from a person in need of its services. To continue that kind of thinking could cost you dearly. You have to start taking notice, listening, and observing as you respond and arrive at calls.

      Let’s start with dispatch, your first awareness of the incident. Some communities have fire and police dispatched from the same communications center. For others, it could be separate centers for each department or a regional communications center handling 911 calls and forwarding them to local departments. Whatever the arrangement, your dispatchers will have obtained and continue to acquire information as you respond to the calls. It’s important that the separate dispatch centers exchange all information about calls, correct the information when needed, and forward that information to responding units. Make sure you request status/updates prior to arriving on-scene.

      On arrival, look around at the scene. Is it what you would expect for the situation described? If you responded to a school fire alarm, are the children outside with teachers in an orderly manner, or are they running and screaming from the building, yelling, “He’s shooting”? You may see no one at all outside, which could mean a malfunction of the system or the building’s occupants have locked down in their rooms. You could have a smoke condition on arrival, but no one is exiting the building. Suspects may have set off the fire alarm in an effort to draw students and staff out from their lock-down status.

      At the slightest indication that you have arrived at something other than a fire service call, move your units to a safe area, advise communications, and await a police response. Begin establishing a unified command, and advise communications, followed by a broadcast of the locations of the command post and the staging area. Ask communications to contact the authority of the property by phone to confirm the nature of the response. If no contact is made, assume the conditions of the situation are preventing the contact or the communication system has failed or been disabled. The police should then confirm the status of the incident.

      EXPECTATION ON ENTRY

      Regardless of where these incidents take place, any or all of the following should be expected on-scene: noise from fire and/or burglar alarms, people screaming, mass confusion, victims hiding and so frightened that they may not respond to directions, carnage, sprinkler operations, and improvised explosive devices.

      FORM PARTNERSHIPS TO PREPARE

      Emergency services partnerships must be formed if we are to be proactive in addressing the potential for active shooter incidents. Police, Fire, EMS, and the local Office of Emergency Management need to meet with school officials to develop a school safety plan that addresses active shooter situations and other possible threats or hazardous situations. Such partnerships can also be established for businesses in your community.

      Conduct joint training sessions to test procedures. They can include tabletop as well as field training exercises such as walking teachers through an evacuation route, testing the timely response of bus drivers back to a school with buses, and lock-down drills. Police officers need to understand the fire alarm system and how to silence the alarm to allow radio communications to be unimpeded during operations.

      Form crisis management teams within a business location or a school. The team should consist of four to five people who play key roles in the organization. They are most familiar with the physical layout, have an understanding of the emergency plans, are trained in basic response, and are capable of exercising the organization’s emergency procedures.

      An important area to discuss and understand is the decision to lock down or evacuate a complex. The people present at the start of the response must make this decision, not necessarily the arriving officers. Schools and businesses need to develop codes that alert employees of trouble and the need to take protective action. Color coding hallways and numbering interior and exterior doors will speed up the moving of personnel to specific locations. Floor plans that mirror this information will allow representatives of the services at the unified command center to better understand the operation and address specific situations.

      Prepare for transportation and shelters needed to move people to a safe and secure location. How would you evacuate a school of 300, 500, or more students? How many buses would it take? How many trips would buses have to make? Accountability of emergency responders and victims must be addressed: who are still on-site and the locations of those removed from the site.

      For assistance in planning for an active shooter response, go to http://www.state.nj.us/njoem/preparedness_school.html/. The New Jersey State Police, Office of Emergency Management, offers “Emergency Planning Guidance for NJ School Officials,” which can also be used as a foundation for all emergency services. It covers the following areas: Introductory Material and School Plan Overview; Basic Plan Checklist; Alert, Warning & Communications; Evacuee Reception Annex; Evacuation Annex; Coordination with Local Emergency Services Annex; Facility Shutdown Annex; School Terrorism Annex; and School Violence Annex.

      Also, the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools, at http://www.ed.gov/admins/lead/safety/emergencyplan/index.html/, offers examples of plans instituted in three states and additional resources with site links.

      • • •

      It’s now up to all emergency services to cooperatively develop plans and train in them so that they will be able to implement them should the need arise. Don’t sit there and think, “It could never happen here.”

      Endnotes

      1. A 16-year-old male killed nine people, including five classmates, and then himself.

      2. Two males, one a 17-year-old and the other an 18-year-old, murdered 14 students and one teacher at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, on April 20, 1999. Twenty students were injured. The shooters ultimately killed themselves.

      MAURO V. “BUZZ” BALDANZA is a captain with the Oceanport (NJ) Police Department and has 27 years of service in law enforcement. He is a member of the Long Branch (NJ) Fire Department and served a chief from 2002 to 2004. He has degrees in business administration and criminal justice from Monmouth University in New Jersey. He is a NJ. State Certified Level II instructor, a Police Training Commission instructor, and an instructor at both the Monmouth County Police and Fire Academies.

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