Hostile Act Responses: Effective Command of the Warm Zone

The management and command of a response to an active shooter is inherently challenging. In addition to the overwhelming nature of the event, the response will require aspects that are outside of our typical operations including a different command structure, a cooperative communication plan across law enforcement and fire/EMS, and an adaptable accountability system.

A separate branch is needed in the incident command system. (Figures 1-7 by Daniel J. Neal.)
A separate branch is needed in the incident command system. (Figures 1-7 by Daniel J. Neal.)

In August 2015, the Loudoun County (VA) Department of Fire and Rescue, the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office, and the Leesburg (VA) Police Department (with the support of the Loudoun County Office of Emergency Management) trained more than 700 personnel in the Rescue Task Force (RTF) concept. Over a two-week period, two four-hour training sessions were conducted each day. Each session consisted of a lecture, RTF and Extraction Task Force (ETF) skill stations, and two live scenarios. During these live scenarios, RTFs and ETFs were deployed in response to a simulated active shooter scenario.

 

The Hostile Threat branch will manage RTFs, ETFs, the casualty-collection point, and evacuation to the cold zone.
The Hostile Threat branch will manage RTFs, ETFs, the casualty-collection point, and evacuation to the cold zone.

The nature of this training provided a “laboratory” in which to explore the command of RTFs and ETFs. The execution of the skills aspect of an RTF or ETF was easily mastered. Conversely, command, communication, and control were challenging. Traditional components of the incident command system (ICS) did not seem to fit. Through 20 nearly identical scenarios, an effective strategy to command RTFs and ETFs began to develop. We saw the need for the following:

  • Unified command between law enforcement and fire/EMS, which is inherently required, and a unified “operations” branch to manage the RTFs and ETFs.
  • A new type of branch to manage the operations in the warm zone.
  • An adaptable accountability system to effectively track groups of law enforcement and fire/EMS in the warm zone.
  • An integrated communication model across law enforcement and fire/EMS for use in the warm zone.
The casualties must flow from the Hostile Threat branch in the warm zone to the EMS branch in the cold zone.
The casualties must flow from the Hostile Threat branch in the warm zone to the EMS branch in the cold zone.

Branch for Commanding RTFs and ETFs

The command of RTFs and ETFs may necessitate a separate branch in the ICS (Figure 1). Other branches will have their own demands. The EMS branch will be preparing to manage the large number of casualties. The Fire Operations branch could be managing concomitant fires from the incident. The “Hostile Threat” branch could organize and deploy the RTFs and ETFs into the warm zone to treat and rescue casualties (Figure 2). The branch manager would be a senior law enforcement officer paired with a battalion chief (or equivalent command officer). Before any RTFs or ETFs could be deployed, this branch must be established. This would allow proper deployment and accountability and the proper flow of patients from the warm zone.

Flow of Patients

The flow of the patients from the Hostile Threat branch to the EMS branch was the next challenge (Figure 3). During the multiple simulations, some casualties were not immediately evacuated from the warm zone in an ambulance. Instead, these patients were moved outside of the building to a casualty-collection point (CCP).

The RTF locates, treats, and triages patients. This is communicated back to branch command.
The RTF locates, treats, and triages patients. This is communicated back to branch command.

Initially, the establishment of a CCP seemed a viable option until it began to require large numbers of law enforcement personnel to maintain security. This often meant taking law enforcement officers from a deployed RTF or ETF, which slowed the removal of casualties from the building. A group (or groups) is needed to collect and shuttle patients away from the warm zone. This could take the form of a few ambulances with an armed guard, a few armored cars, or some other vehicles. At this point, the EMS branch would assume responsibility for the patients and begin to manage them as at a typical mass-casualty incident (MCI).

Accountability

Accountability of law enforcement and fire/EMS deployed in RTFs and ETFs is a challenge. Locally, RTFs consist of approximately four law enforcement and two fire/EMS personnel. ETFs typically consist of four law enforcement and four (or more) fire/EMS personnel. Since ambulance crews will be needed for transportation of patients, engine companies and truck companies were identified to be used for RTFs and ETFs. With the typical staffing of engines (three personnel) and trucks (four personnel), formation of RTFs and ETFs required that crews be broken up. During the scenarios, battalion chiefs strongly resisted breaking up crews. The challenge lay in a means to track fire/EMS and law enforcement personnel. The answer to this difficult question was the Joint Assembly Area (JAA).

Branch command dispatches an ETF to the location of the casualties from the RTF.
Branch command dispatches an ETF to the location of the casualties from the RTF.

The Loudoun County Combined Fire-Rescue System-Wide Policy for Active Threat Incidents and Use of Rescue Task Force states that a Joint Assembly Area will be established to form RTFs and ETFs.1 The operations of a JAA were not clearly defined. The facilitators initially believed this was merely a location for fire/EMS to don ballistic gear, obtain Tactical Emergency Casualty Care (TECC) supplies, and link up with law enforcement. The policy suggested that the EMS supervisor be used. This created a conflict, as the EMS supervisor would be responsible for establishing the EMS branch to manage casualties. Considering basic fireground operations, accountability is a primary function of safety. Therefore, the safety officer was assigned as the officer in the JAA. Charged with accountability and proper donning of safety equipment (ballistic gear), the safety officer is the optimal officer to assign as the JAA supervisor.

Communication

A simple and concise communication plan from RTFs and ETFs to the Hostile Threat branch managers is also needed. The RTF and ETF team leaders are the lead law enforcement officers. They oversee the team’s movements and communicate back to the branch managers. This communication takes place on a secure law enforcement talk group.

ETF communicates to branch command the number and triage category of casualties they are extracting. This should include where they will exit the warm zone.
ETF communicates to branch command the number and triage category of casualties they are extracting. This should include where they will exit the warm zone.

The fire/EMS personnel assigned in the warm zone as part of an RTF or ETF can retain their fire department radios for emergencies. To reduce distractions and for safety, these personnel should be placed on a safety channel. This is a “clean channel” on which the battalion chief, located at the Hostile Threat branch command post (CP), can monitor only interior fire department personnel. The interior fire/EMS personnel are only to use their radio if law enforcement communications fail or they become separated from their RTF or ETF. There is little need for the fire/EMS personnel assigned to an RTF or ETF to communicate back to the branch command. At a minimum, the Hostile Threat branch operates on three talk groups: law enforcement RTF and ETF, fire/EMS safety channel, and fire/EMS operations channel.

(1) The Hostile Threat branch CP inside the command bus. <i>(Photo by Daniel J. Neal.)</i>
(1) The Hostile Threat branch CP inside the command bus. (Photo by Daniel J. Neal.)

The communication’s model between RTFs, ETFs, and the branch managers follows a certain procedure to locate, triage, and remove casualties:

  • An RTF will locate casualties. After the “medics” in the RTF treat and triage the casualties, the RTF team leader communicates this information back to the law enforcement command officer at the Hostile Threat branch (Figure 4). The branch managers record this information.
  • The law enforcement command officer at the Hostile Threat branch dispatches the ETF to the location to contact and evacuate the casualties (Figure 5). When the ETF contacts the casualties, the ETF team leader communicates this information back to the law enforcement command officer at the Hostile Threat branch (Figure 6). The ETF should also alert the branch managers as to which door or location they are exiting.
  • At the Hostile Threat branch CP, the law enforcement command officer should relay the number and triage classification of the casualties. This information should include from which location the casualties are being removed in the warm zone. Then, the fire/EMS command officer can alert EMS resources in the EMS branch to prepare for the casualties (Figure 7). A worksheet or command board was proposed (Figure 8). It could be used at the Hostile Threat branch to track the number of patients found and extracted by the RTFs and ETFs.

During multiple simulations, the value of separate law enforcement and fire/EMS radio talk groups was apparent. First, with each group communicating on its own talk group, there was little chance for confused terminology. For example, law enforcement called Command “CP” whereas fire/EMS termed it “Command.” Law enforcement would also designate different RTFs or ETFs with names that could potentially conflict with fire/EMS. For example, “Rescue 1” might be the designation for the RTF. This would easily confuse fire/EMS personnel who may perceive this as an extrication apparatus. With law enforcement communicating on its own talk group and sharing information at the branch command, there was little opportunity for confusion. Second, the volume and type of communications require separate talk groups. While an RTF is focusing on clearing a room, it is distracting to hear irrelevant radio traffic pertaining to operations in the cold zone (response of an MCI).

Branch command requests an EMS resource to receive the patients from the ETF.
Branch command requests an EMS resource to receive the patients from the ETF.

Command Lessons

Timeless command lessons were also demonstrated during the live scenarios.

  • Scribes are essential at the Hostile Threat branch CP. The battalion chief and law enforcement command officer should each assign a scribe. During the scenarios, the battalion aide used a standard Northern Virginia consolidated command board; the law enforcement command aide used a legal pad. The former completed the board with unit assignments and thoroughly tracked patient numbers. The latter tracked the location and triage designation of casualties to assist with tracking RTF movement and ETF “dispatch” to extract them.
  • The Unified Hostile Threat branch operated better when sequestered from the scene. The live scenarios were conducted twice for each student group. For the first scenario, the Hostile Threat branch CP was at the rear of a battalion chief’s vehicle. For the second scenario, it was inside of a command bus (photo 1). The view from the command bus was limited to one camera focused on one side of the school. Once the command officers were removed from the scene into the command bus, they were required to obtain all information from their radio. This also limited unnecessary communication and interaction with “walk-ups” (other responders approaching the CP).

The Loudoun County 2015 RTF training demonstrated important command considerations for the response to a hostile act. Although closely scripted and focused on the deployment of RTFs and ETFs, this training highlighted the operations of the Hostile Threat branch. These operations included establishing a flexible accountability system at the JAA and an effective warm zone communications model. There are still many questions in the response and management of hostile acts. Considering the number of evolutions and participants, this training demonstrated one approach to effective command of warm zone operations in a medium-size suburban county.

A worksheet or command board could be used at the Hostile Threat branch to track the number of patients that were found and extracted by the RTFs and ETFs. (Image by Sam Neglia.)
A worksheet or command board could be used at the Hostile Threat branch to track the number of patients that were found and extracted by the RTFs and ETFs. (Image by Sam Neglia.)

Endnote

1. “Active Threat Incidents and Use of Rescue Task Force,” Loudoun County (VA) Combined Fire-Rescue System Wide Policy dated July 30, 2015.

Kevin Stiles, MS, EFO, is a battalion chief assigned to the EMS Division of the Loudoun County (VA) Department of Fire and Rescue.

Daniel J. Neal, PhD, EFO, is a captain with the Loudoun County (VA) Department of Fire and Rescue. He is assigned as an EMS supervisor.

Sam Neglia, JD, has more than 30 years of experience in federal law enforcement with the Department of Treasury and the Department of Homeland Security. He is a volunteer medic and served on the regional committees for Tactical Emergency Casualty Care and Rescue Task Force.

George Cumberledge is a sergeant with the Loudoun County (VA) Sheriff’s Office. He is responsible for the Rapid Response Team. He served on the regional committee for Rescue Task Force (RTF) and as the co-lead instructor for the countywide RTF Training.

Micah Kiger, AAS, paramedic, is the fire operations representative for Hostile Response Programs in Loudoun County, Virginia. He is assigned as an operational battalion chief with the Loudoun County (Virginia) Department of Fire and Rescue.

John Rice is a lieutenant and paramedic with the Loudoun County (VA) Department of Fire and Rescue. He served as an EMS supervisor and on the regional committees for Tactical Emergency Casualty Care and Rescue Task Force (RTF). He served as the co-lead instructor for the countywide RTF training. Previously, he worked as a tactical medic in West Virginia.

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