Blueprint of a bloodbath

     In August 1, 1966, a heavily armed and mentally disturbed individual perched himself atop the University of Texas clock tower. The time was 11:35 a.m., which coincided with the beginning of the lunch hour. Over the next 96 minutes, he fired at anyone in his sights, hitting 46 and killing 17. One hour and 36 minutes of uncoordinated police response was ended by two brave street officers who engaged the suspect and brought an end to the killing spree. The officers climbed into the tower and forced the surrender decision. At that time, the suspect still had several rifles and hundreds of rounds of ammunition left.

     Thirty-two years later, two heavily armed, mentally disturbed young men walked into a school in Colorado. The time was 11:22 a.m. on April 20, 1999, which coincided with the lunch hour at Columbine High, on cookie day. Within the next 43 minutes, they had killed 12 students, one teacher and themselves. SWAT officers entered the building at 12 p.m. and the suspects committed suicide five minutes later. Officers requested EMS assistance in the library — 3 1/2 hours after making entry.

     On April 16, 2007, a mentally disturbed individual shot and killed two college students in a Virginia Tech dormitory. The time was 7:15 a.m. The suspect then spent 2 hours preparing a rambling manifesto and sending it to NBC. At 9:42 a.m., police received the first 911 call from Norris Hall. Since many officers were on campus investigating the dormitory homicides, they reached Norris Hall within 3 minutes. The suspect had chain-locked the doors, so it took officers five minutes to breach. Realizing that the officers were closing in, the suspect committed suicide. Thirty-two people died, but more could have been killed if it wasn't for the quick and heroic actions of the first responding officers.

     Hundreds of active shooter scenarios have taken place over the past 42 years, and the act has evolved in a dramatic and devastating manner. These incidents outline the absolute need for establishing a comprehensive plan for active shooter situations.

     It must be understood that the officers who responded in each of these situations reacted at the time as any others would have. In 1966, law enforcement had not yet created command post procedures, and there was little if any training for first responders to critical incidents. SWAT teams had not even been considered at this time and first responders were forced to wing it. In 1999, the response to active shooter and hostage situations was handled by SWAT teams. First responders at Columbine acted in the same manner as any law enforcement officer at that point in time would have. By 2007, most agencies had adopted the philosophical change to law enforcement's active shooter response. While many were still working without a plan and had not conducted much training, they understood the absolute need to respond quickly to reduce the number of casualties.

     So, what has law enforcement learned from these situations, and the hundreds of others that have occurred since 1966? We know that active shooter situations have been occurring for many years, and in recent years their frequency has increased. We know that shooters plan to randomly kill as many people as possible, before police officers interfere. Their plans are well thought-out and they pick target-rich environments, at specific times, to maximize the casualty rate. They know police response will be rapid, so their tactics have evolved to include door barricades. In recent years, active shooters have explored and discussed their plans with like-minded individuals on the Internet. They encourage and feed off of each other. Their goal is to create the highest body count and their elaborate plans reflect that desire. Law enforcement has a moral obligation to create an effective controlled response to counter these horrendous situations.

Preparing for acts of violence

     The catastrophic events at Columbine High School changed the way officers look at active shooter situations. In 1999, law enforcement responded to critical incidents with highly trained and heavily armed SWAT teams. Everyone believed this to be the safest way to deal with these situations. The thought was that time was on police officers' side, and that their goals should be to de-escalate the situation and slowly locate and neutralize the threat. Even though we had dealt with similar events in the past, no one saw the Columbine tragedy coming.

     In the post-Columbine world, the law enforcement community was forced to create tactical plans that would provide an effective, controlled response to the dreaded threat facing society. When dealing with an active shooter scenario, first responders no longer hold and contain, waiting for SWAT teams to arrive. Instead, they run to the gunfire and attempt to force surrender. While some agencies continue to see this as a SWAT mission, most have adopted the philosophy that first responders are required to pursue and engage the active shooter.

     Many agencies have created response to active shooter plans and training models for their officers. Some agencies have included adjoining jurisdictions in the planning and training, but they remain the minority. Few agencies have developed plans and training that include school personnel, fire medics, hospital personnel, communications technicians, public information officers and all other parties likely to be involved in the event an active shooter should visit their school, mall or workplace. The need for a comprehensive plan for active shooter situations is undeniable. In order to minimize the active shooter's threat and prepare public safety professionals to combat the escalating menace of active shooters, agencies across the nation need to plan, train and incorporate target-hardening and electronic monitoring equipment to reduce the casualties in such an incident.

     Through the North American SWAT Training Association (NASTA), these pre-planning and training issues are addressed. Broken down into a five-phase process, the NASTA program assists agencies in training to transform dangerous and violent situations into those that everyone can walk away from safely.

Phase 1

     Training and Pre-Planning: Critical incident response training must involve all police, fire, school, communication technicians, public information and hospital personnel in a school district. Once all of these individuals are assembled in one room, we can discuss and pre-plan the issues that we would face, should an active shooter visit one of our schools.

     Most of the individuals listed above receive National Incident Management System (NIMS) training. Unfortunately, they receive this training as it applies to their specific role in a critical incident. The Quick Action Deployment (QUAD) Administrative Seminar educates each player on his or her role as well as the roles of others involved. Plans are discussed and assignments are delegated. All agencies have input, and all personnel have a job.

     First, we discuss lock-down drills. There are pros and cons associated with lock-down procedures depending on where an individual is located when the active shooter approaches. Extensive research of these situations has shown that running away, if there is an avenue of escape, is the best option. When you can't escape, going into lock down is the next best idea.

     How can we better protect those who are forced to lock down? We have teamed up with Pine Harbor Holding Co., the folks who created the Shadow Shield. They manufacture ballistic armored shields and door coverings specifically designed for schools and other structures, which make a lock down a much more viable option. Law enforcement's philosophy, regarding the response to active shooter situations, has changed dramatically. The goal is to engage the suspect quickly and limit the number of casualties, and equipment such as cruiser computers, with capabilities to access school video systems; door-breaching equipment; and intercom and classroom communication systems all assist and reinforce law enforcement in accomplishing that task. Educators have always placed themselves between the shooter and innocent children. Isn't it about time we provide them with the materials to give them a chance to survive?

     Law enforcement officials understand the value of pre-planning. If one knew where the next hostage situation was going to be, police would conduct a scout on that location. This would allow for pre-planning where the command post should be; traffic control posts could be mapped out and line of sight evacuation concerns could be addressed. There would be pictures and floor plans. Think about being the first responding supervisor to an active shooter situation. What if that supervisor could pull out a package that had command post, line-of-site evacuations, traffic control concerns, evacuation centers, helicopter landing zones, ground photos, air photos, floor diagrams, contact numbers, as well as student gathering locations mapped and planned? Based on history, we know where active shooter situations are likely to take place, thus officials should prepare a package for each of these locations.

     QUAD Administrative Seminars address the conditions in Phase 1, and this training has been conducted for thousands of police, fire and school personnel throughout the United States and Canada.

Phase 2

     Quick Action Deployment (QUAD) Training: Phase 2 provides law enforcement with the tools necessary to quickly locate, engage and neutralize an active shooter. Since the inception of this tactic in 1999, the active shooter has evolved, and the QUAD tactic has evolved to incorporate those changes as well.

Phase 3

     Extraction of the Injured: Once the shooter has been located, or once the indicators have been lost, the next step is to extract the injured. The concept of the "Golden Hour" is driving police to get the injured to medical help — quickly. If the injured get to a hospital operating table within an hour of sustaining injury, they have a much greater chance of survival. The QUAD tactic incorporates a method which facilitates this rapid extraction.

Phase 4

     Secure Avenue For Escape (SAFE): Once the known injured have been extracted, this stage trains for the quick location of the additional injured and evacuation of the non-injured. At this point, a secured structure will still not be available for many hours and law enforcement does not have the luxury of waiting to reach additional victims. SAFE provides officers with the tools necessary to line the hallways and cover the evacuation of those who are still in the school.

Phase 5

     QUAD Training for Civilians: Police response to active shooter situations will continue to become more rapid and efficient. This phase provides the instruction with how to prepare citizens to manage during the 3 to 10 minutes it takes for officers to arrive. Citizens need to be provided with the training and equipment necessary which will enable them to stay alive while they await police arrival.

     Active shooter situations have plagued society for decades. In recent years, the incidents have increased in frequency and evolved tactically. Disturbed individuals are carefully planning their attacks and discussing their plans via the Internet, where they have the ability to communicate with like-minded individuals who encourage and support their plans. They know that police will respond — and fast, so they barricade doors and carry more weapons. As a society, we have a responsibility to protect our children. As police officers, we are mandated to train and plan to a level of excellence. We no longer have the option to operate under a basic or generic plan, and with the knowledge gained from the tragedies of the past, a tactical plan can be formulated.

     Author's note: Since active shooters are partially motivated by the desire for fame, their names have purposely be left out of this article.

     James Scanlon is a 30-year veteran of the Columbus (Ohio) Division of Police. He has been on its full-time SWAT team for 16 years. Scanlon is also co-founder of North American SWAT Training Association. He can be contacted at