Marching to the Sound of Gunshots

     Imagine sitting in a classroom, daydreaming and staring at the sunny skies just outside an open window, as your instructor drones on about elementary German. You are abruptly dragged from your reverie by loud popping noises in the hallway outside. Thinking it's the din of construction as carpenters begin their day, you turn your attention back to the lecture. Then a man dressed in a black leather jacket, dark-colored jeans and a baseball cap storms into the room and you find yourself in the crosshairs of a .22-caliber pistol.

     While this might sound like it's ripped straight from a Hollywood movie script, it is exactly the situation some Virginia Tech students encountered on April 16 when a 23-year-old gunman murdered 32 people before killing himself.

     These types of cases have become so commonplace that law enforcement professionals coined the phrase "active shooter." This term is used to describe an armed individual who has used deadly force on others and continues to do so while having unrestricted access to additional victims. The list of cities struck by the active shooter phenomenon is long and includes places like Littleton and Bailey, Colorado; Jonesboro, Arkansas; Red Lake, Minnesota; San Diego, California; and Barts Township, Pennsylvania. Reviewing the list of names, it quickly becomes clear that be it a pastoral village or sprawling metropolis, no community is immune to an active shooter massacre.

     Because these dangerous and unpredictable situations require swift and immediate law enforcement action, authorities have fashioned a response strategy where first responders march to the sound of gunshots to neutralize the threat. The modified response tactic has prompted many of the nation's police agencies to engage officers in ultra-realistic training regimes aimed at eliminating and minimizing casualties by preparing patrol officers to go in where they typically haven't gone before. "Traditionally we've always put officer safety first," says Anthony Callisto, Syracuse (New York) University chief of public safety. "But this kind of training really puts victim safety first. We are putting officers in harm's way to enter an active shooting situation."

     Active shooter response training originated after Colorado's Columbine High School attack, where 13 people lost their lives and 24 were injured. In the massacre's aftermath, responding agencies teamed with the Los Angeles Police Department's SWAT team and the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) to develop an active shooter protocol termed Immediate Action Rapid Deployment or IARD.

     This training places emphasis on the fact that officers must charge into a situation — even if it means putting their own lives at stake. As Lt. Patrick Martin of the Greenfield (Wisconsin) Police Department points out, "You've got to do something or people are going to die."

A thinking man's game

     At Virginia Tech, the diminutive, South Korean gunman brandishing a 9mm Glock 19 and a Walther P22 took out his first two victims in the early morning hours. He returned two hours later, chained shut the three main entrances to an educational building and opened fire into second-story classrooms. Thirty others were slain before the gunman turned a weapon on himself. "The [second] shooting spree took him 9 minutes — 9 minutes to shoot 170 rounds and kill 30 people," says Tom Turner, director of campus safety at Roanoke College in Salem, Virginia. "The best thing a department can do is send in first responders to try to minimize death and injury, and neutralize the threat."

     Many seasoned patrol officers remember being trained to do the opposite. In the old days, officers were instructed to race to the scene, secure the perimeter and wait for backup. But times have changed. IARD bases its tactics on the premise that if officers are called in to a shooting spree within a structure, they need to take immediate action, says John Gnagey, NTOA executive director. Today the patrol officer has become the catalyst, who can make or break an operation by his response. Departments instruct officers to secure the immediate area, assess the danger, determine where the threat is at and move toward the gunfire at a sustained pace to stop the killing. Once officers pinpoint the suspect, they can either disarm him, if the opportunity presents itself, or take his life.

     "This is a thinking man's game," stresses Lt. Roy Coleman of the Jonesboro (Arkansas) Police Department, who was among the officers dispatched to Jonesboro's Westside Middle School shooting in 1998, which left four dead and nine injured. "Officers need to be smart and alert to fully assess the situation they have and act on that assessment to protect the lives of innocent people."

     Sgt. A.J. DeAndrea, who as a member of the Jefferson County (Colorado) Regional SWAT Team was summoned to both the Columbine High School massacre in 1999 and Platte Canyon High School shooting in 2006, compares police response in these two incidents to illustrate IARD's evolution.

     At Columbine, first responding deputies from the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office did exactly as they'd been trained to do — they controlled the scene, contained it, attempted to make contact with the shooter and called in SWAT. As part of the team making the first entry into Columbine, DeAndrea led SWAT officers through the central part of the school, the music and science areas, then the library. "Thinking we may have a hostage situation, we were on a stealth probe, moving through the school, attempting to contact the shooters," he says.

     Law enforcement adapted its response after the Columbine tragedy and taught patrol officers or deputies to respond directly to the threat. "This is exactly what happened at Platte Canyon," DeAndrea, a member of the Arvada Police Department, says. In this situation, a suspect burst into the school, entered an English room, dismissed the male students and the teacher, and took seven female students hostage. When Park County Sheriff's Office deputies arrived, they formed a contact team and responded immediately to the besieged classroom. Their assessment found no loss of life occurring, so officers surrounded the room and summoned SWAT for hostage negotiations. Though the hostage-taker released five teens, tactical officers breached the classroom after a bomb threat. They freed one of the remaining teens, but the shooter shot another girl in the head as officers simultaneously shot and killed him.

Never a SWAT mission

     Though these new and dynamic tactics can definitely save lives, especially when it takes just minutes for a shooting spree to end, there are a number of officers who initially resist. Some veteran officers oppose taking on something traditionally viewed as SWAT's job, DeAndrea admits. But through classroom education and realistic training, those attitudes quickly change.

     Adds Gnagey, "This was never meant to be a SWAT mission." Tactical teams may be called in — they are also trained in active shooter response. But when these teams are lifesaving minutes away, it's critical that patrol intervene. "SWAT still gets their slice of the pie," Coleman says, "and it's the harder piece of it because they must check every storage bin, closet and air duct."

A fluid response

     IARD applies in a variety of cases, whether the situation involves an unauthorized intruder in a school; an active shooter; an attack with an edged weapon; placing, detonating, wearing or carrying explosives devices; or nuclear, biological and chemical attacks or threats. The technique may be applied in schools, churches, governmental buildings, offices, factories, shopping malls, sporting venues, hospitals, public utility buildings and more.

     The NTOA's IARD course teaches officers dispatched to active shooter scenarios to first observe the scene to ascertain whether entry is necessary. If shooting continues or people on-scene indicate the gunman remains inside, the need for entry becomes perfectly clear, says Martin, a 28-year law enforcement veteran and a member of the Greenfield PD training team. The incident is then considered an active shooter scenario and officers must respond in kind.

     According to DeAndrea, the situation must carry a risk for serious bodily injury or death, and occur in a target-rich environment, to warrant this type of response. "It's going to be in a location like a grocery store or high school where there are numerous potential victims," he explains. "It is case dependent, but we probably would not raid a residence where there's a domestic dispute and we hear shots being fired inside."

     Before entry there's much for officers to consider. Can they get a positive breach? Where might they enter the structure? If they interdict, will it make the situation better or worse? Who will take command?

     IARD relies on the incident command system. The first team to enter will oversee the scenario. As other squads arrive, a supervising officer remains outside to act as the incident commander. This leader directs others to responding personnel and the perpetrator within the building. The original contact team designates one officer to communicate with the commander outside.

     The minimum number of officers necessary to effectively utilize the active shooter protocol is three, though Gnagey recommends delaying entry until four officers arrive. A team of four in a diamond-shaped movement pattern — with one point officer, two flankers and a rear guard — permits officers to perform a 360-degree search and protect themselves from all sides. "We expect officers to use their head and evaluate the situation. They can go in by themselves if they have to," DeAndrea adds. "That's not the best way to operate. But if it's taking place in front of you, you don't wait. You go in and save lives."

     The contact team treks toward the gunshots if they know where they're coming from. This team must disregard victims; it's only priority is to stop the threat, says DeAndrea. Traditional tactics go by the wayside in that officers move directly toward the threat. "They are marching to the sound of the gun," he says. "When they hear shots fired, that's where they respond to." On their heels, at least in the Arvada PD, is a rescue team, tagged with the responsibility of evacuating survivors and wounded individuals.

     The response remains fluid and officers must adapt accordingly, Gnagey emphasizes. If officers arrive on-scene and notice large-caliber bullet holes in cars, buildings or houses, they know the shooter isn't firing a handgun and the superior firepower of a rifle is needed. Likewise, if gunshots cease and the shooter's location remains unknown, then officers slow their advance and begin opening doors and exploring empty rooms. If the gunman begins firing again, the team accelerates and foregoes searching until it reaches the subject.

     Their ability to adapt cannot end once the shooter is found, adds Gnagey. For example, if officers discover the suspect in a room full of kids, they must transition to the response tactics prescribed for a hostage-barricade situation and summon SWAT. As the situation shifts to a tactical operation, responding officers must lockdown the room and maintain the perimeter until SWAT gets there. But if the gunman begins firing at hostages, and SWAT has yet to arrive, responding officers need to storm in.

     "It's like a chess game," Gnagey says. "All of these things have to be considered while they're responding, and that's what we teach them."

Train for the worst, hope for the best

     There's a saying among law enforcers that departments must train for the worst and hope for the best. In today's law enforcement climate, "it's better to train and not need it than not to train at all and need it the next day," stresses Coleman, who notes the Jonesboro PD annually trains its 125 sworn officers in IARD.

     When IARD became available, the Jonesboro PD — close on the heels of its own active shooter situation — immediately dispatched officers to the NTOA train-the-trainer program. These officers returned and first educated the department's school resource officers (SROs) in active shooter response. The SROs then gathered helpful emergency information such as building layouts, pass key access, maintenance schedules, emergency contacts, avenues of escape and so on. Jonesboro began with SROs, because as Coleman says, no one is more familiar with the school than the kids, and no officer is closer to the kids than the SRO.

     Greenfield's 60-man department also dispatched trainers to the NTOA program, then trained its entire department in IARD tactics. These instructors later added school familiarization training to the agency's IARD curriculum. In this annual program, officers must walk through each school in the district and mark on a sheet where certain signs and other landmarks exist. "This gets them used to the school itself. Not every patrol officer gets into the schools on a regular basis, in particular the night shifts," Martin explains.

     Departments engaging in this type of training strive to make it as realistic as possible. The carnage the active shooter leaves in his wake is what nightmares are made of. Responding officers at Virginia Tech describe slipping on floors soaked in blood and tripping over bodies as they progressed through the building. IARD training is designed to put officers under as much stress as possible through noise, visual effects and Simunition rounds to give them a sense of how they might react when their senses are overloaded. "Most officers will work an entire career without ever having to deal with this situation — it's a real anomaly," says Callisto. "But this training readies officers for action should such a situation ever arise."

     Coleman relies on 10 to 15 role players to act as teachers and students in Jonesboro's 16-hour IARD exercise. He blasts a CD crammed with the sounds of gunfire, alarms sounding, shattering glass, whirring helicopters and screaming over the building's public address (PA) system. He calls this CD, created by the local radio station, deafening when played over a PA system. And that is by design. When he spoke with Columbine officers, they mentioned the sound of activated fire alarms was nauseating to the point where they felt they could not function. "We can't mimic that by any means," he says. "But when I crank up my CD, it gets your heart rate up. The more realistic you can make this training, the better prepared your officers will be in an actual situation."

     Jonesboro's scenarios transpire in actual buildings within their jurisdiction, such as school facilities during the summer break. The SWAT team also trains in these structures during separate educational sessions, but focuses on searches and entry tactics to gain familiarity with building layouts. Coleman changes up the scenarios every time. "We may have the suspect give up. We may have him engage the officer. We may have him kill the suspects or barricade them in a classroom," he says.

     Because most facilities are equipped with cable TV or satellite, Coleman instructs officers to call these organizations to shut off access. He emphasizes the Columbine gunmen viewed broadcasts of the tragedy on television before killing themselves. Even during training, Coleman says it's important to switch off these systems. This prevents anyone from tapping in and watching law enforcers train.

     IARD programs teach officers simple tactics that are easy to deploy during stressful situations. Then trainers put officers in varying scenarios that allow them to use these skills over and over again. This builds confidence in the tactics and in other team members. "There is comfort behind a rifle; there is comfort behind a helmet; but more important is the mental switch that needs to happen to let officers be aggressive enough to go in and save lives," DeAndrea states. By experiencing as many different scenarios as possible, officers create pathways in their brain that allow them to be free thinkers and adapt to real-life active shooter scenarios.

     Coleman stresses such training is readily available for the departments that seek it. "There are training videos, simulators and training experts," he says. "Even if you only send one person to this type of training, and they come back and share it with the rest of the department, you are better off than you were."

     Active shooter situations, in everywhere from small towns to big cities, highlight that it's no longer a question anymore of 'if' an active shooter scenario might strike a community, it's a question of 'when.' As Callisto points out, "The Virginia Tech incident puts an exclamation point on the fact that this is critical training for law enforcement."