Marching to the Sound of Gunshots

Virginia Tech incident puts emphasis on active shooter response


     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.

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