As it turns out, lightening can strike twice. On Wednesday, April 2—for the second time in Fort Hood history—the nation’s largest military base was the site of a mass murder. Just five years earlier, November 5, 2009 Major Nidal Hasan opened fire, killing 13. This time Sgt. Ivan Lopez, an Iraq war vet, was apprehended for killing 3 soldiers and wounding 16 more.
These scenarios are always something of a shock. But as time goes on similarities and patterns can be drawn from the chain of events…and first responders are quick to turn information into practice.
Former Illinois State Police officer Col. Michael Snyder remembers when he was involved in an active shooter call at the Illinois State Capital in the fall of 2005.
“It was mass confusion,” says Snyder, now president of the Hero911 Network. “No, we didn’t know what was happening and…not to criticize…all major critical incidents appear that way. The information constantly changes; communication tools, radio frequencies…a lot of this has gotten better over time. Many communication tools are better but they are still not where we need to be, by any means.” He recalls so many witnesses and so many people were involved, information conflicted and changed constantly. “One person would say yeah, it was a guy in a blue coat and he’s still in the building. Another person would say no, it was a guy in a red shirt and he’s already left.”
This special brand of chaos is precisely why active shooter training programs continue to be a hugely important, regular occurrence in the U.S. Barely a week before Lopez opened fire at Fort Hood, members from the 720th Military Police Battalion, 89th Military Police Brigade, and local civilian law enforcement agencies conducted joint law enforcement training in nearby Killeen, Texas. Members of the DOJ-sponsored Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) program held court at Texas State University to teach responders how to isolate, distract and neutralize a shooter. Attendees rehearsed weapons manipulation, threshold evaluation, team movement and force-on-force. The Texas-based program has doggedly made its way around the country since 2002 and to date has trained more than 40,0000 officers in 37 states. As the program develops, demand for the training outweighs supply.
“It is my vision…that soldiers who work every day with our community are trained and are going to react the same way that a local police officer is going to react,” Lt. Col. David Stender said on the U.S. Army’s website.
Increasingly, law enforcement trainers emphasize single and double-officer response (rapid deployment) as opposed to setting up a perimeter and waiting for backup. Snyder agrees, “It’s not going to be a SWAT person that stops the threat; it’s going to be long-over before SWAT gets there.” In reality, the first to arrive on-scene is going to be the first in the hot seat. This is the mindset behind ALERRT, as well as various other training methods and emerging tools.
South Bend (Ind.) Division Chief Stephen Smith has helped his PD usher in comprehensive active shooter training since 2000. “Tactics haven’t changed; it’s just the incidents are becoming more frequent to where we want to make sure everybody is familiar with the system and can work in conjunction with anybody.” Though not a huge metropolitan area, dozens of other agencies within the region practice together.
Smith says, “We started out with just a few pieces of equipment, but resources have grown exponentially since 2007. Force-on-force scenarios are a vital component of training…so it was easy to justify why we needed that equipment.”
To date, ALERRT has received more than $25 million in state and federal funding, not including private and state-based funding. That’s a lot of money (and time) dedicated to training for an event that historically resolves in ten minutes or less.
As one might imagine training equipment options are diversifying; South Bend is certainly not alone in building up its cache of instructive resources. A combination of classroom instruction and on-site drills are meant to give ‘the big picture’, and many companies are looking to help supplement these programs.
One available training option hinges on getting officers to think hard about a situation before picking up a weapon, before the adrenaline kicks in. Tim Connors is a West Point graduate and senior manager of the law enforcement and security division at CAAS LLC. He began working with police agencies after 9/11, when he was part of the Manhattan Institute think tank tasked with analyzing how police were adapting to the attacks. He worked exclusively with NYPD for a while, before heading out West and eventually overseas. From there Connors began developing educational programs. At one point he got in with a company doing cultural awareness and training for troops going to Iraq and Afghanistan.
“I thought, they ought to get into the police market. Because…talking with a lot of police in the field and chiefs, they all seemed to mention they needed a better tool, especially for young officers, which was engaging and computer-based. The people who were coming up weren’t learning the same way officers had in the past.” As a trainer, Connors saw a need for a new product that has officers thinking on their feet.
Imagine a television episode that’s professionally written—dramatic and interesting—and fuse it with an interactive video game. The ACT (Active Continuous Training) program focuses on critical decision-making. In a way the related series of scenarios resemble a ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ book, except you may be the only responder on-scene in the halls of an elementary school, searching out the shooter.
“It’s backed up with research,” says Connors. Users can view vetted source material relating to any decision he or she makes. “At the end of it, we’re hoping you will have thought very deeply about this one, seemingly minor thing. It’s a big decision to make, but in the course of the situation it’s going to take only a split second. Every action is subjective, but that's just the point.
“We want to shy away from saying ‘right answer’ ‘wrong answer,’” says Connors. “Really, the only thing we’re after is to make you think about being in the moment, what choice you’re going to make, and how you’re going to make it…based on [certain factors], and being able to talk to other officers.”
The full-body approach
Another way to do interactive video is to put oneself—physically—in the middle of the scene. If you can't get to a staged active shooter drill, or want to do something in between events, interactive training simulators offer another way to practice. The company Milo Range recently introduced a 300-degree, 5-screen version of its simulation program.
Michael Steinbeck, Milo Range’s marketing manager, says “You can see what’s going on to your right and to your left, and look down hallways.” The company’s live-fire version allows officers to use their own weapons and shoot live rounds at a screen in the range. Trainers can choose from about 650 off-the-shelf scenarios, or even make their own. And the quality is about to get even sharper as the company makes the transition to shooting in high-quality 4k video.
To create a scene producers shoot true-to-life “worst-case-scenarios” and all the twists and turns they could possibly take over the course of a few seconds to several minutes. “You’re going into a school shooting and there are teachers being held hostage, or kids held hostage. It forces officers to make a decision,” says Steinbeck. It’s his job to ensure these scenes are as realistic as possible. “If anything takes you out of it you kind of lose the training value,” he says.
Companies in this business strive to provide a realistic experience that engages both mind and body. The March ILEETA Conference (International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association) in Lombard, Ill. showcased plenty of products meant to supplement active shooter training, including simulators, training weapons and software.
Exhibitor StressVest explained how it aims to fire up synapses connecting learned tactics with all-important muscle memory with its black, lightweight vest system that fits over one layer of clothing and administers five levels of laser pulse “pain” at center mass when officers are “hit”—1 being a mere annoyance while 5 is more of a hard shock. Commanders can control up to 12 vests (or stress belts) with a tablet during the course of practice. They can also monitor officers’ heart rate or play back a drill, as captured by vest-mounted cameras. Donning vests and belts, as opposed to helmets, makes it easier for officers to detect important emotional facial clues and hear sounds clearly.
When it’s time to apply
Snyder’s experience at the capital drove some of the passion behind a new app that alerts on- and off-duty officers within a 10-mile radius of an active shooter. “If you’re an officer and there’s a mass murder taking place down the street from where you are, and this tool can let you know what’s happening, I’m trying to make it simple—do you want to know, yes or no?”.
Vetted officers can choose to receive alerts from Hero911 when something happens; however, they need not enter personal information such as an address. “We encourage [law enforcement] to use these tools with their school safety drills,” says Snyder “The information is situational awareness; at the time you receive the alert you have to kick in your own department policies and training and decide what you’re going to do.” The idea is to get someone there...fast.
Sometimes a lifetime of learning can help to generate the decision of a moment. How many ways are there to train for an event as brief—and catastrophic—as this? And how will training continue to evolve down the road?