Why has active shooter response been in laser focus for law enforcement ever since the attack at Columbine High School in 1999? Because it’s been in laser focus for the mainstream media as delivered to the public. That “public” consists of parents, students, faculty and staff, all of whom have a vested interest in making sure any active shooter event is avoided (neutralized prior to inception), or responded to in the most efficient manner possible.Since early 2000 agencies have been training for response. As the events have occurred, training has evolved because we learn lessons from each event and during the after-action reports. For the patrol officer or first line responder, the focus remains the same: get there, make entry, neutralize attacker(s), assist with evacuation and treatment. Management, supervisory and administrative level officers with any agency have multiple responsibilities and concerns on top of those priorities.
Many helping hands bring relief and challenges
For the leaders in every involved organization, coordination and management can be overwhelming. As the example, when there was a shooting at Great Mills High School in Maryland, the unsummoned response was so great that within two hours of the event, the sheriff’s office had enough allied agency assistance to cover all of the extra shifts and assignments for two weeks. While that is awe-inspiring and heart-warming (especially if you’re a deputy with that sheriff’s office), there is the attached challenge of scheduling all those extra officers—one that has to be managed.
Some of the additional challenges of simple coordination would include but are not limited to:
- Communicating protocols and response protocols, as well as all the roles played by those involved from staff, faculty, students, law enforcement, emergency medical and fire services before any event ever occurs. How well all these stakeholders are fully informed and understand what’s expected of each of them will determine how efficient response, mitigation and recovery will be.
- Organizing counseling services for all first responders who need to use the services. Typically a law enforcement agency or sheriff’s office will have a psychologist or psychiatrist on standby. Kept on retainer, they’re on call for any and all unexpected emergencies which may place officers/deputies in positions of exposure to traumatic images and events. When it’s one or two officers involved in an on-duty shooting, one or two counselors is plenty. When it’s 50+ officers who have responded to a mass attack event, one or two counselors won’t be enough. The law enforcement administration may also be asked for recommendations or sources of further counseling assistance for all the other involved stakeholders such as teachers, faculty, parents on scene (volunteering at school, etc.), students and more.
- Enacting a plan to evacuate unharmed students from the scene immediately following any such event requires moving them to a reasonably distanced secure location. There, as necessary, they will need to be interviewed, offered counseling services as necessary, and reunited with their parents or a legal guardian prior to release. This can be a very contentious time for law enforcement agencies as many parents will simply respond and demand immediate reunification and custody of their child. It behooves the parents to understand that virtually every student in a school that suffers an active shooter event has to be talked to individually before being released. This is necessary to 1) ascertain if they have any knowledge or observations of value to the investigation and 2) to offer counseling services for the student if such is deemed necessary or requested by the student.
- Bio-hazard clean up, facility repairs and more all have to be undertaken after the on-scene investigation is complete. While there are a number of commercial companies that offer such services, if an agency hasn’t at least pre-screened two or three such companies, finding one after the fact, in the midst of all the confusion and other responsibilities, can prove daunting. In the case of the attack at Virginia Tech, the university chose to contract a construction company to completely gut the wing of Norris Hall where the attack occurred. This is certainly a viable option as well, but obviously far more costly than a bio-hazard sterilization.
- The media in all forms is obviously going to be a big consideration after any active shooter event. If the event lasts a sufficient time, representatives from the media will start showing up before it’s neutralized and recovery is underway. This adds a layer of consideration as a staging area for the media has to be set up, briefings planned, a press information officer appointed (if the agency doesn’t already have one) and more. With such events you can also count on elected representatives showing up: senators, congressmen, governors, county executives and more. It is incumbent upon the agency executives to be aware of this reality and prepared to coordinate with the representatives’ executive protection detail when they show up.
This is a short and not even complete list of the items that will need to be prepared prior to any event and coordinated after any event. The more you prepare beforehand, the easier it will be afterward. We owe it to those we serve to be as prepared as possible.
This article is part of a series of articles dedicated to responding to and prevention of active shooter events. Download and share the entire series here.