A lot of excellent active shooter training addresses incidents that may take place in multi-room structures like large office buildings and schools. The tactics work — a good thing for police officers and general public alike.
What if the shooter isn’t in a building? What if your incident places you in a wooded area? Instead of clearing rooms, you’re going to be clearing dense woods, abandoned vehicles, tents, cabins, and caves. Small town cops know we are likely to be standing alone on that dirt road listening to the shots. Are you prepared to walk into that battlefield to stop the threat? Will the same active shooter response be effective?
First off, is this scenario a realistic possibility? Well, close to my home there have been four incidents in the past 10 years that all involved multiple victims shot by a lone gunman. The situations either took place in wooded areas or the suspect fled and was attempting to elude law enforcement by heading into the woods.
Among those incidents, one example is Chai Soua Vang, a 36-year-old immigrant from Laos (and a naturalized U.S. citizen) who lived in St. Paul, Minnesota. Following a dispute over a hunting platform in Sawyer County Wisconsin, Vang shot eight people, killing six — two were left wounded.
These days, you can add large organized marijuana grow operations, meth labs, rural rave parties, wanted persons hiding out, rural terrorism, and major hunting violations to the list of gunmen we might find in our otherwise bucolic setting.
In many cases it has been highly competent woodsman using military tactics, equipment, and clothing. Do you have the mindset to walk into a remote area alone and engage an active shooter or back up another officer? Do you have the appropriate equipment and training? If your jurisdiction has several hundred or thousand square miles of rural landscape there is a reasonable chance that you could end up in this situation and there is a good chance that when the action happens we’ll be standing alone with whatever equipment is in our squad.
What do you see? What do you hear?
An active shooter has opened fire on several people, or perhaps an officer has engaged an armed subject in a remote area and needs backup. When you arrive you ask (and answer) several questions:
• What do you see? Parked cars? Recreational vehicles? Squad car? Foot path? Dirt road? Is anything related to the incident?
• If you’re at a dead end or on a forest road, is it worth parking your squad across to keep anyone from driving out? Can you take the keys from any vehicles parked until you figure out what is going on? What about writing down registration numbers?
• Can you communicate? The radio headache can happen out in a remote area as easily (maybe more so) as inside a building. Can you talk with dispatch? Many of us would be on our mobile radios telling dispatch we are going to be on portable and then be out of communication until we are back to the squad. You need to know which frequencies work in different areas — sometimes you can’t talk on your regular channel but a fire service, fish & game, car-to-car, or park service channel might work. You have to have this information before you need it.
• Who might be backing you up? Can you communicate with them? Do they know what channel to call you on? Sitting in the squad waiting for backup makes you a sitting duck. Cops always hate to shut cars off, but you need to shut down, grab your gear, and get away from your squad and listen.
• What do you hear? Is the action close to you or out of sight?
• If you hear shots, do you know what they are? Can you determine what direction they are coming from? A good training exercise is to take a few moments at your qualifying shoots and have someone go out of sight from the range and fire several different weapons so officers can become familiar with the sound made by each and even the direction the shot came from if you have a large enough where you can get some distance from the range. Knowing the difference between the sound of a 9mm and a .308 is an important piece of information for any officer to know. An hour worth of training that can give cops a big tactical advantage before going into a scene.
• Can you hear people’s voices or movements? Listen for talking, yelling, crying, brush snapping? Should we go in?
• What’s our immediate course of action? Think active shooter training: neutralize the threat and stop the killing. It does not matter if you are by yourself or with four other cops, this is what we are paid for. What if we have another officer or two? Is staying in a tight formation best or should you spread out? Do you have the needed firepower available? This is, no doubt, a long gun situation. Do you have Extra ammo? What else should you have?
You may have to tend to a wounded officer or civilian victim for an hour or more. You may end up making an arrest without knowing exactly where you are. Running around in the woods gassed up on adrenaline can put us in some pretty interesting situations. If you work alone and know you will be handling most incidents by yourself you should have a bag or backpack that contains what you need to be out for extended periods of time. Know where important items are in your squad so you aren’t digging for them under your seat in the middle of a crisis. Extra magazines, radio battery, zip cuffs, cell phone, compass/GPS, small trauma kit or quick clot, and binoculars should all be included.
I like the cheap, spring clip nylon pouches that are made for cell phones and radios, They will attach almost anywhere (like the storage compartment on the inside of your driver’s door) and the right pouch can hold a couple magazines and an extra radio battery. You just grab it, clip it to your belt and go. Store a packet of Quick clot behind your trauma plate in your vest to deal with any injuries and you have the basics. Marking ribbon can be used to mark anything of importance, evidence, victims, so you or other officers can find them later.
Think about using the winning element of surprise. I know there are bosses that cringe at the thought of an officer wearing a camouflage jacket, but when do you want your suspect to see you, from 500 yards away or 10 yards? It makes tactical sense to have this item available as uniform wear with some police identification on it. This is something that should be discussed with your management if you work a rural area like I do.
Clearing the woods
How do you clear a wooded area? Think about what you will find in your environment, foot trails, vegetation, ATV trails, vehicles, clothing, tents etc. In a typical scenario you may find an unoccupied car. Document the plate and clear it with a quick tactical approach. Look inside for ammo and firearms. Check the doors — if they’re unlocked check the ignition for keys and if they are there take them. Don’t leave a getaway car! If there are weapons or ammo inside, lock the doors.
If you hear shots, move to the bang, stop the threat. What if the shooting stops? Listen and slowly proceed. Does your agency provide any training on man tracking? This could be a valuable skill and is an easy topic to cover with a little research and a willing instructor. With just a little training, you can identify the marks of someone running, walking, standing, hiding, and shooting etc. In my opinion, this is a necessary skill for our work environment.
What about cover and concealment? Logs, stumps, rocks, and dense vegetation — some can stop bullets, all can hide you, so use it to your advantage any way you can. Be alert. Even if you can’t find your shooter, make sure you find your victim(s).
What about the people you may find fleeing the area? Gather whatever information you can get from them and remember, if you have radio headaches, you can use these people to relay information out to other officers that may be arriving on the scene.
Are you ready?
Is the training your agency provides protecting you or is it protecting your agency from liability? If you work in a rural environment and have never done anything but stand in mowed grass shooting holes in paper, your agency is doing nothing more than preparing you for a 10 yard gun fight on the local golf course and documenting that you as qualified.
Think outside the box — I’m not talking high-dollar training — and find a secure area, use some firecrackers and plain clothes people just like we do with our other active shooter scenarios, walk your officers through with a red gun, let them clear the area and identify threats. Leave foot tracks or a simulated blood trail to an active shooter or a downed officer and let them react. Test your ability to walk on uneven terrain with your weapon in the ready position, without looking at the ground. Learn how much you are going to huff and puff while doing all this. This is simple training that builds confidence and identifies weaknesses officers may have.
Man tracking is not too hard to teach in house. We should be able to walk into these areas and know what we are looking at when we see tracks. We spend many hours driving around in these wilderness areas, it makes perfect sense that we should train in them. Proper equipment is a must. Think about what you might be up against out there, most likely a hunting rifle or military rifle—a nightmare of long range shooting with lots of bullets. Every rural cop should have a camouflage jacket with the department’s patches. They should also have a rifle. Anything less leaves you unprepared to protect lives in this environment.
There is no “textbook” on this and it will be a mess any way you do it. What works in wooded terrain will likely not work in open country. Swamp land is vastly different from rocky terrain. Do an analysis of your patrol area and think hard about the terrain and geographic features. You need to prepare for it and create training that is specific to your own work environment.
Look around as you drive up and down those country roads. One day you could be standing on that dirt road listening to the shots. In many areas we can’t wait for SWAT, even waiting for another officer can take too much time. We need to be able to step from the squad well-equipped, well-trained, and ready to walk into battle.
As Lieutenant Colonel Dave Grossman would say, “look out wolves, here comes the sheepdog.”