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Home  >  Topics  >  Active Shooter

July 30, 2012
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Richard Fairburn Law Enforcement Firearms
with Richard Fairburn

Colo. massacre: 3 lessons your department should learn

In 2001, I conducted a large research project at the Illinois State Police Academy looking at active-shooter incidents and comparing those events to the first-generation Rapid Deployment/Active Shooter Response (RD/ASR) training programs around the country.* 

In debriefing 44 active shooter incidents for the project, some patterns emerged which caused us to develop Rapid Deployment training Version 2.0, which emphasized an even faster response with as few as a single officer, not waiting for a four-officer team.  We also incorporated military-style team movements (bounding and overwatch — evolving into fire and maneuver) for those incidents involving large, open areas, which were encountered in 1/3 of our debriefed incidents.

Ron Borsch of the S.E.A.L.E. regional training academy in Ohio continues to track details of these events and his data parallels my earlier research in many ways — these incidents have generally unfolded much too rapidly for a team of officers to make entry, find the suspect and neutralize the threat in time to save innocent lives.  Rapid Deployment teams have made contact in a couple of incidents, but generally if police action stops the killer, it is the action of a single officer.

Take a Deep Breath
A decade ago we could safely predict a high percentage of the killers would “self-inflict” at the end of their killing spree.  That trend may be changing.  Either by the killer’s choice or a faster response by police and nearby civilians, the active killer was captured both last year in Tucson and last week in Aurora.

We should expect to wait more than a year for accurate, detailed information about the Aurora movie massacre to become available to police planners and trainers.  The need to withhold details for the killer’s prosecution is paramount.  The release of details took more than a year after the Columbine incident, where there was no prosecution priority, and due to political interference, some aspects of the Columbine story are still not commonly known.  Unfortunately, there will be police agencies and trainers changing their protocols based on the incomplete and possibly inaccurate information they can glean from the mainstream media reports of last week’s attack.

Instead, take a deep breath.  Allow the investigation and prosecution to run their course and focus on the lessons we have already learned from past incidents which have been clearly reinforced in Aurora. 

Lesson #1 — Proper equipment and training.  Even though it has historically been unlikely that the killing will stop due to police intervention, all police officers should be trained and equipped to effectively confront an active shooter(s).  That means RD/ASR tactics must be trained/refreshed on a regular basis, at least annually.  It also means all officers should have ready access to a patrol rifle and adequate ammunition supply.  If your agency doesn’t issue gas masks, perhaps they should.  In Illinois, after 9/11, every police officer in the state was fitted for and issued a gas mask.  The questions is … when was the last time those officers trained with the equipment, or is it locked up in a storage cabinet back at the station?

Lesson #2 — These events will continue to escalate in terms of both threat presented and casualties caused.  Every sick little punk who commits these mass murders strive to put their initials next to the highest score logged on the “active shooter video game.” 

This really does seem to be a game to them. 

We’ve already seen several “improvements” in the evolution of active shooter events, which actually date back to the 1920s or beyond.  Harris and Klebold planned Columbine primarily as a bombing event and only went into the school with firearms when their bomb timers failed.  Cho bought himself more time to kill at Virginia Tech by chaining the panic bars on the doors to Norris Hall. 

According to reliable preliminary information from Aurora, Holmes deployed some type of smoke/gas munitions before opening fire and protected himself with a gas mask and extensive body armor, including a Kevlar helmet.  The scope of his booby-trapped apartment are still unknown as I write this.  In order to out-think these twisted minds we would need to be as equally twisted ourselves, so we can’t anticipate where next the escalation will turn.  So, you and your team/agency must be prepared for MORE than we have faced thus far. 

We have seen the awesome killing power of shooter teams in both the Columbine and Beltway Sniper attacks.  A coordinated team effort of two killers prepared like Holmes would likely be MUCH more than twice as effective at killing and be much more likely to still be killing when police assets arrive.  So, we MUST train even more team building and team LEADERSHIP techniques in law enforcement.

Lesson #3 — The kill zone itself is only part of the problem.  Stopping the active killing — if it is still ongoing — should always be priority #1.  Getting EMS resources into the kill zone, or ferrying the victims out to EMS will be priority #2. 

If you think setting perimeters, designating staging areas, and establishing Incident Command are all well down on the priority list, you are wrong.  Not setting perimeters, staging areas and organizing a command post can severely compromise the effectiveness of rescuing casualties.  Incident management MUST begin concurrent with the other critical functions.

Here is one certainty I can predict for the next active shooter attack:  No matter the level of preparation an agency has, or the escalations twisted minds may devise, America’s boys and girls in law enforcement will run to the sounds of the guns and put their physical and mental well-being in jeopardy to stop the killing and rescue the casualties.  That tradition has never wavered.


*Contact the author directly via email to obtain a copy of the research report.


About the author

Dick Fairburn has more than 30 years of law enforcement experience in both Illinois and Wyoming, working patrol, investigations and administrative assignments. Dick has also served as a Criminal Intelligence Analyst and as the Section Chief of a major academy's Firearms Training Unit and Critical Incident training program. He has a B.S. in Law Enforcement Administration from Western Illinois University and was the Valedictorian of his recruit class at the Illinois State Police Academy. He has published more than 100 feature articles and two books: Police Rifles and Building a Better Gunfighter.

Contact Richard Fairburn





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