The law enforcement world as we knew it, changed on April 20, 1999. That’s the day that two high school “splatter punks” perpetrated the most audacious and devastating school attack in US history ... until Seung-Hoi Cho upped the record to 32 killed and 25 wounded on April 16, 2007 on the campus of Virginia Tech. If history teaches us anything, we know that someone is out there right now, planning to upstage Cho. Perhaps a group is scheming to bring a Beslan-style terrorist attack to our shores. If so, the Columbine and Virginia Tech incidents will become a distant memory. At Beslan in Russia, hundreds of children died after a lengthy period of humiliation and torture. Still, it was the Columbine tragedy that changed the way US law enforcement agencies respond to active shooter incidents.
School attacks were not a new occurrence prior to the Columbine incident. Despite previous shooting sprees, few police agencies had prepared plans or conducted training to address the possibility of an active shooter attacking a school or workplace in their jurisdiction. After Columbine, some form of rapid deployment tactics were trained by most progressive agencies. With rapid deployment, a handful of patrol officers form a team to hunt down and neutralize the shooter(s), while follow-on teams search the locale to rescue downed victims and terrified escapees.
In 2003, a major research project analyzed rapid deployment tactics. By comparing the training to a number of historical active shooter incidents, the research measured theory against reality.1 Rapid deployment came up short. Several shortcomings discovered in the technique suggested improvements to make the tactic more flexible and powerful. Please, don’t misunderstand my meaning ... rapid deployment is a valuable tactic that can and has worked well in a few incidents. It has also proven to be inappropriate for many others. However, by augmenting the training and addressing inherent shortcomings, a truly awesome response tactic emerges ... rapid deployment version 2.0.
Instant response - the hasty team concept
One mismatch between rapid deployment tactics and anecdotal evidence from active shooter incidents is the extreme rapidity of these attacks. The active shooter portion of the Columbine incident lasted approximately 13 minutes. Every victim shot at Columbine was shot within 13 minutes of the first call received by the police. And, Columbine was the longest duration of the 44 incidents analyzed in the 2003 study (Cho killed the bulk of his victims in 9 minutes at Norris Hall). Many of the active shooter incidents we examined were over in three to four minutes, much quicker than four officers could be assembled as a rapid deployment team and hope to find and neutralize the shooter. This suggests that the only hope for stopping the shooter and saving lives in most active shooter events, will come from someone who is at the scene when the shooting starts. At a school, this instant response will depend on the presence and skills of a school resource officer (SRO) or campus police officer. If we’re lucky, a second officer may arrive in time to join with the SRO to form a two-officer hasty team. An important add-on to rapid deployment training is to teach single- and two-officer tactics for rapidly moving through buildings and open areas to hunt and engage the shooter(s). Dealing with hallways, stairways, doorways and open areas are different for a single officer or pair of officers, as opposed to a four-officer diamond formation. Officers must know how to work in both environments. If a single officer or hasty team is unable to neutralize the threat, they can establish communications with an arriving four-officer contact team and direct the more capable team into the shooter’s location.
Lacking an SRO or first arriving officer, the only hope for saving lives may fall to citizens who are on-scene when the attack begins. This concept was discussed in the 9/11 report in reference to citizen rescuers who took charge during the evacuation of the World Trade Center. The report called these heroes “first first responders.” Obviously, confronting an active shooter is much different than leading people from a burning building. Still, active shooters have been stopped by untrained citizens. In states where concealed carry is legal, the odds of a citizen being equipped to deal with an active shooter are enhanced. The Virginia Tech officials have been criticized for banning concealed weapon permits on their campus. Many universities still refuse to arm their campus police officers. The Harris/Klebold generation that wreaked havoc in high schools are now at universities–this is a dangerous time.
Supervision and backup
Most rapid deployment training programs focus primarily on the contact team. Officers are trained to assume a diamond formation and move rapidly to hunt the shooter(s). Some programs also provide training to rescue teams on lifting, dragging and first aid techniques. Few rapid deployment training programs deal with two problems associated with the use of these tactics in actual incidents, (1) the lack of overall scene supervision and (2) the deployment of backup teams.
If all the available officers are thrown into the building to hunt for the shooter(s), no one may be left outside to deal with the crowds of terrified people leaving the venue, and the flood of first responders and panicked townspeople who will crush the scene. While stopping the killing is priority number one, the panic and rush-to-the-scene factors cannot be left unsupervised. Someone must assume overall command. Even before the contact team makes entry, an incident commander must decide whether or not to release the team for entry. While this may fly in the face of rapid deployment doctrines, which states that we must always make immediate entry, the team must be slowed for a few crucial seconds to allow a risk assessment, making sure the situation is appropriate.
We have seen rapid deployment teams charge headlong into situations far beyond their training and capability. In one notable case, a rapid deployment team attempted to rescue a downed officer being covered by a suspect who laid an impromptu ambush. This was not an active shooter situation, and the failed rescue attempt resulted in two additional officers being wounded ... without accomplishing the desired outcome. Throwing a rapid deployment team into a situation which is clearly above their capability may be a noble, yet futile gesture. So, one must ask whether the wounding or killing of additional officers will make the situation better or worse. To those who say “we can’t do nothing,” I say, take a deep breath and reconsider.
An honest risk assessment means we must sort through the initial flood of confusing intelligence to determine if our team has a chance to win. If a group of active shooters is attacking a school full of children, no risk is too great. Even sacrificing an entire team of officers to neutralize or drive off a terrorist attack might be appropriate. But, the toughest decision any incident commander will ever have to make is not to deploy a team. Sending a team into an obvious ambush or a situation where no innocent lives are under immediate threat could be little more than senseless suicide.
In cases where a contact team is appropriate, who will rescue the rescuers? If all of our assets go in the door in the first mad rush to the scene, where will we turn when that team takes casualties or finds themselves unable to proceed in the face of overwhelming odds? The answer is: a second team of officers, who must stand by to rush to the aid of the first team. If the first team accomplishes the mission of neutralizing the bad guy(s), then the backup team becomes a rescue team to deal with the wounded and trapped victims of the attack. In the fire service, where they routinely deploy their people into extremely dangerous environments, the “two-in/two-out” rule applies. This rule is: the first team of firefighters will not enter the danger zone until two additional firefighters are suited up and standing by to rescue the first pair, in case something goes wrong. Wherever police manpower supplies are adequate, we should always have a backup team standing by to rescue or supplement the first team.
However, (and this is a big however) carefully consider any decision to send the second team into the hot zone from a different direction, hoping the two teams might locate and eliminate the attackers more quickly. Multiple entries, especially from multiple entrances, magnify the chance that both teams will ultimately make contact with the attackers and end up in a deadly crossfire situation. I know of one SWAT team that divided it’s assaulters into two teams from two directions to seek out an armed intruder in a public building. They both found the suspect and when the smoke cleared, two cops and the suspect all went down. The suspect never got off a shot. If a skilled SWAT team couldn’t coordinate such a dangerous “hunt,” can we expect modestly-trained rapid deployment teams to do better? Large venues and a lack of good information on the shooter’s whereabouts may justify sending in multiple teams. Make sure they all know other teams are in there “hunting.”
Outdoor and Large Interior Area Tactics
Rapid deployment training revolves around the use of a formation that provides 360-degree security during movement, most commonly a diamond formation. When the team must move through large open area, (outdoor or indoor, think gymnasium) the diamond formation may be a poor choice. As my old Drill Sergeant liked to yell, “spread out - one grenade would get y’all!”
Rapid deployment teams must be trained to split into two elements when hunting through large, open areas. One team takes an overwatch position using available cover, while the second team advances. As the second team reaches a good cover position, they become the overwatch team, signalling the first team to advance. When contact is made, this same leapfrog technique allows one team to fire from a position of cover, while the second team rapidly advances to flank or overwhelm the adversary. This is Infantry 101 training, but few cops know or practice these tactics. If we intend to throw patrol officers into a combat situation, we have got to give them at least a modicum of combat-style training. Doing so will improve their odds for success and survival. The rule of thumb is: suspect’s location is unknown – diamond formation; suspect’s location is known (or in large, exposed areas) – bounding overwatch.
Rapid deployment tactics have been around long enough to be widely recognized and accepted. Like other new response techniques, agencies will train and maintain their skill sets with varying degrees of enthusiasm. To our knowledge, no rapid deployment response team has collided with an attacker or group of attackers that have fully tested the techniques and limits. Still, we can predict that a modestly- trained rapid deployment team may fail terribly, if used beyond its reasonable capabilities. By adding the recommendations below, rapid deployment can become much more powerful and flexible.
(1) an instant response capability using one- or two-officer hasty teams,
(2) a layer of incident management and response in-depth,
(3) military movement tactics for large, open areas and where the suspect’s location has been found.
In a post 9/11 environment, we must maximize the effectiveness of a our patrol officers to handle the threats our nation may face.
1 Rapid Deployment as a Response to an Active Shooter Incident, 2003, Illinois State Police Academy.
About the author
Richard Fairburn is a critical incident training coordinator and an instructor for the Illinois State Police Academy.