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Active Shooter Cycle: Train Now or Pay Later

By: Paul Howe

Responding to an active shooter callout is the most difficult mission assigned to either patrol or tactical officers. Why? Because active shooter response requires officers to practice and rehearse a plan ahead of time. Make no mistake – rehearsal is mandatory! Additionally, officers must take special equipment into the facility to ensure that after the threat is neutralized, any medical contingencies encountered are addressed. Essentially, law enforcement officers must be prepared to perform a cold hit on an unknown target – a task that requires a high degree of skill in order to be successful.

While there are several other steps in the process, below are the most important points officers should rehearse during active shooter training:

• Planning and Preparation
• Notification, Movement and Linkup
• Movement to the Entry/Breach Point
• Movement to the Crisis Points
• Threat Neutralization
• Linkup with Follow-On Elements
• Site Security, Consolidation and Treatment of Injured

Planning and Preparation
The active shooter cycle is an assault process similar to that which a tactical team performs during a hostage rescue/emergency assault mission. This is where the hostage takers have started killing hostages, and the reaction team must respond without the support of the entire force. Depending upon the circumstances at the scene, the first responding officers must be able to perform the entire mission on demand. Remember, the more time a shooter is allowed free reign, the more terror he will inflict – innocent lives are at stake.

Breakaway bags. These bags contain spare ammunition, bandages, medical scissors and chemical light sticks.

At the individual level, officers must know their capabilities. They must be confident in what they can accomplish. With this prior knowledge intact, they should size up the tactical situation at hand and make a personal decision to enter or wait on backup. At the FTO/supervisory level, this decision should have been worked out before the crisis occurs. Keep in mind, a commanding officer will not be on site when the crisis is unfolding. I believe it is our job to get between the hostages and hostage-takers as rapidly as possible, in a controlled manner. If shots are being fired and the officers are not being engaged with the gunfire, the bad guys are most likely shooting the hostages. This is the time to close in and move on the threat.

You should use cover when approaching threats and suspected threats, and should always approach in a careful hurry so that you can react and shoot faster than your opponent. This includes discriminating first. If done correctly, it will not cost you any more time. You should also move fast when you have a cover officer protecting your movement. Try and put cover between you and the threat area as you move. You do not have to run up to the threat. Use a geometric angle to protect yourself and screen your movement.

Although our active shooter classes are covered in two days, I have found that this is not normally enough time to cover all contingencies. Instruction begins by reviewing past incidents, discussing administrative responsibilities and examining tactical modules. Teams spend the afternoon rehearsing with their newly assigned elements. Rehearsals include: movement to breach points, breach points, hallway movements, room Close Quarter Battle (CQB) and command and control. Each of these is broken down into several different blocks of instruction.

We strive to teach officers to solve one problem at a time before they become overwhelmed with chaos. In other words, they learn to take one bite of the pie at a time, instead of choking on the whole thing. Scenario training is next on the agenda. We normally begin with a single shooter and medical emergencies, utilizing five role players in a 2,000 sq. foot target building. Officers are encouraged to approach the structure from their hasty assembly area using realistic movement formations, instead of the typical “line of ducks” arrangement.

Occasionally, they take fire and must move through or around it to neutralize a retreating threat on the inside of the target building. I prefer they drop a cover officer if they believe they will be hit on approach. This can be accomplished with a simple bounding maneuver. Upon entering the target area, officers run into several sub-scenarios, ranging from injured unknowns to downed officers, requiring problem-solving skills prior to moving to neutralize the threat.

As the scenario training progresses, the officers’ learning curve goes straight up. I have actually considered adding a third day of training, using the same scenarios to give them reinforcement training and build confidence in their abilities. As in most first-time training, officers generally have problems on the first run. In fact, many are in shock at what they encounter. During the debriefing, I suggest they fix two to three major problems with each run. By taking their training responsibilities seriously and employing aggression and systematic movements, officers almost always cut their movement-to-contact time in half as compared to the first part of the day’s training response time. Realistically, the human mind can only absorb so much information so fast. Training takes time, effort and heart.

Notification, Movement and Linkup
Once notified of an active shooter, officers should conduct a mobile linkup to determine the best routes to the crisis site. They should designate a covered area to assemble and get their long guns and breakaway bags out. Breakaway bags are simple bags that can be thrown over a shoulder. They contain spare ammunition, bandages, medical scissors and chemical light sticks. As far as ammo goes, I would hope that situations would be remedied with safe, accurate and surgical gunfire, but that is not always the case. Common sense dictates that it is always better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it.

Medical items are for casualty treatment of both innocents and downed officers. Remember, school nurses will normally have limited trauma gear and office buildings will most likely have none at all. If you fail to bring it, it will not get there. Simple items such as Kerlix and Co-flex can make a world of difference when the scene is littered with critically wounded people. Scissors are used to cut clothes and expose wounds. Chemlites allow you to mark Improvised Explosive Devices (IED), should they be encountered. When you have time, review some of the recent footage of officers responding to active shooter scenarios, and notice what little equipment they bring.

Movement to Entry/Breach Points
Responding officers should have a basic understanding of fire and maneuver while moving, and know how to apply it to open ground that lacks adequate cover. They should also be prepared to handle officer-down scenarios and injured unknowns when moving to the breach point. In regard to breach points, most schools are soft targets because they have lots of glass. Start practicing hasty breaching techniques using what is on your belt or by the door.

Movement to Crisis Points
All responding officers should be able to perform a quick and efficient hallway movement drill. Because hallways are kill zones, your exposure time in these areas should be limited. Simple open door/closed door SOPs should be used when maneuvering a hallway and entering/clearing rooms.

Threat Neutralization
A simple and effective CQB system should be used that moves officers away from the breach point and safely masses the fire of the responding officers, ensuring that threats are quickly and efficiently serviced. A standard room protocol should be used when collapsing a room. This protocol should address handling threats, innocents and medical emergencies. It should also specify the order in which each is to be addressed.

Linkup with Follow-On Elements
When training active shooter scenarios, I have the initial reaction team work with a sister team which responds a few minutes after the initial team has entered the target building. The follow-on team must safely move to, and assist the initial contact team without provoking or initiating any friendly fire. I use various signaling devices for this, and also suggest that the initial contact team leader take charge of the situation and direct the follow-on team’s actions. The initial contact team leader becomes a temporary incident commander.

Site Security, Consolidation and Treatment of Injured
Once the threats have been neutralized, a secondary search of the area must be performed, along with consolidation and treatment of the injured. This is where the real lifesaving work begins, because emergency medical personnel will not come in until a site is secure. Tragically, while the site is being secured, victims are bleeding out. The onsite officers have a responsibility to prevent this from happening. A Casualty Collection Point (CCP) should be established where patients can be more effectively treated and surveyed. Treating the injured where they lie, will spread out your treatment personnel and cause control problems. When possible, use uninjured subjects to hold direct pressure on bleeders until you can get them bandaged. Speaking of bandages and tourniquets, if you do not bring them, they will not get to the scene. Again, take time to review video footage of officers carrying/dragging injured victims who are bleeding to EMS. Since medical personnel are usually staged a great distance away, these victims are loosing precious blood during transport.

Once the first shot is fired, the damage is already done in an active shooter incident. As the active shooter cycle begins, the difficulty of the mission becomes irrelevant. Law enforcement must respond safely, quickly and efficiently to the crisis area. They must communicate during their vehicle approach and determine the best routes to their linkup area. After arriving in the crisis area, officers must have a movement plan-of-action to get to their entry/breach point and handle threats or casualties they encounter. They must then enter the crisis area and move quickly to the crisis point(s), in the case of multiple shooters. Next, officers must safely and surgically neutralize any threats they encounter. Finally, they must secure the site and be prepared to begin the treatment and consolidation of the injured. Because this entire cycle is a complex and perishable skill set, we have no choice but to develop and implement a realistic active shooter package that addresses the worst-case scenario. Regarding active shooter training, one officer recently told me, “You will pay now or you will pay later.”

About the Author
Paul R. Howe is a 20-year veteran and former Special Operations soldier and instructor. Paul currently owns Combat Shooting and Tactics (CSAT) where he consults, trains and evaluates law enforcement and government agencies in technical and tactical techniques throughout the special operations spectrum. For more information, contact: www.combatshootingandtactics.com

Editor’s Note: Active Shooter training is of vital importance to today’s law enforcement officers. Combat Shooting and Tactics offers Active Shooter and Active Shooter Instructor classes to law enforcement and military. Pulling from his vast real-world experience in the dynamics of these kinds of incidents, Paul provides instruction that is among the best in the nation. For more information, contact paul by email at: paul@combatshootingandtactics.com 

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