Terror in America: Why we need to change our training for active threats

Officers must be trained to move quickly to contact, with much greater emphasis on cover and concealment than in the past


By Joe Hendry
PoliceOne Special Contributor

Google “Law enforcement active shooter training” and be prepared to scroll through hundreds of photos of officers — inside and outside — practicing moving to the threat in densely-packed formations. Watch news stories about active threat training on any station and watch the movements of the team. Don’t look at them from our perspective. Look at them through the eyes of the threat.

Read the open-source articles in which law enforcement is told that the use of suppressive fire and distraction rounds are not allowable. Look at the photos and see how many officers are carrying pistols versus how many are carrying rifles. See if they are equipped with helmets, ballistic shields and vests.

Read and listen to the reporting about which facilities use lockdown for response over evacuation to gauge how quickly you can gain total control over building occupants. Read which facilities hire experts who teach lockdown as a primary response. Now, type your notes as if you were preparing to attack the facility.

The Coming Threat
The terrorist threats have already been doing so and have gone so far as to publish a document, in English, for their followers in the West titled “Safety and Security Guidelines for Lone Wolf Mujahideen and Small Cells.” The fact is terrorists overseas have been planning on utilizing lockdown tactics in order to corral large numbers of civilians and kill them for more than a decade.

Experts in the field agree that video stills in a February 2015 article in US News and World Report show al-Qaida training to kill women and children, in lockdown, in educational facilities. The video was captured in Afghanistan in 2002.

I’ve read hundreds of articles about the law enforcement response. I’m a trainer or have taken part in training for every concept we have utilized since the mid-90s. I was originally trained tactically by the Marines 30 years ago. We have moved from a SWAT response model to Quad Tactics (Stack, Diamond, T Formation, et.al.) to Solo Engagement.

We have based our response on mainly dealing with a single threat — which is not highly trained — who usually uses a handgun. We have heavily relied on training that requires groups of officers to bunch together, telling them to bypass doorways, bypass wounded, bypass potential explosive devices, and move straight to threat. Telling them to do those things now — facing new adversaries — has great potential to be deadly.

A Change in Training
I believe we are on the cusp of our fourth tactical change in the past 17 years. Tactics that combine single option law enforcement response with military-style bounding overwatch, for locations inside and outside of facilities. Tactics that may include suppressive fire and distraction rounds being a natural part of the training. Tactics that take into account that the suspects are trained in the use of military tactics, will place explosive devices with sensors in hallways, will use incendiary devices (especially in locations where lock down is the preferred option and secondary locking devices that require fine motor skills or special knowledge to remove are used) and almost always plan on not surviving their own assault.

We will also have to begin training under the assumption that, during a terrorist attack, the suspects are wearing suicide vests or belts. While the class Preventing and Responding to Suicide Bombing Incidents (PRSBI) has been taught for many years, most line officers have not been exposed to this type of training.

New team training will look very different — closer to resembling solo engagement — and away from tight formation movement. Officers must still be trained to move quickly to contact, with much greater emphasis on cover and concealment than in the past. Instead of a team of densely-packed officers in a formation in the middle of a hallway, which could easily be neutralized by a motion sensor explosive or incendiary devices or gunfire, officers may be moving forward alone or in small teams of two officers.

Officers would “bound” forward while being covered — possibly with suppressive or distractive fire in contact — by the officers who are in an overwatch position. When the “bounding” officers reach a position, they would then provide overwatch for officers who would then proceed to their position or even further. Officers’ training will have to include being under fire by an adversary who has trained and prepared for their response.

These tactics provide greater cover and, if an explosive device is tripped, does not neutralize an entire team of officers. It is also highly likely that threats will begin to combine firearms and tactical utilization of incendiary devices. Because so many locations used lockdown training for active shooters as the response for active threats for twenty years, millions of Americans have only been trained to turn off lights, get on the ground, and not move — a sure recipe for success by the terrorists.

In addition, many buildings have focused more on heating and cooling than on occupant survival. Most facilities have windows that do not open or open only slightly. An incendiary device would render the hallway unusable for evacuation or rescue and would probably trap most building occupants. Many windows on building perimeters are thick glass and difficult to break. Some facilities have even placed shatter proof film over the perimeter windows. While ‘Crime Prevention through Environmental Design’ may stop some basic criminal activity, it also can effectively create mass casualty zones inside facilities if evacuation is not given priority in building design.

Building design must be codified and changed. Fire and life codes exist based on past lessons. Building design was changed drastically in response to the threat of fire. Things we take for granted- wide hallways, wired smoke detectors, outward opening doors, panic bars, alarms, structural materials, sprinkler systems, etc. –  all changed because of codification. This should be no different. Doors from the perimeters of first floor rooms, windows that open wide enough for egress, doors that have multiple securing points in the frame that can be utilized without using fine motor skills - not secondary locking mechanism devices, no windows in hallway walls, no fencing with few egress points on a perimeter, and no windows in doors next to door locks. 

Officers must be trained in new tactics, given proper equipment (rifles, ballistic vests, helmets, shields, first aid trauma kits). Fire personnel must be prepared to enter and treat wounded while facilities may only be partially secured. We need to make evacuation a priority in building design for terrorism/active threats and fire. Civilians must be trained in all of their options — evacuation, barricading, and counter measures — to respond based on their circumstance.

We need to stop training and building for the last event — because the next event is coming someday.

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