3 levels of active shooter attack: Is your agency ready to respond?

As active shooter threats evolve, agencies and officers need to assess their current capabilities to respond to these new threats


The SHOT Show 2017 Law Enforcement Education Program kicked off with the Active Shooter Debrief presented by Don Alwes, a member of the National Tactical Officers Association.

Alwes led the assembled crowd through the challenging subject by first addressing the definition of an active shooter incident. He then discussed how an active shooter attack can be broken into three separate categories, based on the number of attackers, their weaponry and the amount of planning and coordination performed before the attack. The three levels of active shooter attack were as follows:

Level One: Single attacker, limited weaponry, little to no preplanning

In a May 25, 2016 file photo, emergency personnel carrying a volunteer with simulated injuries is carried during a training exercise for an active shooter at Hopewell Elementary School, in West Chester, Ohio. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)
In a May 25, 2016 file photo, emergency personnel carrying a volunteer with simulated injuries is carried during a training exercise for an active shooter at Hopewell Elementary School, in West Chester, Ohio. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

Level Two:  One or multiple attackers, enhanced weaponry, some preplanning

Level Three:  Multiple attackers, significant weaponry, detailed preplanning and coordination

The utility of a model like this lies in its ability to help you focus on your own preparations and capabilities. During an attack, much of the information required to classify the assault, according to this model, would be unavailable until it's over and investigations have been completed. With that in mind, , the model is useful as a way to measure strengths and weaknesses of first responders, beforehand (during training).

Questions to ask during drills

To start, an agency or officer might consider whether or not they are trained, equipped and prepared to handle a Level One attack.If a disgruntled worker with mental health issues made an impromptu decision to bring a gun to work and attack his or her fellow coworkers, would the agency or individual officer have the capability to deal with the situation? Would officers have suitable firearms to deal with the situation if the attacker was armed with a long gun? Would they be trained well enough to fire a shot beyond traditional pistol distances, or know how to maneuver inside of a building after making a hasty entry? Questions such as these could expose weaknesses in a game plan or capabilities that would help to identify priorities for future training and funding.

The same kind of analysis could be conducted for Level Two and Level Three attacks, probing to see if there are weaknesses in an agency's or individual's plans for responding to these increasingly complex incidents. Do officers have experience working together to clear a building in small teams? Do they have ready access to rifle-rated armor and patrol rifles? Have agency leaders trained in managing critical incidents, and is there a game plan for standing up tactical and incident command posts when one of these attacks is launched? Are mutual aid or automatic aid response plans established so that additional help can be quickly summoned?

Most agencies and officers are probably prepared to respond to a Level One active shooter attack, but as the attack grows more sophisticated, the more holes in the net there are likely to be. Is your agency ready for the complex, coordinated attack denoted by a Level Three threat?  If a group of terrorists launched a swarm attack on your city, hitting numerous locations simultaneously in hit-and-run assaults, would you have the manpower on the street, the training and the command and control expertise necessary to mount a coordinated response? Would you be ready to deal with a hostage siege involving hundreds of innocents trapped in a building that's controlled by a group of terrorists who shot their way inside? Are your emergency medical assets trained and ready to respond to a mass casualty attack?

An honest capability assessment

Most agencies and officers, if they're honest with themselves, would admit that their preparations for these complex attacks are incomplete. Unfortunately, the research and historical record indicates that we will likely see an increase in such attacks here in the coming years. His review of recent incidents in the briefing today illustrated the trend very clearly, so agencies would be well advised to ready themselves and close the gaps in their training and preparations while they can.

Time will not be on our side when the next active shooter attack is launched, so we need to ensure that we take advantage of the time we have now to get ready. Having a model like the one described by Alwes, to serve as a guide for self-inspection and a yardstick to measure readiness, will better enable us to focus our energy and resources on the areas that deserve them most.

As Alwes noted today, the focus at SHOT Show typically falls on the hardware, but it's the software - the training, mindset and heart--that is the most important determinate of victory. That's always an excellent reminder, and he did a great job of bringing this message home for the audience today.

Be safe out there.

For more information about the National Tactical Officers Association and the training and education programs they offer, please visit their website at www.ntoa.org.

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