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10 lessons from the Pulse nightclub shooting

Progress has been made in developing active shooter protocols since Columbine, but the Pulse attack shows we still haven’t anticipated all the possibilities


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In the early morning hours of June 12, 2016, a lone terrorist who pledged allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) killed 49 people and wounded 58 others in an attack on the Pulse nightclub, in Orlando, Florida. At the time, the Pulse nightclub attack was the deadliest mass shooting in the United States by a single assailant, later exceeded only by the Route 91 Harvest music festival attack in Las Vegas, Nevada, on October 1, 2017.

Lieutenant Scott Smith of the Orlando Police Department led an entry team that confronted the shooter, and served as the Orlando tactical team commander that morning. This past December, he debriefed the attendees of the California Association of Tactical Officers (CATO) conference about the attack, sharing valuable insights about the operation and lessons learned.

Some of the lessons identified by Lieutenant Smith, or derived from his briefing, include the following:

In this Tuesday, May 30, 2017 photo, Marco Quiroga, who works to support LGBTQ and social-justice causes in central Florida, reflects in front of one of the memorials at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
In this Tuesday, May 30, 2017 photo, Marco Quiroga, who works to support LGBTQ and social-justice causes in central Florida, reflects in front of one of the memorials at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

1. Don’t leave critical equipment behind.

Upon his arrival, Lieutenant Smith was immediately confronted by a chaotic scene, with a swarm of victims fleeing from the shooter’s gunfire inside. Without delay, Smith grabbed his rifle, organized a hasty team, and made entry, leaving his rifle plates, helmet, spare ammunition and other vital equipment behind in his rush to stop the threat. Lieutenant Smith would later take a position down a short hallway from the rifle-armed attacker, and engage him with rifle fire, without the benefit of his protective equipment or spare ammunition for his primary weapon.

Officers should recognize that when they arrive at a high-threat scene, they may get ambushed, come under immediate fire, or be forced by circumstances – as Lieutenant Smith was – to react immediately without donning all of their equipment. Officers might consider making a momentary stop before reaching the scene to don protective equipment (helmet, plates), and access enhanced equipment and weaponry (active shooter bag, IFAK, tactical vest, long guns from the trunk or rack) so they’re mission ready upon arrival and protected to the maximum extent from ambush threats.

2. Hardening targets deters attacks.

It appears that the Pulse nightclub was not the primary target of the attacker, who had previously reconnoitered the Disney World theme park and other locations, but was deterred by the security measures at those sites. The Pulse nightclub was ostensibly chosen because it appeared to be a soft target, offering a high probability of success.

We have seen this behavior prior to other active shooter attacks, such as in the Aurora, Colorado theater shooting, where the attacker bypassed targets that were closer to his home and which offered a larger population of victims to attack, to target the only theater in the area with a restrictive “gun free zone” policy that disarmed patrons, thereby reducing the chance he would be opposed.

3. Victim considerations.

As in the Paris Bataclan Theater and San Bernardino terror attacks that preceded it, the Pulse attack demonstrated how quickly responding officers could be overwhelmed by the sheer number of victims that needed medical attention and rescue.

Because mass casualty incidents can quickly overwhelm responding forces, a robust mutual aid program is essential to deal with the volume of victims. Additionally, agencies must ensure that officers on contact teams understand their principal concern is ending the threat, not rescuing the victims they encounter. Any delay in shutting down the killer could generate additional victims. The Orlando Police showed how putting rapid pressure on the killer can change this calculus, since the Pulse killer shot no additional victims after the entry team closed on his position and fired at him.

4. Police and fire-EMS coordination is critical.

Fire-EMS forces were prohibited from responding to the Pulse nightclub by their chain of command, delaying critically needed treatment for victims. Even when the threat had been contained in a corner of the building, and police leaders requested assistance, fire-EMS crews were prevented from going to the casualty collection point located outside and across the street, or opening the doors to a fire station several blocks away from the incident to aid the victims that fled there. To their credit, two paramedics violated protocol to aid victims outside the club, but took a professional risk to do so.

Better communication and coordination at the command level between police and fire-EMS is essential beforehand to ensure a smooth integration of assets during a critical event.

5. Active shooter protocols require further study and refinement.

We’ve made a lot of progress in the development of active shooter protocols since the 1999 Columbine High School attack, but the Pulse nightclub shooting shows we still haven’t anticipated all the possibilities.

When the active shooter event transitioned into a barricaded hostage situation, the Orlando Police Department was left in an unanticipated predicament. The operation’s tempo, tactics and objectives suddenly changed, leaving no clear path to follow. The law enforcement community needs to consider the impact of unpredictable suspect actions on active shooter protocols, and ensure those protocols are flexible enough to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances.

6. Law enforcement transport of victims.

With fire-EMS assets withheld, law enforcement officers elected to transport victims directly to the hospital in patrol cars and trucks. The two paramedics who self-deployed to the scene transported 13 victims that morning, but police transported an estimated 15-20 victims to the hospital, including a SWAT officer who had been shot in the helmet by the suspect.

Because law enforcement transport of victims has become a common theme in recent incidents (such as the San Bernardino terror attack and the Dallas sniper attack), agencies should develop protocols for how to do this most efficiently and safely.

7. Long guns need slings.

Lieutenant Smith reported that many officers deployed long guns at the scene, and were later burdened by them when they needed to assist with rescues, first aid and other tasks that required two hands.

Every law enforcement long gun needs a sling so as to allow the free use of both hands while maintaining control of the weapon and immediate access to it. A sling is essential for a long gun in the same manner that a holster is essential for a pistol.

8. Explosives considerations.

The Orlando Police SWAT team did not have an integrated EOD capability, which complicated the scenario when developments indicated a possible IED threat. Concerns about standoff distances and blast mitigation required the team to consult mutual aid resources, and the team also had to ask for help from the Sheriff’s Department when it was decided to attempt an explosive breach of the outer wall.

In this modern age of terror activity, where IED technology and knowledge have proliferated, and explosive breaching capabilities have become more important, it’s essential for a tactical team to have an integrated EOD component, or at least enhanced IED awareness training.

9. Operations Tempo.

The day following the event, the Orlando PD SWAT team began working a 12 on/12 off schedule for an extended period, as dignitaries traveled to the city, investigative warrants were executed and concerns about secondary attacks were raised. The team kept up this exhausting pace for weeks after the attack, and it became a stressor on the team’s health and capabilities. The same thing happened with the French BRI team in the wake of the 2015 Paris terror attacks.

Agencies need to consider that in the wake of a critical incident, they may need to rely heavily on mutual aid agreements – for an extended period of time – to ease the burden, until the status quo is achieved again.

10. Critical Incident Stress Management.

In the wake of the attack, the Orlando Police Department conducted critical incident debriefings for affected personnel and provided counseling services. This kind of assistance is absolutely necessary, and must be ongoing to ensure that the mental and emotional health of personnel is maintained. Even resolute SWAT cops can benefit from this help – Lieutenant Smith reports that the SWAT team-only debriefing was expected to last about 90 minutes, but lasted approximately five hours to meet the needs of the team members.

I would like to thank Lieutenant Smith and the Orlando Police Department for sharing these valuable lessons with the greater law enforcement community. I would also like to thank CATO for the incredible learning opportunity provided by the 2017 Tactical Conference. To learn more about the 2018 CATO conference in Reno, Nevada, on 5-8 Nov 2018, visit http://catonews.org/conference-2018/.

God bless you all and be safe out there!

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