How LE and school administrators can train together for active shooter response

Why aren’t we as a society focusing more on efficient training for those involved in the incident prior to the arrival of responders?


This article and additional content on how police and schools can work together to prevent school shootings and improve student safety can be found in Campus Collaborations, a free eBook available for download.

By Nate Horton, P1 Contributor

Since the horrific attacks in Parkland, Florida, and Santa Fe, Texas, social media has been on fire with opinions as to how to solve the problem of school shootings. The truth is, there isn’t any one solution and we probably won’t be able to stop such horrific events from ever happening again. However, through efficient preparation, we are able to minimize the deadly consequences when another attack does happen.

Nobody has been killed in a school fire in the last 50 years, yet we continue to practice fire drills in schools across our nation. It is long overdue that we apply the same preventative measures to a threat that has proven to be more prevalent in recent years. In reality, the greatest lethalness of an active shooter incident ends as soon as, or shortly after, the sound of sirens. So why aren’t we as a society focusing more on efficient training for those who would be involved in the incident prior to the arrival of responders? We absolutely should be.

It is important for each organization to understand their role, responsibilities and procedures during the response to an active shooter incident. (Photo/Susanvillesnapshots.com)
It is important for each organization to understand their role, responsibilities and procedures during the response to an active shooter incident. (Photo/Susanvillesnapshots.com)

Applying lessons learned from previous incidents

In nearly every school shooting incident, students and teachers who were able to keep themselves enclosed in a locked room survived the attack. The objective of a school shooting suspect is most often to inflict the greatest amount of casualties possible, and therefore, they seek out easy targets.

One of the main reasons the deadly shooting at Sandy Hook resulted in so many casualties is because the substitute teacher working that day was unable to lock her classroom door. A second classroom containing additional casualties was found to be unlocked with no signs of forced entry as well. The same is true of the Virginia Tech and Columbine shootings – every casualty occurred in an unlocked classroom or out in one of the school’s open areas. By contrast to those who survived by remaining behind locked doors, several teachers and administrators have lost their lives while attempting to engage or stop an attack through dialogue alone.

This is a clear indication our school’s teachers and administrators are not being properly trained on how to react, or what to expect, if an active shooter incident occurs on their campus. After-action reviews of school shootings analyze the actions of everyone involved including school staff, fire and medical personnel, law enforcement, hospitals, and public assistance agencies. So why aren’t all of these agencies training together? They absolutely should be.

The same way police officers train on how to use their firearms in stressful situations, teachers should also train on how to lockdown their classrooms while under stress. In order to be proficient in something, you need to be well trained. We are doing our school districts a disservice by not including them in our active shooter trainings.

The value of simulated drills

Training in a classroom environment through a PowerPoint presentation does not prepare individuals to respond to the chaos of an active shooter event. Most people are visual learners or gain a better understanding by doing something themselves. While this is an important benefit of conducting a simulated drill, the biggest payoff is the ability to better understand how each involved entity will respond and the role they will play. Teachers gain a much better understanding of their responsibilities by watching police officers respond, as well as police officers watching teachers conduct a lockdown. Furthermore, it allows everyone to identify the potential gaps and shortcomings within their own agency’s current procedures.

Each year, the Susanville School District and Lassen High School District in Lassen County, California, hold an annual training exercise that incorporates each entity that may be involved if a school shooting occurs including the superintendent, teachers, administrators, first responders and hospital personnel.

The drill begins with more than 100 role players simulating an active shooter attack on campus and continues all the way through to hospital transports and student reunification. The feedback from this training drill has been enormously positive with participants reporting they feel better prepared to handle an actual incident. As a result of the training, new policies have been implemented, Department of Homeland Security grants have allowed fire personnel to obtain protective armor, and everyone has become more vigilant and prepared for a potential attack. 

To successfully implement a similar process in your jurisdiction, follow these four steps:

1. Conduct initial outreach

As local law enforcement has the greatest amount of training in responding to active shooter situations, police should take the primary role in planning training.

The lead planning role should be given to someone outside of the command staff, as should an incident occur, command staff will have crucial roles within the incident itself. This individual will manage from a distance in order to ensure that all gaps are filled, people are where they need to be and operations are occurring as they should. They will know exactly what needs to be done, in its entirety, because they helped shape and form the entire protocol. This may become vital to success as some responders could experience tunnel vision in regard to their assigned tasks.  

The lead law enforcement officer should then reach out to each entity that may be involved in the training exercise. Organizations that should be considered for involvement include:

  • All local law enforcement organizations;
  • Federal law enforcement;
  • Fire and rescue personnel;
  • Local hospitals:
  • School district;
  • Public health department;
  • Transportation department;
  • Any local mental health or trauma intervention organizations.

It is important to establish a single point-of-contact within each organization to avoid miscommunication and ensure a responsive and responsible representative will attend all necessary planning meetings. Each organization’s point of contact then becomes responsible for disseminating the information to the rest of their organization.   

2. Decide on roles, responsibilities and procedures

Starting from scratch can be burdensome. If any of your organizations have an efficient active shooter response plan in place already, you are ahead of the game. However, if your plan does not incorporate the other entities who will be involved, you still have a lot to do.  

It is important for each organization to understand their role, responsibilities and procedures during the response to an active shooter incident. Such directives should be reviewed or established by local law enforcement, as they will have command and control of the incident during the initial response. The ideal outcome consists of every single member of every single organization understanding their specific roles and responsibilities.

For example, in Lassen County, the public health department knows to immediately begin reunification protocol at the onset of any active shooter incident. In an actual incident, public health would partner with the mental health department and begin constructing and establishing an off-site reunification center to streamline the reunification process as quickly and efficiently as possible. Local hospitals are also ready with a lockdown and accountability procedure that they would initiate immediately.

Dr. Kevin Menes – the attending in charge of the Sunrise Hospital’s emergency department the night of the Las Vegas shooting – attributed his training with the local SWAT team for enabling him to mobilize the emergency department during a mass casualty incident. His preparation and planning in advance saved countless lives.  

As the training exercises progress, specific roles will emerge and become clarified as gaps are identified.

3. Develop tabletop exercises and small-scale training drills

The process of a full-scale training exercise should be viewed similar to a football season, with the full-scale drill representing the Super Bowl. Before you can reach the Super Bowl, there will be lots of practice, then several “regular season games” and finally the big game.

For a successful drill, it is an important first step for each organization to practice their specific roles separately. Law enforcement should practice and train for their response, hospitals should simulate their protocol for a maximum influx of critical patients, and public health (or whichever organization is tasked to be responsible) should practice the process of reunification.

Following group training, the heads and key personnel from each organization should meet for a tabletop exercise. Tabletop exercises should simulate response and procedure, while attempting to identify gaps and any missing pieces of the puzzle. If possible, a final tabletop should be conducted prior to the full-scale drill to ensure everyone is prepared.

4. Graduate to full-scale training exercises with role players

Finally, it is time for the big drill. Effective training must be realistic. A realistic exercise is accomplished by using role players who are well instructed and understand their roles. Just like each other organization, role players should receive training ahead of the drill. For each exercise, role players should have very specific instructions and responsibilities. Injured role players should know and understand their injuries and react accordingly. Shooter role players should react according to police response. Certain role players should be able to contact a mock dispatch center and provide real-time information that is then given to responding officers.

Having the drill occur in real-time makes it incredibly realistic. During the Lassen County drill, officers were given actual response times that were mapped out ahead of the drill. They were only allowed to respond to the scenario once it was dispatched over the air with their given response time. The incident was only dispatched over the air once dispatchers received real 911 calls from the role players and entered the call into the system. This delay provided a realistic amount of chaos to ensue before the arrival of first responders on scene.   

Another important element in conducting a drill is to have evaluators survey the response and take detailed notes. The notes will help to fill in any gaps at a later point that may have been missed during the tabletop exercises.

It is important to conduct an after-action review and discuss the notes, pitfalls and points of improvement that were discovered during the exercise in order to improve and develop new policies and procedures.

Finally, a full-scale drill should include realistic resources and play out in its entirety. The drill should begin when the incident occurs and continue all the way until patients are taken to the hospital, the school is evacuated and deemed safe, and students are reunified with their parents and guardians. Resources should be introduced with realistic response times and should only include what is actually available. In doing so, you may discover the need to incorporate the assistance of other organizations you hadn’t previously thought necessary.  

Conclusion

While everyone is searching for a solution to prevent school shootings, now is the perfect time for law enforcement agencies to reach out to their local school districts, fire departments and other related agencies in an effort to create training drills, establish city or county-wide reaction plans and gain valuable experience working together. It’s a good idea to start slowly by conducting meetings and deciding on roles, responsibilities and procedures, followed with tabletop exercises and small-scale training drills, then eventually graduating to full-scale training exercises that involve realistic role players and responses. With these tools, cities and counties will be much better prepared should a school shooting ever occur in their district.


About the author
Nate Horton served as an infantry soldier in the U.S. Army before beginning his career in law enforcement in 2012. During his tenure as an officer, he has worked as a narcotics detective, major crimes detective, school resource officer and FBI task force officer. Nate holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Ashford University, a master’s degree in justice management from the University of Nevada-Reno, and is currently pursuing his doctoral degree in education with an emphasis in organizational leadership from Northeastern University. Nate completed his master’s thesis on the examination of school shootings.  

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