6 simple ways to prepare for the next active shooter incident
The most difficult part of an active shooter response is the decision-making, so take the opportunity to “war game” some of these decisions ahead of time
When you consider all the things that are necessary to prepare an agency and its members for their role in active shooter response, it can be pretty overwhelming.
From training to tactics, communications to command, and mutual aid to first aid, the list of topics that must be addressed is enormous. Among other things, officers need to know how to shoot, move, communicate, care for and extract casualties, breach doors, search buildings, recognize IEDs and evacuate crowds. They need to be able to work indoors or out, in daylight or the dark, and in teams or by themselves to stop the threat.
Honestly, you could spend a career pursuing these objectives and never run out of things to do.
For both the agency and the individual officer, it can be difficult to know where to begin. We know that you can’t “eat the elephant” all in one bite, but how do we break down this overwhelming and complex undertaking into smaller, more manageable objectives and tasks?
We have to accept the fact that some things are just going to take a lot of hard work and resources. You can’t build a mutual aid plan, for instance, on a lunch break, and you can’t teach the entire patrol division how to clear a multi-level, commercial building in an afternoon. These "big-ticket items" take time and effort, and require the work of a team, not a single individual.
However, there’s a lot an individual officer can do to prepare for active shooter scenarios to improve their chance for mission success. Some of these tasks require some heavy lifting, but others are relatively simple.
If you find yourself thinking, “I need to do more to get ready,” but you’re overwhelmed with the enormity of it all, and don’t know where to start, consider these six simple tasks. They might seem like small things, but the effort you spend in these areas will produce greater results than you’d expect.
1. Ask yourself, “What are the likely targets on my beat?”
An active shooter attack can happen anywhere, but some locations are more likely to be targets of violence than others.
In a 2018 study of Mass Attacks in Public Spaces, the U.S. Secret Service determined that 70% of active shooter attacks occurred in places of business, 14% occurred in open spaces (such as streets, sidewalks and parking lots), 11% were carried out at schools and 4% happened at houses of worship.
Studies like these might help to narrow the field for you, but you should trust your knowledge and experience more than any study. Every cop knows the places on his beat that attract the most problems, are hardest to secure and look like the softest targets. If you were an attacker, which would you strike, and why? How would you do it? When?
2. Conduct reconnaissance
Now that you have your list of likely targets, it’s time for you to get to know them better.
When you take a shoplifting call at that store, spend a few extra minutes while you’re there to talk to the security team. Ask them questions about camera coverage, door locations, alarm systems and the like. Figure out the places where you could get in from the outside, without being noticed.
When you take a DUI suspect to the hospital for a blood alcohol test, spend a few minutes looking at the building map to understand how the wings are numbered, where the stairwells are, which floors are open and which floors are secured.
If your travels take you to a local school, check out the doors on the classrooms and see what it would take to breach them. Figure out how the classrooms are numbered, and how you can get your car onto campus grounds.
Get familiar with your most likely targets, before you have to respond there for an active shooter call ‒ your knowledge of them will be extremely helpful when the balloon goes up.
3. Rub elbows
Take your lunch to the fire station from time to time, or buy a paramedic a cup of coffee. Get to know the folks in the big red trucks and the white ambulances, because if you ever have an active shooter in your community, you'll be working closely with them.
Ask them questions about casualty care or how to carry someone who’s been hurt to safety. Have them show you where critical equipment is stored on their rigs, and show them what you’ve got in yours. Share something about using cover, how to safe a weapon that’s been recovered, or how to move efficiently through a warm zone. Ask them what they’re thinking about when they select a spot for a casualty collection point.
Get to know these professionals and help them to get to know you. The bonds and understanding you create now will make the team even stronger when you get thrown together to handle the next mass casualty incident (MCI).
Talk to your family about being aware and avoiding trouble in public. Talk to them about the things they need to do if they get caught up in an active shooter event. Talk to your neighbors about awareness, danger signs and reporting trouble. Talk to them about the “Gun Free Zones” that endanger them, instead of protecting them. Talk to the merchants and residents on your beat about what’s going on in the neighborhood. Talk to the kids in the neighborhood, and establish a relationship where they’d be willing to come to you for help. Talk to the employees at the likely targets on your beat, about the essential elements of information they need to pass to the police in an emergency, what you want them to do, and what you want them not to do if their business is attacked. Talk is free, but the information that gets shared may be priceless if an active shooter strikes in your town.
Imagine how you would respond to an active shooter call:
- How would you get there?
- Where would you park?
- What gear would you get out of the car and take with you?
- Where would you find an entrance?
- What would constitute good cover?
- How would you move through the building?
- How would you identify the killer?
- What would you do if you encountered wounded people asking for help?
- What would you say on the radio?
- How would you avoid friendly fire?
The most difficult part of an active shooter response is the decision-making, so take the opportunity to “war game” some of these decisions ahead of time, and prepare your mind to work efficiently under stress.
6. Carry your gun off duty
We don’t get to pick and choose the time or place where an active shooter will strike ‒ or a common criminal, for that matter. It would be nice if we were on duty, with full access to all of our equipment and resources, when the killer strikes, but you spend more time out of uniform than you do with it on. If the past is any indicator, a significant number of officers who are caught up in active shooter events will be there in off-duty status. From Boston to Oslo, Norway, to Poway to Thousand Oaks, to Las Vegas, to El Paso, we’ve seen off-duty officers bravely responding to help citizens ‒ and their fellow officers ‒ in times of need. These heroic actions are certainly worthy of our praise and respect, but I’m willing to bet that all of these officers wished they had been armed when the killer attacked. Wouldn’t it be good if you could protect your family, friends and other innocents when the killing started? Or stop the killing quickly, before uniformed officers arrived?
Many members of society are not entrusted with the responsibility of carrying a gun in public, but you are. That’s a special trust, and it carries with it a hint of obligation, as well. You may be the only one authorized to carry the lifesaving tools that will short circuit an MCI, so don’t get caught short on the day of reckoning. Innocent lives may depend on you not leaving your gun at home.
You can do this
The nation was still reeling from the news in Gilroy when the active shooting in El Paso occurred, and within hours of that, the Dayton shooter had struck. Days later, a man armed with knives and a stolen pistol went on a stabbing rampage in a pair of Southern California cities.
In a little over a week, four evil young men killed approximately 40 people and injured another 66 in active killer attacks at a pace so fast we could hardly keep up with the reports.
It would be easy to feel overwhelmed by the rapid pace of these attacks, and perhaps a little helpless to stop them. It would also be easy to get paralyzed into inaction because you're not sure where to begin in addressing these threats.
There’s certainly a lot of big tasks that need to be accomplished to get our agencies ready for the active killer threat, but some of the most important steps are small ones, that you can easily accomplish.
Take them one step at a time, then repeat, and be safe out there.