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How words can help improve active-shooter response

Three police trainers agree that forging a common terminology can help police, fire, and EMS agencies implement a truly multi-disciplinary response to active-shooter incidents

A recently introduced bill in California is aimed at creating a statewide template for training and operational procedures for police, fire, and EMS to have a collaborative response to help victims in need during an active-shooter incident. According to a news report by KOVR-TV, Assemblyman Freddie Rodriguez is a former EMT who wants to take lessons learned from incidents like the LAX shooting last year and “better transport and treat the patients that are injured out of” such an area more quickly that is currently happening. The report noted that half an hour passed between the time the suspect was taken into custody and medical crews entered the area.

In recent years, many jurisdictions have made tremendous strides in this regard. The California city of Fremont, for example, is just one of the models for other municipalities to look at as they seek to build a strategy for multi-disciplinary response to active-shooter incidents. 

As is evidenced by Rodriguez’s proposed legislation, many cities and towns are not as advanced as Fremont’s multi-disciplinary active-shooter response. In fact, it seems that many don’t even know where to start. Well, three police trainers last week voiced the suggestion that a good beginning would be trainers and leaders from all three disciplines meeting to establish a common language.

Language and Terminology
Last week, Cotter Research hosted an excellent online seminar — featuring Don Alwes (Instructor for National Tactical Officers Association), Randy Winn (Sergeant with the Sacramento County Sheriff’s Department), and Brian Ruck (Sergeant with the Fairfax County Police Department) — that touched on myriad topics, one of which was creating common language among public safety disciplines.

During the seminar, I sent an email to the organizer — Heather Cotter, president and founder of the abovementioned Virginia-based company — in which I asked the following question: 

What do you suggest agencies do to increase/improve training toward true multi-disciplinary (LE, Fire, EMS) response to active shooter events? How would you suggest overcoming any “cultural barriers” one might find between the disciplines?

All three experts agreed that once you’ve figured out a way to set ego aside, you should probably start with language and terminology. 

“We let our egos get in the way of doing the right thing, particularly when it comes to working with other agencies,” said Don Alwes. “Fire and EMS have their egos, too. We have to have adults in charge — someone who’s going to step up and say, ‘Look we’ve got to do this for our community.’

“The next thing that I’ve found is our terminologies. In my county, the Fire and EMS people use a different terminology, and for three years that terminology prevented them from working with us effectively at the scene of active shooters,” Alwes said. 

“We established that what we in law enforcement meant by the term ‘secure’ was different from what they meant, and that one term had kept us apart. So I’d look at egos and terminology first and a lot of the other stuff will sort itself out,” Alwes added. 

“Here in Fairfax County, we’ve done some training on mass casualty incidents and essentially the training we’re promoting here in conjunction with our fire department is working with security teams — having our officers on those security teams actually going into warm zones with fire personnel,” said Ruck. 

Ruck said that some natural barriers are going to have to be knocked down in order to get to a place where the different disciplines are training together on a regular basis “because it is two totally different cultures,” but he agrees that starting out by establishing some common language can be a big first step.

“I do think that the biggest thing is starting with the initial terminology as Don has suggested,” Ruck said.

The hardest part is coming to agreement on the basic definitions words like ‘safe’ and ‘secure’ — what the word ‘clear’ means to cops can be vastly different from what it means to and firefighters.

“Start with terminology,” Ruck said. “I would suggest talking with your trainer counterparts in your local fire department and find out from them exactly what they’re going to expect from the police in an event like this as it relates to security.”

Winn added, “I think the number one thing is really the definitions and terminologies when training with Fire and EMS personnel. One of the things we always talk about doing is kind of the multi-hazards approach. If we can identify the specific language and the protocols we want to use — whether that’s force protection teams or we want officers to do triage treatment and evacuation or we want to escort people in — that’s to be an executive-level decision from your particular agencies.”

Winn pointed out that there has historically been some resistance initially about Fire and EMS personnel operating in what law enforcement refers to the warm zone. 

“The warm zone for the fire service is not safe — and it’s not necessarily safe for us — but it is an area I think we feel comfortable bringing or escorting people into to do certain critical things,” Winn said. 

Winn suggested that we may want look at certain programs such as the one Homeland Security is using or FEMA is advocating in terms of Rescue Task Forces as starting points for the establishment of common language. Winn pointed out that there have been successful programs on enhanced active shooter response instituted recently in places like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Arlington, and other places where they’re effectively using two-and-two teams comprised of two officers and two Fire/EMS personnel.

Your Input Requested
We’re not talking here about immediately jumping into the deep end — integrating tactical use of fire apparatus (three-inch hose and water at 400 PSI) and/or imbedding EMS responders outfitted with ballistic helmets and body armor. 

This is about starting the conversation. To help facilitate that, I ask that you use the comments area below to present some ideas about terminology that all three public safety disciplines can use to build the foundation on which a truly multi-disciplinary response to active shooters can be built. 

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