Where does EMS fit into active shooter response? Lessons from Aurora theater shooting

There are plenty of firefighters and EMS personnel willing to respond to these dangerous active shooter incidents when they know that they have the proper equipment, training, and police assistance


This month,  the citizens of Aurora (Colo.) and people throughout the state will pause for a moment of silence on the three-year anniversary of the brutal attack that claimed the lives of 12 people and left 70 others injured. Those of us in public safety should take that moment not only to offer our prayers for the friends and family of those victims, but to examine how we can continue to improve our own performance in situations like these. 

The law enforcement response to the active shooter incident during the midnight showing of the “Dark Night Rises” in Aurora (Colo.) was excellent — with officers arriving on scene within three minutes of the initial 911 call — but it also offers an opportunity for police, fire, and EMS responders to consider ways in which we can improve further. 

Law enforcement has taken much from the Fire and EMS side of command when they developed the Incident Command System. However, that night in Aurora something went wrong with the response to the incident that we collectively need to ensure wonn’t occur again. Let’s have a frank discussion here about improving our multi-disciplinary response for the next time — because we all know there will eventually be a next time. 

An Aurora police officer talks on his radio outside the Century 16 movie theatre in Aurora (Colo.) on July 20, 2012 during the chaotic response to the mass shooting there. (AP Photo)
An Aurora police officer talks on his radio outside the Century 16 movie theatre in Aurora (Colo.) on July 20, 2012 during the chaotic response to the mass shooting there. (AP Photo)

Squad Cars as Ambulances
After action reports indicate that the fire and EMS personal were staged outside and away from the parking lot because the police didn’t communicate when the theater was safe for their response. They also indicated that police supervision didn’t help them navigate their fire rigs through the numerous parked police cars and bystanders. This dilemma resulted in 27 victims being transported to a hospital by law enforcement in patrol cars — nearly half of all the transported victims. 

Uniformed officers trained in basic first aid arrived at the theater faced with scores of wounded victims seeking medical aid. Many were walking wounded and asking for help and others were obviously in need of advanced medical care immediately. 

During this time, Fire and EMS were staged outside the theater area, waiting for the threat to be neutralized,  unable to respond. It didn’t take long before uniformed officers took matters into their own hands and started transporting victims to the hospital. 

Generally speaking, if a gunshot victim receives some type of combat casualty care or advanced medical care in the first five minutes of being injured, the survival rate is incredibly high. That said, law enforcement can’t be the main vehicle to care for and transport victims. The Aurora shooting was only one bad guy. Imagine what three highly trained, well-armed terrorists could do in a shopping mall on any Saturday afternoon. Law enforcement will be busy eliminating the threat(s) for some time and there won’t be much time to transport casualties to a hospital. 

Lessons Learned in Littleton
After the Columbine shooting — which took place less than 40 miles from Aurora in Littleton (Colo.) — law enforcement was served a serious slice of humble pie. Some argued that police tactics may have caused kids to fall victim to a gunman. This didn’t sit well with us, and it didn’t take long before the nation’s top law enforcement leaders and trainers devised tactics and implemented them into policy and training. It wasn’t always easy and there were growing pains along the way but the fine officers in Aurora demonstrated that we won’t stand by while another Columbine occurs. 

Some fire command, professional fire organizations, and fire trainers have said that they will not send their firefighters into a building where they might get shot at. Communication is certainly a problem if fire and EMS personal are waiting for the officers inside what fire refers to as the “hot zone” to tell you it’s safe to come in to triage victims and that word doesn’t come down the chain of command. 

Firefighter and EMS Training 
I’ve watched firefighters enter buildings that are fully engulfed in flames with disregard to fear or apprehension. These men and women are true heroes and I know that night in Aurora there were many firefighters and EMS personnel seething angry because they weren’t allowed to do their jobs. 

I’ve also experienced fire chiefs that volunteer their firefighters for training and response to active shooter situations without hesitation. These chiefs recognize the importance to triage victims in short order and they aren’t afraid to say so. 

When is it safe for Fire and EMS personal to respond into an active shooter or terrorist incident? The answer is whenever there are victims in need of aid and the fire/EMS personnel and police have developed and trained in a multi-disciplinary response to such events.

That night in Aurora, several officers reported that they encountered wounded people and called for fire and EMS rescue but no one responded. There are plenty of firefighters and EMS personnel willing to respond to these dangerous active shooter incidents when they know that they have the proper equipment, training, and police assistance. As law enforcement, we can help them get there.

About the author

Glenn French, a retired Sergeant with the Sterling Heights (Mich.) Police Department, has 24 years police experience and served as the Team Commander for the Special Response Team, and supervisor of the Sterling Heights Police Department Training Bureau. He has 16 years SWAT experience and also served as a Sniper Team Leader, REACT Team Leader, and Explosive Breacher.

Contact Glenn French.

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