5 tips to form and train a rescue task force for active shooter incidents

An effective rescue task force response to reduce active shooter casualties starts with planning and training between all public safety responders


Kristina Anderson is alive today because of the rescue task force’s coordinated response and triage during the April 16, 2007 Virginia Tech shooting. Anderson told 2015 NTOA Annual Conference attendees, in a moving and inspiring keynote address, that she was shot three times and critically wounded during the attack. Now fully recovered, she has made it her mission to advocate for safer schools through the Koshka Foundation

Law enforcement agencies across the United States are creating rescue task forces as a preferred response model to an active shooter incident. A rescue task force team includes law enforcement to provide force protection and medical teams, typically comprised of fire and EMS personnel, to treat the wounded during an active threat.

While there are no standards for creating and implementing a rescue task force, there are a number of agencies who are sharing their leading practices, challenges and lessons learned. Through the International Public Safety Association’s Rescue Task Force Committee, I regularly interface with agencies to discuss their hard lessons learned and practices. Below are five training and communications tips that I have gleaned over the years from law enforcement, fire and EMS agencies. 

1. Include law enforcement, fire service, EMS and 911 call takers/dispatchers in training and drills
Bringing together four separate public safety disciplines for curriculum development and training drills is easier said than done, but it is a necessary step for an effective integrated response. Agencies should expect terminology barriers between the disciplines, varying degrees of situational awareness and an overall hesitation to talk to one another. Including all four disciplines early on to develop the practical exercise scenarios will improve front line communications during training drills and improve your response when an incident occurs.

Inviting 911 call takers/dispatchers, the first first responders, is an important practice so they develop a better sense of the communications, activity and stress that occurs on scene. They are often fielding multiple calls from several sources during an event and inviting them to the table from the beginning will streamline your agency’s response. At a minimum, make sure to inform the communications center when your agency is running drills so they know how to direct any 911 calls they might receive from concerned citizens.    

2. Invite and involve SWAT
SWAT team members are often great instructors for classroom training and can provide force protection during practical exercises. It is fairly common for SWAT teams to run active shooter training drills and the rescue task force is another aspect to active shooter training. Involving the SWAT team at the inception of a rescue task force should be a widely adopted practice and their participation will help with buy-in from patrol and other members of your department.

3. Network with the other disciplines during drills
There has to be an established trust between one another when operating under high stress and the only way to establish that trust is by getting to know one another. I observed a rescue task force training drill in the National Capital Region last year. Before the drill started, two things were immediately apparent. First, cliques formed by type of discipline and department. Second, there was an obvious physical distance between the police officers, firefighters and dispatchers. Each group was in their comfortable clique and not taking the opportunity to network. The instructors did a great job calling out each group and encouraged cross-discipline engagement.

4. Emphasize verbal communication during drills
Verbal communication between responders is essential. If a medic wants to move into or through the warm zone to access patients, he or she has to ask law enforcement for an escort through the warm zone. The ability to communicate between one another is a simple concept, but in practice it’s not as easy as it seems.

I’ve observed this issue on two separate occasions, in two separate agencies. Both agencies struggled with the medical team personnel quietly requesting to move. During training, the instructors must encourage the participants to speak up and request to move, especially when operating in the warm zone.   

5. Situational awareness varies between public safety disciplines
A cop inherently knows not to walk slowly in front of an open doorway or a big window during an active threat. A firefighter or medic may not recognize those as dangers. It is important for law enforcement to educate everyone during the drills about possible dangers in a given area and explain why walking tall in front of a window while in the warm zone may not be a good idea.

Explaining the difference between the cold, warm and hot zones will help the rescue team understand the risk level and the type of environment in which they are operating. The zone concept can be complicated during an active threat, but taking the time to educate and describe the differences between the zones will benefit everyone on the rescue team. 

Many agencies that have an established rescue task force are more than willing to share their policies and training curriculum with others. Often times, agencies with established rescue task forces are amenable to inviting individuals outside their jurisdiction to observe a drill. If the opportunity is available for you to attend another agency’s training drill, I encourage you to take it. Learning from others outside your jurisdiction will result in a stronger, more integrated rescue task force for your department.  

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