10 lessons from the Fairchild AFB shooting
Although the shooting occurred prior to the widespread adoption of the phrase “active shooter,” this attack is instructive on many levels
On June 20, 1994, a mentally disturbed former airman returned to Fairchild Air Force Base (AFB) to kill the doctors who had previously tried to help him. He took a cab to the base hospital, located near Spokane, Washington, and entered the mental health clinic carrying a duffle bag that contained a rifle and a 75-round drum magazine.
Minutes later, the Fairchild AFB Security Police received the first call about a shooting at the hospital. Senior Airman Andy Brown immediately responded from three-tenths of a mile away on his police bicycle, and confronted the murderer outside the hospital.
When the killer refused commands to disarm and fired shots at the young police officer, Brown fired at him four times with his M9 pistol, striking him in the shoulder and face, and ending the threat. Post-event investigation indicated that Brown’s final pistol shot was fired at a distance between 68 and 71 yards, but his first hit would have been made at an even farther distance, since the killer was advancing on him as he fired.
Brown and his fellow security policemen secured the scene and began to assist the victims. By stopping the killer, Brown enabled medical professionals to provide lifesaving aid, and transport the victims to nearby hospitals. In the end, five victims perished, but 22 were saved.
Andy Brown’s account of the Fairchild AFB shooting, Warnings Unheeded, was published in 2016. His meticulous detailing of the events leading up to the Fairchild AFB shooting is a cautionary tale about missed and wasted opportunities to short circuit the violence that would come later. It’s instructive, if disappointing, to note that 25 years after the incident, we’re still struggling with the same issues of a lack of detection and intervention that Brown identifies so clearly.
From a tactical perspective, Warnings Unheeded also offers many lessons for today’s law enforcement officers. Although the Fairchild AFB shooting occurred prior to the widespread adoption of the phrase “active shooter,” this active shooter attack is instructive on many levels.
A few of these many lessons addressed by Andy Brown in Warnings Unheeded include:
1. Personal responsibility
Because official training opportunities were limited, and Air Force policies restricted him from taking his duty weapon home, Brown purchased a similar weapon and trained extensively with it, on his own time, at his own expense. His personal effort allowed him to stop a moving, hostile threat at extraordinary distances with incredible efficiency. Brown also remembered to decock the weapon when it was appropriate, and check his ammunition supply after the shooting – good habits that were engrained by his personal dedication to training.
Brown provides us an excellent example here, and reminds us that we are the ones who are most responsible for ensuring our personal readiness.
2. Target discrimination
When Brown arrived on scene, the killer was moving among fleeing victims and was not immediately visible. It took a moment for Brown to identify him and, when he did, there was still a considerable danger that Brown’s fire could wound an innocent. Brown was conscious of the presence of innocents, and exercised great discipline in holding his fire until it was safe to do so. As a result, he stopped the killer without hurting anybody else.
It’s important for officers to realize that active shooting situations are chaotic, with an ever-present risk of “friendly fire.” To assist in building the proper habits for these challenging circumstances, officers should train in environments where they’re required to maneuver to obtain a clear shot on a “shoot” target, without striking “no shoots” in the foreground and background. Incorporating this kind of decision-making during police firearms training will prevent unnecessary casualties later.
3. Software, not hardware
By all accounts, Brown was at a disadvantage from an equipment and tactical perspective. His attacker was armed with a 7.62x39mm rifle, which was fed by a high capacity drum magazine. In contrast, Brown was only equipped with a 9mm pistol and 30 rounds of ball ammunition. Making things worse, the killer fired on Brown from a distance that drastically favored the rifle-armed attacker, and – unlike Brown – didn’t have to worry about hitting innocents. Despite these disadvantages, Brown used his superior mindset, preparation and skill to deliver accurate, fight-stopping shots and end the killing.
It’s important for officers to have the right equipment for the job, and desirable that they have an equipment advantage over criminals, but Andy Brown’s experience reminds us that software is more important than hardware in the final count. Your awareness, preparation, training, tactics and skill are much more important than what’s in your hand.
4. Information quality
There’s usually no shortage of information in an active shooter event, but most of it is poor quality. Frightened witnesses and victims often provide inaccurate information, and in the stress of the moment, additional errors can be introduced when information is relayed between dispatch and responders.
In the Fairchild AFB shooting, there were false reports of multiple shooters, and inaccurate descriptions of the shooter’s physical characteristics, weapon, clothing and location. Delayed reporting introduced more errors, when old information was passed off as current information, making it difficult for police to understand where the shooter was and what he was doing. Echoes made it difficult to fix the shooter’s location as well.
It’s important for officers to understand that much of the information they’ll receive during an active shooting will be inaccurate, and they should be cautious about relying on it for decision making. Officers need to develop their own intelligence, trust their personal observations when they differ from reports, and avoid feeding the “disinformation monster” by mindlessly repeating unverified information from witnesses. Officers (and dispatchers) should practice “information triage” by:
- Asking clarifying questions of witnesses to gauge their reliability;
- Comparing witness reports to identify reoccurring patterns;
- Seeking reports from witnesses who are in better control of their emotions.
Obtaining and sharing this better information will allow officers to make improved decisions.
Not surprisingly, communications between responders suffered during the Fairchild active shooting. When personnel were subjected to danger and stress, it affected their ability to clearly communicate. Brown, for example, reports that while he thought his radio transmissions were calm and collected after the shooting, the dispatch tapes later betrayed a different reality. The size of the multiagency response – which included personnel from civilian police and fire departments – also complicated communications due to the sheer number of personnel involved, and incompatible radio frequencies. Off-scene leaders burdened phone lines and radio frequencies, seeking information that wasn’t reasonably available or critical at the moment.
Communication is always the second casualty in an active shooter event, so responders need to be jealous about guarding it. Officers and supervisors should be precise with their language, maintain their composure, understand “what’s important now?” and suppress needless chatter to enhance the quality of communications under stress.
6. Physiological changes
Brown experienced a host of physiological changes during his shooting. Auditory effects robbed him of his ability to understand witnesses and hear gunshots clearly (he reports both were “muddled”). Tachypsychia gave him the feeling that time was slowing down as he approached the scene, and tunnel vision led him to think that a man over 70 yards away was much closer, while robbing him of the peripheral vision needed to recognize that there was available cover nearby. Temporal distortions caused a momentary panic when the attacker didn’t seem to be reacting “quickly enough” to Brown’s gunfire, leading him to believe that his bullets were ineffective.
All of these effects are normal reactions to an abnormal circumstance, but they can become fatally distracting to an officer in the middle of the fight if he’s not forewarned about them. Brown’s careful cataloguing of these physiological changes is a potentially lifesaving gift to every officer who might someday face similar danger.
7. Empowering the public
Many victims of the attack took an active role in their defense, and ensured their survival. Some fled the danger, some hid and some sounded warnings and helped others to escape. Some barricaded and kept the killer out, and others physically attacked the killer, driving him off.
If public safety is our objective, it’s important for law enforcement to embrace the idea that we have a responsibility to assist with training, equipping and preparing the public to fend for themselves in the critical gap before professional help arrives. This encompasses everything from awareness to tactics, from armed defense to casualty care. The Fairchild AFB example shows us how lives can be saved when the public is mentally and physically prepared to help themselves, and reminds us that it’s no longer acceptable for police to tell the public to call for help and wait.
8. Indoors and outdoors
The Fairchild AFB shooting began indoors, then moved outdoors as the attacker made his way to the next building. The change from an indoor to an outdoor environment had a dramatic influence on several conditions, such as the type of cover and concealment available, the distances involved, the density of targets and the tactics necessary to counter the threat.
In many agencies, active shooter training and tactics are entirely focused on indoor scenarios, and outdoor considerations are ignored, but it’s important to understand these attacks are fluid and conditions can change rapidly. What begins as an indoor event may quickly turn into an outdoor one as the shooter goes mobile, so agencies cannot afford to ignore outdoor tactics, training and preparations.
9. Casualty care
The Fairchild AFB shooting was unique in that it occurred at a military hospital where there was a large population of people with medical training. Many doctors, nurses and medical technicians made good use of their skills to save lives that day, and they were joined by other personnel who had received first aid training as part of their basic military education. Conditions were extreme, and rescuers had to be resourceful – Brown reports that bandage and dressing materials were improvised, some chest wounds were sealed by cigarette packaging, and a leg was splinted with a “wet floor” sign – but they gave the victims precious time.
It’s a testament to the power of immediate, lifesaving action that all of the injured victims who were transported to outside hospitals survived their wounds. Agencies must heed this critical lesson and ensure that their officers are trained in tactical emergency casualty care, and are equipped with on-body, individual first aid kits, to enhance their survival and the survival of those they protect.
10. Emotional and mental health
Although Andy Brown did everything in his power to stop the killing as soon as he could, he still suffered from the effects of survivor guilt, and wrestled with horrific memories of the scene and its victims. The Air Force, unfortunately, was not attuned to his needs, and failed to give him the help and support he needed to deal with these predictable and understandable injuries. The Air Force wasn’t being malicious in their failure to help Brown, but their lack of preparedness and awareness cost them one of their best, as Brown left the military to fight his battle with PTSD and survivor guilt.
To his great credit and honor, Brown won the struggle and gained control of his life again, but his experience is an important warning to law enforcement leaders. We must be good stewards of our most precious resource – our people! We must ensure that we have people, programs and policies in place to help our people when they need it, and we must create an environment and culture where there is no stigma attached to asking for help. We all need help at times, and there can be no room for shame, embarrassment, or potential career jeopardy to serve as a roadblock. It does nobody – agency, public, or officer – any good if our people win the gunfight, but lose the emotional aftermath.
Andy Brown penned a masterful account of the Fairchild AFB shooting that details these lessons and many more. He traces the development of the killer’s mental health issues and the behavior that led to his discharge, and expertly tells the story of the tragic shooting like nobody else can. He identifies weaknesses in mental healthcare and our uncanny ability to ignore critical danger signs along the way.
PoliceOne readers are highly encouraged to read his book, Warnings Unheeded, to discover more of Brown’s powerful insights and learn what we can do to detect, avoid and prepare for these kinds of incidents. An excerpt is available here.
I would like to thank Andy for sharing his story and these important lessons with us. I respect his accomplishments and service, but even more important, I respect his great strength and character, and his continuing contributions to public safety. He’s a role model for us all.