Written by Bob Smith, Director of Comm Center and 911 Services at APCO International
Excerpts also taken from APCO Training Module Active Shooter Incidents For Public Safety Communications
Virginia Tech. Columbine. The San Diego County McDonalds massacre. These names conjure images of chaos and mass killings. In law enforcement terminology, these were active shooter incidents.
An active shooter can be defined as "an armed person who has used deadly physical force on other persons and continues to do so while having unrestricted access to additional victims." Sometimes referred to as spree killings, active shooter incidents are unique in that the shooting or violence is typically in progress when law enforcement is notified and sometimes continues even after officers arrive on scene.
Due to their high-profile nature and the amount of media attention received by school shootings, you might be tempted to use the terms active shooter incident and school shooting interchangeably. But doing so is like using the phrases "shoplifting" and "larceny" interchangeablly: shoplifting is larceny, but larceny does not have to be shoplifting. Likewise, some school shootings are active shooter incidents but not all active shooter incidents are school shootings. Active shooter incidents don't always occur on school campuses, and active shooters are not always students. Some infamous active shooter incidents that did not take place at schools include the 1984 shooting at the San Ysidro, Calif., McDonald's; the 1999 Honolulu Xerox shooting; and the 1999 North Valley Jewish Community Center shooting in Los Angeles, Calif.
Active shooter incidents are fast-paced and dynamic, occurring usually in a matter of minutes. In the Columbine High School incident, 13 people were killed, 21 people were wounded and 188 shots were fired in less than 49 minutes. The Virginia Tech incident earlier this year left 32 dead and 17 wounded, with more than 170 shots fired in less than nine minutes. That averages out to about one shot every three seconds.
The rapid escalation to such incidents raises an additional concern. People typically become aware an incident is occurring as the first shots are fired, and, unfortunately, that can mean as the first person is shot. From that point forward, victims are fleeing for their lives, emergency plans are being activated, attempts at evacuation or lockdown are being made and notification of public safety is being attempted.
Such incidents usually involve multiple responding agencies from multiple jurisdictions, and telecommunicators will be tasked with ensuring communications take place and that everyone involved has the needed information. The ever-present interoperability issues that plague public safety during other emergency situations will still exist, including conflicting policies and procedures and technologies.
Although law enforcement will typically be the lead agency at such incidents, fire service and EMS personnel also play important roles. Fire service involvement may include extinguishing fires set by the perpetrator or caused by explosive devices and resetting or deactivating sprinkler systems and fire alarms. Two of the biggest hindrances listed by responders at the Columbine High School incident were flooding on the floor caused by water from the fire sprinklers and the sounding fire alarm, which hampered communications both inside and outside the building.
EMS's primary goals will be triaging, caring for and transporting patients. However, accessing the wounded may not be possible for extended periods of time, and, as with any type of unsecured incident, EMS personnel will be staging away from the scene until law enforcement alerts them that it's safe to approach the scene. The transport of victims and suspects is an issue because everyone will have to be searched for evidence and/or weapons prior to removal from the scene.
The number of shooters involved is a primary concern in the initial response. Law enforcement personnel needs to know how many people they are dealing with so they can more quickly contain the event. Additional armed persons (e.g., private citizens, additional suspects) may be present as well. This is especially an issue in states that allow individuals to carry concealed weapons. During the ensuing chaos and confusion, law enforcement may be unable to differentiate between the suspect and a private citizen who has decided to assist. In addition, private citizens will not be able to tell the difference between another private citizen who has produced a weapon in response to the event and the original gunman.
Scene containment is vital in active shooter incidents. Containing the event to a single location makes resolving the situation easier and limits potential injuries. When containing an incident of this type, law enforcement must deal with masses of fleeing people. People trying to escape may inadvertently interfere with law enforcement's attempts to subdue the suspect of may conceal the suspect's attempt to evade, or even target, responders.
At the same time, procedures or incident development may call for some level of evacuation, which can quickly become a major concern. Evacuation may involve not just the building or facility where the event is occurring but also neighboring areas. Individuals being evacuated must be protected from the shooter until they are clear, and those being allowed to leave a scene must need to be debriefed by law enforcement to determine their possible involvement in or whether they have any pertinent intelligence about the situation.
During the incident, the telecommunicator's familiarity with local geography and access to maps will prove vital to providing information to responders about the incident location, possible access to the site beyond the primary entrance so law enforcement can survey the scene without being detected by the perpetrators, possible routes the shooter could use to escape or that may be safer for victims to use to flee an area, and other issues associated with the location, such as neighboring day cares, schools or hospitals.
As with any other type of emergency situation, the telecommunicator plays a vital role in the response to active shooter incidents. First and foremost is continuation of service. Obviously, the rest of the world does not stop because of such incidents, so the routine calls don't stop either. Maintaining the required level of customer service to the citizens the agency serves is of utmost importance.
When taking calls regarding an active shooter incident, the telecommunicator should specifically ask:
- What is the exact location of the incident? If the incident is occurring inside, where in the building is the caller? If known, where exactly is the suspect currently?
- How much time has elapsed since the incident started or since the caller knew the suspect's location?
- What is happening right now?
- Does the caller know who the suspect is? How many suspects are there? Descriptions?
- What types and number of weapons are being used?
- Are there any injuries? How many, and what is the severity?
Telecommunicators should try to keep the caller on the line as long as possible--but only if it is safe for the caller to do so--to gather supplemental information, including changes in the shooter's location, potential victims and ongoing actions of the shooter. Calltakers will also be receiving continuing updates from callers on scene. This information will need to be recorded and relayed to on-scene officers when appropriate to increase the chance of apprehension of the suspect.
At the same time, it is important that certain pieces of information be relayed to the caller as the incident progresses. The caller needs to know that the first law enforcement officers into the building or area will be focuses on locating and subduing the suspect. This means officers may bypass the caller if they are seen and the caller should not panic if this happens and worry that they have been overlooked.
Callers should also be made aware that this search for the suspect may last minutes or it may last hours and during this search there will be long periods of silence interspersed with sudden bursts of activity as law enforcement systematically searches and clears the area in their attempt to secure the scene.
Active shooter incidents are fast paced and dynamic situations requiring the presence of mind and ability to handle multiple radio frequencies and multiple telephones and process each successfully.
In addition, active shooter incidents are usually lengthy situations. Depending on the situation, response to these events -- to include the on-scene investigation and crime scene processing -- can last for hours or even days.
Public safety telecommunicators must project an image that is positive and, most importantly, professional and competent. This is just as vital for radio communications with responders as it is for telephone communications with callers. The voice of the telecommunicator should project to listeners the impression that the telecommunicator is on their toes, alert and ready for any situation.
Here are some tips to ensure a professional image on the radio:
- Speak in a clear normal voice. Avoid talking too fast.
- Control your emotions. Though these types of incidents generate high levels of anxiety, telecommunicators should not get excited with responders sound excited and should remain calm.
- Keep broadcasts brief and to the point.
- Acknowledge all transmissions promptly.
Radio transmissions must be brief and to the point. Radio broadcasts should be no longer than thirty seconds in duration. Messages that exceed thirty seconds should be paused at appropriate intervals. Breaks provide an opportunity for response units to request a repeat of parts of the message and allow interruptions for priority messages.
Agencies should use clear speech or plain language dispatching instead of 10-codes. Recommended by the US Department of Homeland Security's National Incident Management System (NIMS) due in part to incident command structure and widespread interoperability, clear speech/plain English transmissions ensure everyone involved understands the radio traffic regardless of public safety discipline or agency affiliation.
The telecommunicator should always acknowledge a response unit or station requesting information. Never leave the unit or station without some type of acknowledgement. After a few seconds of dead air, the response unit or station will assume the message was not received and may call again.
Messages from the telecommunicator also require a specific acknowledgement from the response unit addressed. If the response unit does not acknowledge the message, the telecommunicator should re-contact the unit and request an acknowledgement. A passive click of the microphone from either party does not constitute a formal acknowledgement.
Dispatching and ongoing communications during these types of incidents are vital as well. Echo traffic (or the repeating of communications as a form of acknowledgement) will be of great use. The noise on scene from alarms, sirens and sheer chaos will inhibit communications, as will different radio systems being used by the multiple agencies responding and the physical location of the responders on scene.
Echo procedures are used to emphasize certain important parts of a message and to ensure the message is received correctly or clarify it. The echo procedure simply requires important parts of radio messages be repeated. This is also helpful for response units who cannot hear or understand the original transmission.
It also allows the telecommunicator additional time to record changes in response unit status and input information into the CAD. The telecommunicator rebroadcasts the information as it was received from the response unit. The telecommunicator should continue to repeat situational changes and other pertinent information throughout the incident.
Above all else, attention to responder safety is a must. The fast-paced, dynamic nature of these high-risk situations poses any number of opportunities for responders to become victims. It is the telecommunicator's responsibility to ensure responder safety to their greatest ability. The telecommunicator is a vital link between callers and response units. In the course of the incident, telecommunicators may become aware of circumstances that could affect reponse unit safety. Any information that may be relevant to response units must be captured and relayed.
Most agencies require telecommunicators to listen to many frequencies at once. The telecommunicator can enhance response unit safety by being aware and prepared for unexpected radio transmissions from any response unit, at any time. Performing regular status checks of response units helps track their locations and condition, especially if a response unit has been at a scene for some time. Some CAD systems track response unit activity and prompt the telecommunicator to perform status checks.
The bottom line: Several issues make responding to an active shooter incident more difficult than other armed subject calls or violent in-progress incidents. Active shooter incidents have garnered a lot of media attention lately and are a pertinent threat to public safety. If you haven't already done so, now is the time for public safety communications personnel to develop specific response procedures for these incidents and, if procedures do exist, to review those procedures and incorporate them into agency training programs.