9-1-1; What Is Your Emergency?

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

What Do I Tell Them? Pre-Arrival Instructions for Active Shooters

Taken from Public Safety Communications Magazine, January 2014
Written by Bob Smith, former county 9-1-1 director and APCO International executive staff member, who previously served as a consultant to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Office of Emergency Communications, focusing on interoperability and emerging technologies.  He currently oversees emergency/incident management, safety and risk management for the Arlington (Va.) public school system.

On Sept. 16, 2013, an armed assailant opened fire in a facility at the Navy Yard Complex in Washington, D.C., killing 12 and injuring three.  With the passing of several weeks, the nation progressed from shock and surprise, to grief and anger, and finally to asking how and why.

Tragic incidents such as this lead us to ask many questions - it's human nature.  For dispatchers and telecommunicators, the questions are not necessarily ones of "how" or "why," but "what would I have said if I had taken that call?"  Though many telecommuicators go their entire careers without handling an active shooter situation, the key to knowing you'll be at your best is to prepare for the worst.

Many of the immediate questions to face after a mass-shooting revolve around security clearance, criminal background checks and physical security.  Some of the conversation will be the traditional Monday morning quarterbacking we are familiar with in the media and elsewhere.  Some of it will attempt to ascertain valuable information about what happened, what policies worked and what didn't.  The lessons learned will be integral to evolving response procedures for active shooter incidents - incidents that no longer ask the question "if," but "when."

Unfortunately for the 9-1-1 industry, many of the lessons that can be learned from this event will not be available for some time.  The 9-1-1 recordings of calls for assistance placed from inside and around the facility are typically held as evidence for weeks or even months, if they are released at all.  But most of us in this line of work already know what we'll hear when the tapes are made available.  There will be multiple calls from multiple people who are spread throughout the building, as well as outside.  Most will be on cellphones.  A few, most likely tucked in an impromptu hiding spot, will be on landlines.

They'll report shots fired, a shooter in the building, people hurt, people screaming.  Some won't really know what's going on.  Some will know exactly what is happening and the severity of the situation.  There will be reports of one shooter, of two, of three.   There will be multiple calls with the consistent themes of fear, confusion and chaos.

But through it all, one thing will ring true of nearly every caller.  They will all want the answer to one question: "What do I do?"  And just like every other call we take in our day-to-day operations, it is our job to answer that question and tell them what to do.  We call it pre-arrival instructions; they call it a chance to survive.

Pre-arrival instructions are nothing new to the 9-1-1 industry.  We've used them in some form or another since the late '70s or early '80s.  Most commonly, they take the form of a formal pre-arrival or emergency medical dispatch program.  Sometimes the instructions are complex, such as providing childbirth instructions or CPR over the telephone.  Sometimes they are a little simpler, such as telling a caller to get everyone out of a burning house or to gather up a patient's medications for emergency medical services (EMS).

Pre-arrival instructions exist for medical calls for service, fire calls, law enforcement calls, even for non-emergency calls, and active shooter incidents should be no different.  Many currently available programs and systems for providing pre-arrival instructions have begun to incorporate instructions for callers reporting an active shooter event.  Your agency may already have pre-arrival instructions in place.  But is there more you can do?  Is there anything else worth looking into?

Many law enforcement agencies are rallying around a simple concept to provide advice to those who find themselves in the midst of an active shooter incident: Run.  Hide.  Fight.

Based loosely on the "stop, drop and roll" public service campaign made famous by the fire service, "run, hide, fight" is a simple response recommendation that can be carried out by young and old alike, in any setting from an office building or school to a mall or warehouse.

I should mention that the "run, hide, fight" concept is still being reviewed by many law enforcement agencies and some debate still remains as to whether "run" is always the best first step.  So, as with any other policy or procedure you put in place, this should be reviewed by your agency and your legal counsel before being adopted.

The "run" portion of this response plan revolves around one simple concept.  If you find yourself in an active shooter event, ask yourself two questions: 1) Is there a safer place to be, and 2) Can I get there unharmed?  If the answer to both questions is yes, then the "run, hide, fight" plan recommends you make your way to that safer location as quickly as possible.

The "hide" component of the plan is also fairly simple.  If you are unable to evacuate to a safer location then find a place to hide from the assailant, possibly even barricade yourself in.  History has shown that this particular response can be successful if carried out properly, but success depends greatly on the situation, the assailant and a myriad of other components.  There is evidence of cases where, despite their best efforts, people who have hidden are discovered by the assailant.  There is no perfect plan that is 100% effective every time, so the best plans prepare for as many contingencies as possible.

Last but not least is "fight."  If you cannot evacuate to a safer place or effectively hide from the attacker, then your last resort is fight.  But how do you instruct an unarmed civilian to fight an armed assailant with nothing more than a fire extinguisher or desk chair?  It's a tough call to make.  Remember: This is the last resort, worst case scenario response, to be used if there is no other option.

As always, any policies or procedures your agency adopts should be vetted appropriately.  There is no silver bullet for any type of emergency situation.  So don't adopt a policy or procedure just because it is the latest and greatest thing to come along.  Take your time, do your homework and make sure any policies you put in place work specifically for your agency and your jurisdiction.

In the meantime, there are some things we know that can be passed on to callers in these situations, such as information about what's going on around them and what they can expect once responders arrive.

Callers should be aware that the first law enforcement units on scene will be focused on locating and securing the assailant.  They should know that those units will not stop to check on injuries or to evacuate people until they know the scene is safe.  Callers need to know officers are not ignoring them and they should not rush to approach or otherwise confront officers until they are told to do so.

Callers should also be told that while law enforcement is searching for the suspect there will be periods of loud noise and shouting.  This could even include loud explosions from flash bangs or other devices officers use in their mission to locate and subdue the shooter.  This noise could come between long periods of silence as officers proceed through a building searching for a suspect.

When told to exit the area, callers should be aware that they need to follow the instructions of officers on the scene and to keep their hands up until told to put them down.  Law enforcement will consider all persons on-site to be potential threats until they are assured otherwise.

Persons on scene should know that once they are evacuated from the initial scene they should not leave the immediate area until they are debriefed by law enforcement.  Each and every person involved in these types of events could have a vital piece of information that could assist with the investigation or recreation of events.

These are just a few pieces of information that can be passed along to people calling for assistance from the scene of an active shooter event.  The first thing an agency should determine is whether they have a policy for processing calls from an active shooter incident.  In addition to dispatch guidelines and responder safety guidelines, does that policy include some level of pre-arrival instructions to provide to callers on scene?  If not, then a policy should be developed.  Once developed, that policy should be trained on and then tested through some type of drill or exercise, just like any other policy your agency has.  And then that process should be repeated.

Unfortunately these types of events will continue to happen.  As each happens, policies should be compared to the lessons learned from responding to specific incidents.  It will be difficult, if not impossible, to prevent these incidents in the future, but we can learn from them and ensure policies and procedures exist to address them from as many angles as possible.  In this way, maybe we can begin to minimize the number of lives lost and the overall impact of these incidents, helping to better secure our jurisdictions and the citizens who rely on us to be there when we are needed most.

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