Fire-EMS Response to Mass Shootings

August Vernon discusses the response to a mass shooting in your community.


Preparation is the key to a mass-shooting incident and that includes a clear idea of your actions before the incident occurs. The first step in your preparation is a review of your agency's guidelines and procedures when responding to a mass shooting. Another important step is to bring all the key agencies together such as law enforcement, fire, EMS, emergency management, hospitals and the school system to discuss this type of event. Every jurisdiction, big or small, should have a Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) or Terrorism Task Force (TTF) to discuss this issue. As with any multi-hazard assessment and planning process, it is wise to conduct a multi-agency exercise (tabletop or functional) to bring all the key agencies together and rehearse the plan once it has been completed.

Safety & Security

When planning to respond to mass shootings, it is important to consider the information that will be released to the public. It is critical for public safety agencies and special operations teams involved in planning and training for mass-shooting and active-shooter events to use Operations Security (OPSEC) in their planning and training efforts. OPSEC is a five-step risk-management process used by military and security professionals to protect sensitive information that adversaries could use.

Critical information on planning and training must be protected. Criminals can take weeks and months to select their targets and plan their operations. To be successful, they need specific information about personnel, response plans, capabilities and infrastructures. It is important that the responders involved in planning and training for critical events identify and treat their critical information as sensitive so that it does not end up in the hands of the "bad guys." (See "Think Like the Wolf," Firehouse, April 2006.)

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program conducts investigations of firefighter line-of-duty deaths to formulate recommendations for preventing future deaths and injuries. For additional information on the program see www.cdc.gov/niosh/firehome.html.

NIOSH has released report FACE-F2004-11 which listed the following recommendations for fire departments involved in the responding to scenes of violence:

  • Develop standard operating procedures (SOPs) for responding to potentially violent situations.
  • Develop integrated emergency communication systems that include the ability to directly relay real-time information between the caller, dispatch, and all responding emergency personnel.
  • Provide body armor or bullet-resistant personal protective equipment, and train on and consistently enforce its use when responding to potentially violent situations.
  • Ensure all emergency response personnel have the capability for continuous radio contact and consider providing portable communication equipment that has integrated hands-free capabilities.
  • Consider requiring emergency dispatch centers to incorporate the ability to archive location, or individual, historical data and provide pertinent information to responding fire and emergency medical services personnel.
  • Develop coordinated response guidelines for violent situations and hold joint training sessions with law enforcement, mutual aid and emergency response departments.

Lessons Learned

It is important that we take the valuable - and sometimes fatal - lessons learned from past incidents and apply them to future training and planning. Fire and EMS responders will encounter many challenges during their careers, including acts of violence involving weapons. Experience with mass-shooting incidents has shown that:

Pre-planning is critical.

First-arriving units have a drastic effect on the progress of the incident. They must quickly and safely conduct "windshield surveys."

Immediate interagency cooperation and unified command are essential.

Clear communications are necessary for effective operations.

Access to helicopters for overhead assessments is a plus.

All key agencies and supporting entities such as emergency management officials and hospitals should be notified as quickly as possible.

A large and immediate media response should be expected.

Parents, family and friends will converge on the scene.

Fire and EMS personnel should wear helmets and clearly marked clothing.

Body armor should be obtained for those responding into the "impact" area.

Related and unrelated 911 call volume may increase.

EMS may need to implement disaster procedures such as triage tags, casualty collection points and field treatment areas for minor injuries.

Use of tactical medics in supporting law enforcement operations is encouraged.

Shooters may use secondary devices.

Special Response Teams