Fire Studies: School Violence: Active Shooters - Part 1

Schools are locations where children and young adults should be exposed to positive learning experiences and relationships that last a lifetime. It is a place where they should feel completely safe and where good things happen.

Sadly, in recent years, there have been too many occasions when terrorist events caused the exact opposite to occur. In addition to the increased occurrences of school violence imposed by one student upon another or instances of gang activity involving shootings at schools, there are many random attacks against students and teachers. These shootings have changed some elementary, high school and college campuses from docile settings to shooting fields.

Due to these factors and the need to be fully prepared, responders must gain a better understanding of how to deal with these incidents. A thorough hazard analysis should be made of case study reviews to identify problems that occurred in incidents at other schools, anticipate the risk assessment needed if an incident occurs and define the possible need for multi-agency procedural changes to address any potential problems.

These low-frequency/high-risk, massacre type-shootings have been committed by both students and intruders and are performed for the sheer goal of seeing how much carnage can be inflicted. Instances include:

• Littleton, CO, April 20, 1999 – Fourteen students (including the killers) and a teacher were killed and 23 other people were wounded by 17- and 18-year-old students at Columbine High School.

• Nickel Mines, PA, Oct. 2, 2006 – A 32-year-old civilian entered the one-room West Nickel Mines Amish School and shot 10 schoolgirls, ranging in age from 6 to 13 years old, and then killed himself. Five of the girls died.

• Blacksburg, VA, April 16, 2007 – A 23-year-old Virginia Tech student killed two students in a dormitory. Two hours later, he killed 30 more in a classroom building. His suicide brought the death toll to 33 and 15 others were wounded. This was the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.

• DeKalb, IL, Feb. 14, 2008 – A former Northern Illinois University student shot and killed five students and then himself and wounded 18 others when he opened fire in a college classroom.

• Newtown, CT, Dec. 14, 2012 – A 20-year-old gunman killed 20 children and six adults and wounded two before killing himself at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Such incidents are not limited to the U.S. From Sept. 1 to 3, 2004, some 30 masked and heavily armed Chechen terrorists, making political demands, forced their way into a school in Beslan, Russia, shooting and killing 12 adults, and taking more than 1,000 students and parents hostage. Some of the terrorists wore bomb belts. Police cordoned off the school as the intruders threatened to blow it up. Hostages were chained to explosives and shots were heard at various times coming from the building. Threats were made to kill hostages. On the third day, Russian security forces stormed the building, using tanks, rockets and other heavy weapons. Explosions rocked the school, followed by heavy fire involvement that engulfed the building as a gun battle ensued. The siege left 334 hostages dead, including 186 children, and 704 injured.

Developing an emergency operating plan

Terrorism can affect schools on local, regional, national and international levels. Statistically, school violence is increasing and fire departments must be prepared. In an era of instant news coverage, cell phones and social networking, agency leaders must develop a workable “all-hazard/all-risk” emergency operating plan (EOP). The contemporary plan must address interagency relationships, organizational partnerships and clear communication between school representatives and first responders.

An effective EOP is a necessary tool that can be used as a blueprint for the actions required of all agencies should they be confronted with a reported shooting in a school. A well-written document provides a diagram for incident scene decision-making. The EOP must anticipate that attacks on students and teachers may end quickly or may last for hours. The assault at Columbine High School lasted about an hour, while the Virginia Tech rampage started in a dormitory and ended two hours later in a classroom building.

Once a plan is developed, it must be tested by using tabletops and full-scale exercises to fully examine each component and discover areas that can be improved. Improving the plan must be an ongoing concern. The EOP should include specific considerations for school personnel, police, fire and EMS. Concerns are listed under the specific agencies, yet some general considerations are:

• The need for interaction between school officials, police, fire and EMS.

• Restrict the use of lights and sirens within two blocks of the school for all emergency responders.

• Seal off the area and set up a safe perimeter to prevent the entry of unsuspecting civilians and to stop any shooters from escaping and causing damage elsewhere.

• Create zones on the exterior similar to hazardous materials responses. The “red” or “hot” zone would be the area of the active shooter and the immediate vicinity. The “yellow” or “warm” zone would be a safe area outside the red zone where standby units are gathered and equipment readied for deployment. Triage can be in the “yellow”/“warm” zone to ensure rapid medical treatment for the injured. Once an area is deemed safe, EMS and fire personnel can assume the roles of medical care and sorting of victims. When establishing the “yellow”/“warm” zone, consideration must be given to the range of high-powered rifles and the line of sight from the reported “shots fired” to ensure responder safety. The “green” or “cold” zone will be outside the danger area and can be used for the command post, staging of resources, transportation requirements and logistical “drop points.” Managing these zones ensures that everyone who leaves the school building is searched for weapons and that students and teachers can be safely escorted through a safe corridor away from the building.

• Decide on radio procedures and interoperability issues and designate frequencies that can be used for the incident.

• Have a withdrawal plan should it be necessary to remove police personnel prior to securing the active shooter if it is discovered that a “Beslan”-type incident is in progress.

• Generate contact information for mutual aid requests that can include police, fire, EMS, bomb squads, hostage negotiators and hazmat and mass-casualty units.

• Helicopters can provide overhead surveillance, although shots being fired from high-powered rifles should be considered.

• Have and use a mass-casualty procedure for dealing with multiple injuries.

• Include hospitals and trauma centers within a reasonable response distance in pre-incident planning.

• Involve the coroner or medical examiner in training to enable them to express their concerns.

• Recognize the need for establishing a nearby “holding area/safe haven” with police presence for everyone who leaves or is evacuated from the school. Teachers should have their roll book, if possible, to account for every student. No one should be permitted to leave the scene. Ensure that all students and staff are accounted for. If necessary, have the school district secure buses to transport occupants away from the school.

• Anticipate that helicopters from TV stations can congregate above the incident and may interfere with ground and air operations. If this concern exists, restrict the air space to police, fire and medevac helicopters.

Firefighters assisting police at school shootings must understand exactly how police and school officials will react. This is critical knowledge for any interagency incident with police, but even more critical should firefighters or medics find themselves in a school as a shooting situation evolves.

Police refer to this type of a random school shooting situation as an “active shooter scenario.” An active shooter is 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.”

Police procedures

In the past, procedures called for the police, when confronted with a shooting situation, to seal off the area and await the arrival of a special weapons and tactics (SWAT) unit or special response team (SRT). Once these special units arrive, they handle the situation. At Columbine High School, the first-arriving police officers followed this protocol and the perpetrators continued their killing spree. It is now realized that these are dynamic situations that evolve very rapidly. To combat this, an “Immediate Action Rapid Deployment” tactic is needed. This aggressive police action is the most effective countermeasure – the police move toward the sound of gunfire to terminate the life-threatening situation in dealing with an active shooter.

When active shooters attack, it is imperative that the initially responding police pursue and establish contact with the shooters at the earliest opportunity. In addition to hand guns, rifles and automatic weapons, explosives must be anticipated. Law enforcement’s goal is to stop the active shooter at all costs. The sooner the shooter can be contained, captured or neutralized, the greater likelihood that fewer casualties will be incurred.

First-arriving police officers must obtain whatever information they can from school security officers, the principal or teachers who meet them. It should include:

• The number of shooters

• Their ages, description and clothing worn

• Actions taken by the perpetrators such as shootings, threats and hostages

• The perpetrators’ last reported location

• Types of weapons or explosives seen or spoken about

• Reports of how many people are shot and their location

• What threats have been made

• What, if any, demands that have been made

If an active shooter is currently harming or killing individuals, the threat must be neutralized in one of three ways:

1. Police officers confront, contain, subdue and apprehend the shooters with the use of less than lethal force.

2. Police officers contain the subjects to a location so that no additional deadly harm is inflicted on members of the community.

3. The subjects are confronted, but police are unable to subdue, apprehend or contain the subjects and they continue to pose a threat of death or serious injury. Appropriate use of deadly physical force is then used to subdue them.

The ultimate goal is to neutralize the threat. In any circumstances, time is very important and police must take quick and decisive action and stop the violence as soon as possible. Any delay could mean additional deaths and injury to the community by hostile intruders. Police should be aware that:

• They should not sound the fire alarm to evacuate the building. People may be placed in harm’s way when they attempt to evacuate or shooters may be on the exterior waiting for them as targets.

• School plans may have students locking themselves in classrooms and offices.

• If the intruder can be contained to a room or area, the violence stops and the situation has stabilized, police have two options:

1. To continue to contain the situation if possible and await further assistance.

2. To apprehend the subject using maximum officer safety.

Interior of the school

Police should anticipate chaos reigning inside the school. During the interior pursuit, police officers must be disciplined to move through unsecured areas and bypass wounded and panicked occupants while approaching any perpetrators. It is important for law enforcement personnel to survive the encounter to end a massacre, rather than become additional victims. Wounded and frightened occupants will be imploring the police to assist them. Students will seek a hiding place that provides them some protection. A major problem for the police is trying to distinguish between the victims and shooters who could be hiding among the students or staff and acting like victims.

Police should possess school plans and be familiar with the school security camera systems. These cameras may be used by police to assess locations of active shooters and ensure a thorough search of the school. Using these systems requires close coordination between police monitoring the security system and those seeking the shooters. Consider dedicating a radio channel for this tactic.

Schools have multiple escape routes for the victims and shooters. Most shooters have the mindset to kill and injure as many people as possible. Typically, they are not looking to escape, but they may attempt to take their shooting spree to another location. Many active shooters have planned out the scenario and are prepared to engage the police in a highly visible shootout. Automatic weapons with clips holding many rounds of ammunition can be loaded quickly and cause tremendous damage. Even explosives have been set by intruders to commit suicide rather than be captured alive. In reality, police officers armed only with handguns can be outgunned.

In addition to being inside the school building, a hostile person could be operating on the grounds and actively causing the imminent threat of deadly harm. In this type of scenario, initially arriving police must confront the individuals and use the appropriate level of force, which includes, if necessary, deadly force. Police should be prepared for the shooters to attempt to flee during the containment process. If this occurs, police will try to prevent the shooters from entering the school.

Police front-line supervisors

Command must be assumed very early at a school violence incident. The incident commander’s first duty is to conduct a situation assessment and sort through the potentially confusing flood of initial intelligence. The incident commander must determine the number of shooters and analyze the situation based on a risk assessment to determine how to neutralize the shooters. In most cases, immediate action must be taken to stop further injuries. However, if the incident commander identifies a “Beslan”-type situation, with numerous, heavily armed attackers, a delaying action may be the best that can be achieved with limited resources. Adding responder bodies to the pile is a noble, yet futile gesture that will only compound an already complex problem.

Depending on departmental protocols, the first-arriving police supervisor may be part of the initial attack team; if sufficient police officers are already on the scene, the police supervisor should assume command of the incident and establish a stationary command post in a safe location.

Other considerations include:

• Immediately request sufficient multiagency resources, including special units to address heavy weapons, SWAT units, hostage negotiators, bomb squad, search dogs, firefighting forces and medical care.

• Establish divisions and groups to ensure a thorough search pattern is completed in the designated areas.

• Establish liaison with the school principal and school security personnel.

• When sufficient operational personnel are on scene, establish an intelligence officer and a planning section to gather and collate all incident-related data, track all on-scene personnel and maintain strict accountability for personnel operating within the “red”/“hot” zone. n


Next: Fire department and EMS