Aerial photo shows the news media compound near Columbine High School in Littleton, CO, on April 21, 1999. Media from around the world poured into the area after 15 people were killed during a shooting spree inside the school. During an active-shooter response, the fire department must ensure that the public information officer (PIO) releases timely information to the media on approval of the incident commander.
Photo credit: AP Photo/Ed Andrieski
Although fire department and EMS units will play an integral part in assisting the police at incidents involving school violence, it is primarily a law enforcement function. A firefighter’s role in any activity is the preservation of life and not performing law enforcement duties. If fire department units find themselves on the scene of an active shooter, they must immediately notify command or dispatch and withdraw to an area of safety until the police can stabilize the scene.
The sounding of a Mayday should be used judiciously, since the reason for the Mayday could be misinterpreted. Other firefighters hearing the Mayday may not realize the situation and place themselves in “harm’s way” trying to assist. Any radio report transmitted by a unit(s) that is in danger should be as specific as possible of the situation to allow command or dispatch to send the proper assistance. Once dispatch learns of a situation where fire department personnel are endangered, it should consider dedicating the radio channel that the report was received on to that incident. Incoming units on an active-shooter response should set up in a staging area in a safe location as dictated by the incident commander.
The initial-arriving fire department officer should report to the police incident commander. If unified command is to be established, the fire officer can become part of it. If the system in place does not use the unified command concept, then a fire department representative should report to the liaison officer. Some emergency operating plans (EOPs), in lieu of using unified command, are written that once the active shooter is neutralized, the police incident commander transfers command to the fire department to treat the injured and suppress any fires. Once all injuries are stabilized and any fires extinguished, then command is transferred back to the police department so it can preserve the crime scene.
The police will need to fulfill many roles to assist the firefighters, including a thorough search of all victims to check for concealed weapons and bombs before treatment by firefighters or medics. If police find it best to evacuate victims or other occupants from hostile areas, they can bring them to areas of safety for fire and EMS personnel to treat. The police will need to provide security to ensure the safety of medical personnel if the active shooters are arrested and require medical attention.
Realize that police will not treat the injured when initially entering the school; their main objective is to defuse the situation, which means neutralizing the shooter(s). As additional police are deployed within the school, initial triage may be given by these additional teams of police officers to the injured occupants. This can be accomplished in unsecured areas by police officers who are EMTs. Once an area is deemed safe, or if injured are removed to a safe location, EMS and fire personnel can assume the role of triage.
Fire department duties
The fire department also must:
• Anticipate the need for mutual aid and possibly the recall of off-duty members
• Stage all personnel and assign a staging area manager
• Anticipate a mass-casualty incident (MCI) and request an MCI response
• Set up triage, treatment and transportation areas
• Ensure that triage tags are filled out to identify the victim and their injuries, which will also assist in accountability of all school occupants
• If preliminary reports indicate multiple injuries, have EMS identify available trauma beds at area hospitals and medical centers and availability of emergency room staff
• Consider medevac helicopters and determine a landing zone; an engine company with foam capabilities should be dispatched for monitoring the landings and departures
• If extreme weather conditions exist, consider utilizing nearby buildings for some operations, if approved by the incident commander
• Firefighters should not be involved in searches for secondary devices
• Some fire departments and EMS agencies are proponents of their personnel wearing bulletproof vests; this is a departmental decision, but in any case, these personnel should not be allowed to operate in any area that has not been deemed safe by the police
• Fire department members must recognize that active-shooter incidents are criminal investigations and evidence must be preserved
Deploying fire personnel
Firefighters should not be deployed in unsecured areas during any police activity until the situation is stabilized. It is unacceptable for firefighters to be operating in a hostile police environment. Fire department personnel should not be used in any law enforcement functions that could negate the perception that the fire department is neutral during police activity. This includes the use of fire department apparatus to be used as shields to allow law enforcement personnel to approach an active incident.
Police officers should not use any fire department clothing to act as decoys. Police may require the use of fire department tools for forcible entry, first-aid kits, backboards or stretchers to remove injured from areas that have not yet been deemed safe for firefighters to operate in. It is important that firefighters and emergency medical personnel wear distinctive clothing to maintain this designation. A fire helmet is a very specific way of identifying a firefighter.
Firefighters are not normally members of police special weapons and tactics (SWAT) teams. If a fire department has personnel cross-trained to operate on a SWAT team as a paramedic or an EMT, that member should be subject to orders from the police during SWAT operations. These personnel should operate in safe environments and not be allowed to enter areas of danger until the police have secured the scene. A much better arrangement is provided by police departments who require EMT training for police SWAT team members to allow them to be active members of the team and also treat the injured in areas of danger.
School personnel responsibilities
School personnel must follow the EOP in the event of an “active, or a suspected shooter.” An announcement over a public address system can alert teachers and students of the situation and allow them to seek an area of refuge. At one school shooting that was in progress, an announcement was made over the public address system declaring a “Code Blue” to alert the teachers and students to lock down all classrooms. Some students took refuge in closets and bathrooms, while others fled the area. Some school districts do not use codes and only use clear text to avoid any confusion on the part of a student or a substitute teacher not understanding the message. A common message could be, “Attention all teachers, staff and students. The school is in lockdown due to an intruder. Lock all classroom doors and move all students away from the doors.”
Schools and universities that encompass multiple buildings need a notification system in place for students and faculty for releasing timely information about the perpetrators. This informational system must anticipate the need for a hotline for the many calls that will be received in regards to students’ safety. What actions need to be taken initially? What actions are necessary once the situation is stabilized?
The school EOP must spell out the responsibilities of the principal, teachers, security guards, students and other school personnel. There needs to be personnel training so that backups will be available for all positions. During an active shooter incident, classrooms need to be locked down and students moved away from the visibility of the classroom doors. Hallways and common areas should be avoided. The EOP should address actions to be taken by teachers when students are in the auditorium, cafeteria and gymnasium since they are difficult areas to secure. Since these areas may have doors that exit to the exterior, a consideration may be to evacuate the students.
There will be a need to establish a notification system for the families of anyone injured or killed. This should consider including social services, faith leaders, counselors from the school/school district, police, coroner and hospital personnel. Another factor that could assist public safety responders is the numbering or color coding of the school’s doors to assist in identifying locations.
USFA report on NIU shootings
What can communities do to address a disaster waiting to happen?
On Feb. 14, 2008, a former Northern Illinois University (NIU) graduate student shot and killed five students and then himself and wounded 18 others when he opened fire in a classroom on the university’s DeKalb campus. A comprehensive report on the school shootings at NIU was compiled by the U.S. Fire Administration (USFA). The report, Northern Illinois University Shooting, examines the actions of the university and local emergency responders; see http://www.usfa.fema.gov/downloads/pdf/publications/tr_167.pdf.
The USFA report found that NIU developed a basic emergency operations plan and showed how training can lead to a better outcome. NIU, in developing their plan, took the progressive steps of contacting Virginia Tech to find out firsthand about the problems it faced and how they were handled in April 2007, when 32 people were killed on its Blacksburg campus. NIU took those recommendations and integrated the lessons learned from that report into its EOP for the university and the City of DeKalb as well as their fire and police departments. Those plans were implemented in 2008 when the gunman opened fire on the NIU campus.
Lessons learned and reinforced at NIU included:
• The benefit of developing an emergency operating plan with input from school, police, fire and EMS personnel
• The ability of Kishwaukee Community Hospital to be well prepared to handle the surge of the injured in the emergency room because it received early notification from pre-hospital providers about the number and condition of the victims
• The university quickly activated the campus alert system on its website and simultaneously sent emails and voicemails and recorded a hotline message
• The use of triage tags saved lives and facilitated medical treatment while greatly assisting with patient identification
• Knowledge of the guns used in the shootings was helpful to the hospital staff treating gunshot wounds because knowing the ballistics of the guns can assist in establishing the type of internal damage that can be anticipated
• It was realized that vital signs with young victims can change quite rapidly in that they can be stable and maintain that condition for a long time and then suddenly drop to critical levels
• The Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) prevented hospitals from releasing information over the telephone about those who were admitted, were being treated or were released (this can cause frustration and anger on the part of family members who are trying to obtain information about their loved ones; hospital staff members realize the importance of the information to the relatives, but cannot disregard the strict regulations that are imposed on them)
• It was reinforced that a debriefing should be conducted for all personnel who respond to these incidents; this debriefing should include dispatchers and staff personnel who were involved in receiving telephone calls during the incident
• Counseling sessions should be offered for the students and teachers to assist them in getting past the incident and hopefully avoiding psychological problems in the future
There is a distinct demand for the implementation of a unified command system at a school shooting. All disciplines need to be working together toward common incident objectives under a unified command structure, although each incident must be judged on its own merits. It may be more expedient to initially have a single police incident commander until the active shooter is neutralized. At this point, the incident commander declares the scene stabilized and then unified command can be established. The implementation of unified command should include police, fire, EMS and school officials to ensure that the correct incident objectives are identified and accomplished. They also should:
• Have all agencies adopt and train on the incident command system and implementation of unified command
• Consider that the appointment of the incident safety officer (ISO) be an individual versed in police operations; when the perpetrators have been neutralized and the situation warrants fire and EMS activities, then any qualified ISO can be assigned
• Ensure that the public information officer (PIO) releases timely information on approval of the incident commander and consider a joint information center (JIC)
• Consider safe locations for setting up a command post and staging areas
• Consider the activation and use of an emergency operations center (EOC)
During Incident Command System (ICS) training, members of the fire and police departments must understand the sectoring system that will be used. The system used by fire departments is alphabetical, starting with the front of the building being A or Alpha and working clockwise around the building. Many police departments use numerical sectoring systems, which start with the front of the building being side 1 and also work clockwise around the building. On interior operations some departments break down the interior floors of a building into quadrants to allow better sectoring/visualization. If either agency uses a quadrant system, that system must be included in the EOP.
Recommendations for civilians
The Department of Homeland Security in: “Active Shooter; How to Respond” recommends that individuals should:
• Evacuate – Occupants should evacuate the facility if safe to do so; evacuees should leave behind their belongings, visualize their entire escape route before beginning to move and avoid elevators and escalators.
• Hide – If evacuating the facility is not possible, occupants should hide in a secure area (preferably a designated shelter location), lock the door, blockade the door with heavy furniture, cover all windows, turn off all lights, silence any electronic devices, lie on the floor and remain silent.
• Take action – If neither evacuating the facility nor seeking shelter is possible, occupants should attempt to disrupt and/or incapacitate the active shooter by throwing objects, using aggressive force and yelling.
Building occupants also should be trained to call 911 as soon as it is safe to do so. When law enforcement arrives on the scene, building occupants should follow all official instructions, remain calm, keep hands empty and visible at all times and avoid making sudden or alarming movements.