Fire/EMS Response Considerations for Mass Shooting Incidents

This article was recently written by Contributing Editor August Vernon and was due to be published in the coming weeks. Because of the tragedy at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, VA, is publishing this article to assist fire departments to plan for this type of unthinkable incident.

If there were a report of a mass shooting or active shooter event in your community how would your agency respond? Do you immediately enter the "hot zone" or do you wait six blocks away until it is all over?

Several recent major events have occurred in the past 26 months that have emphasized the need for Fire/EMS to again address the possibility of mass shooting events in their community.

One of the latest shootings in 2006 that has occurred has left five girls dead and five remain hospitalized as the result of an Oct. 2 attack by an adult gunman against a one-room schoolhouse in the farming community of Nickel Mines, PA. One week before the attack in the Amish Community, an armed gunman entered the Platte Canyon High School outside of Bailey, Colorado and held six female students hostage in a classroom. Morrison was killed when a SWAT team entered the facility, but not before killing one of his hostages. On Sept. 13, a 25-year-old man went on a shooting spree at Montreal's Dawson College, targeting students and college personnel at random and leaving panic and death in his wake. He killed one and injured 19 before being killed.

In 2005 several major shooting events also occurred. One of the first was the March 11 event in Atlanta, Ga. A Fulton County judge, a sheriff's deputy and a court reporter were shot and killed and another deputy critically wounded at the courthouse before the gunman fled from the scene and carjacked a motorist. The courthouse's 400-plus workers were evacuated later, and schools, restaurants and office buildings in the area were locked down during the day. The suspect was later captured after killing a US Customs Officer.

The second mass-shooting event occurred on March 12 at a hotel in Brookfield, Wisconsin. The shooter opened fire at a church service being held at the hotel, killing at least four people and sending several others to hospitals, authorities said. The gunman then apparently shot and killed himself.

The third and most recent attack occurred on Jan. 30 in Goleta, CA, when a female shooter shot six postal employees to death and committed suicide in what was believed to be the nation's deadliest workplace shooting by a woman.

It was the deadliest shooting at any U.S. workplace since 2003, when 48-year-old Doug Williams gunned down 14 co-workers, killing six, and then committed suicide at a Lockheed Martin aircraft parts plant in Meridian, MS. It also was the bloodiest rampage at a U.S. postal installation since 1986, when a mailman killed 14 people in Edmond, OK, and then took his own life.

Threat Groups

It is also important to remember that some Al-Qaeda training materials such as the Encyclopedia Jihad series and numerous training videos provide guidance on the use of firearms for many different missions, including kidnapping, drive-by shootings and assassinations. There are also several websites and even an on-line game that is dedicated to the Columbine High school shootings.


Law enforcement, fire and EMS all share some of the same priorities during a mass-shooting event. Planning and interagency cooperation for any critical incident type of event should be paramount. Several issues will need to be addressed during the planning phase. Law enforcement will need fire and EMS coverage and equipment (vehicles, ladders, breaching tools, fire extinguishers, trauma packs, SKEDs, etc.) during the event. EMS may need to provide tactical medics and set up several triage areas away from the scene. Law enforcement will need to provide security and "over watch" for the fire and EMS units entering the "hot zone." There is tremendous need for a coordinated effort among all agencies to ensure a safe and effective response. Responder safety is paramount during this type of event!

Does your department have guidelines and procedures for dealing with mass shooting or other violent events? The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) 1500, section 6-7 states: "Fire department shall development and maintains written guidelines that establish a standardized approach to the safety of members at incidents that involve violence, unrest or civil disturbances. Such situations shall include but not be limited to riots, fights, violent crimes, drug related situations, family disturbances and deranged individuals during fire department operations".

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 eanagement, hospitals and the school system.

Every jurisdiction, big or small, should have a Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) or Terrorism Task Force (TTF). As with any multi-hazard assessment and planning process, it is a great idea to do a multi-agency exercise (tabletop or functional) to bring all the key agencies together and rehearse the plan.

Utilizing OPSEC for Such Incident

Prior to planning for mass shootings, terrorism and other "critical incidents" it is important to think about the information that will be released to the public.

OPSEC is a five-step risk-management process used by military and security professionals to protect sensitive information that adversaries could use. Critical information such as planning and training efforts must be protected. Extremists and organized criminals 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". For additional information on OPSEC for Public Safety see the article "Think Like the Wolf" in the April 2006 issue of Firehouse Magazine.

SAFETY The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Firefighter 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 NIOSH recently 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; 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

Prior Events

It is important that we take the valuable and sometimes-fatal lessons learned from these past incidents and apply them to our future training and planning. Each year across the United States, several acts of mass shootings occur. Fire and EMS responders will encounter many challenges during their careers, including acts of violence involving weapons. Every year a number of firefighters and paramedics also are injured during these types of events. One way to accomplish this planning goal is to learn from the responses to these tragic events that have occurred in the past such as those listed below:

Lessons Learned from Past History

These are a few guidelines that will hopefully aid you and your members from potentially violent situations. There is a tremendous amount of information on pre-planning, training, lessons learned, response, and other important issues that cannot be covered in this article due to time and size constraints.

This article will focus primarily on the "Fire/EMS Response to Mass Shootings" component. Your best tools will be your good common sense and awareness. The information provided in this article is for educational purposes only. Please follow all local procedures and guidelines when responding to these types of events. Experience with past mass shooting/active shooter events have shown:

  • Pre-planning is critical!
  • First arriving units have a drastic effect on the progress of the incident. Must quickly and safely conduct "windshield survey".
  • Immediate interagency cooperation/Unified Command is essential.
  • ICS, ICS and more ICS
  • Clear communications are necessary for effective operations.
  • Access to helicopters for overhead assessments is a plus.
  • Notify all key agencies supporting entities as soon as possible (emergency management, hospitals, etc.)
  • Plan on large and immediate media response.
  • Plan on large and immediate parents, family and friends response to the incident scene.
  • Fire and EMS personnel should wear helmet and clearly marked Fire or EMS jackets. If there is any doubt that a responder is not seen as a firefighter or EMS responders should wear a road vest or t-shirt with highly visible lettering.
  • Body armor should be obtained for those responding into the "impact" area.
  • During these types of events related and unrelated 911-call volume may go up.
  • 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.
  • Numerous mass shooting and active shooter events have seen the use of Improvised Explosives Devices (IED's) so be aware of this hazard and the growing use of secondary devices.
  • Remember: Firfe/EMS can be targets of violence!

Tactical Medicine

One excellent source for protecting responders and the public during an active shooter or mass-shooting event is the use of Tactical Medics. According to the International Tactical EMS Association (ITEMS), "These medical providers can then maintain the wellness of the team's members and provide immediate medical care to anyone in need, whether they're law enforcement officers, innocent bystanders or suspects."

Agencies should look at Officer Down and Tactical Medic courses for dealing with these types of situations. These medics have received additional training in multiple subjects such as firearms use, remote site medical care, IEDs, terrorism, preventive medicine, tactics, ballistic injuries, etc. Tactical medics are great assets to any agency during "Critical Incident" responses (active shooters, law enforcement support, barricaded subjects, civil unrest, VIP escorts, meth lab responses, etc.) Tactical medics have also proven to be a valuable lifesaver for military and security teams currently operating in Afghanistan and Iraq. For additional information on tactical medicine and "real world" tactical medic training opportunities visit

Special Response Teams

If there is a local law enforcement Special Response Team (SRT) or Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) unit in your jurisdiction, contact them to ask for assistance with your mass shooting or active shooter training and planning issues. Due to the increase of workplace and school shooting incidents in the past decade most if not all-special response teams have trained for an active shooter event. These teams should be willing to provide your agency with guidelines for a mass-shooting event since they may also require your support during an actual incident. One must also take into account that much of SET/SWAT and Bomb Squad training and equipment information is very sensative in nature and must be handled as such. Some of this type of information is not for the public or the media due to safety concerns.

Training for Mass Shooting Incidents

Training is one way in safely managing a mass-shooting event. There are several excellent sources of information that you can utilize to update your plans and training. These include:

  • When Violence Erupts: A Survival Guide for Emergency Responders, by Dennis Krebs,
  • Understanding Terrorism and Managing The Consequences: Chapter 3. Terrorism/ Tactical Violence Incident Response Procedures by Paul M. Maniscalco and Hank T.,

Another excellent tool to assist in the planning phase is the "Wanton Violence at Columbine High School Technical Report" available from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) at for public safety agencies. This report is an in-depth analysis of the fire service and emergency medical service (EMS) operations and the overall response to the assault on Columbine High School at Littleton, Colorado, on April 20, 1999. Incident command, special operations, and mass casualty emergency medical services are featured. This report is available at no cost and also comes with a CD-ROM containing audio and video clips compiled by the Jefferson Co. Sheriff's Office. The report contains a wealth of information and numerous "lessons learned" to assist with the planning process.

Again, follow local guidelines and procedures. This article is intended for information only and to spur further discussion and planning within agencies. Each community should have a plan in place to address these types of events. All law enforcement officers now receive "Active Shooter Response" training as part of their basic schooling. Fire, EMS and other responders should gain at least an awareness - level understanding of mass or active shooting events and the threats they present.

Again, please remember to follow local guidelines and procedures. This article is for informational and educational purposes only. It is impossible to cover all the issues that will need to be addressed during a mass shooting or active shooter event. Each community should have a plan in place to address these types of events. Hopefully you will gain some information to take back to your agency to assist with planning and training efforts. The more our public safety agencies prepare, the better they are prepared to respond to effectively manage any type of situation that might arise. The community has entrusted us with their safety - so let's prepare now!

August Vernon is currently an Assistant Coordinator for the Forsyth County, NC, Office of Emergency Management. August recently returned to his position at Emergency Management after a year in Iraq as a security contractor conducting long-range convoy security operations.

Vernon has been a member of emergency management since 2000, a member of the fire service since 1990 and a fire service instructor. He also served in the U.S. Army as an NBC (Nuclear, Biological & Chemical) operations specialist. Mr. Vernon teaches courses in incident management, OPSEC for public safety, hazMat operations and terrorism/WMD response. Has also been published in several national publications and is available for questions and comments at