How should you respond to an active shooter?

Are there strategies for surviving a shooting? And should we arm teachers and security guards?

C. David Shepherd, MBA, MPAJA, CHS-III, is the author of <em> Active Shooter: Preparing for and Responding to a Growing Threat</em> (Butterworth-Heinemann, 2015)Yesterday, Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, was the scene of a shooting rampage that left 10 dead at the hands of an individual who only had one goal in mind: to kill.

After any active shooter incident, the initial details of the shooting are, unfortunately, about 95 percent wrong as witnesses and victims see and hear different things while fleeing for their lives or dealing with shock. Thus, it may take hours to sort out the number of casualties and days to complete the embryonic crime scene investigation. During this time, it is best to think of the victims and family members of this tragic event rather than focusing on sketchy information and unreliable intelligence that is dribbled through the news wires.

Let us focus on what we do know for certain about active shootings:

  • An active shooting isn’t restricted to a big city or a nationally recognized school, business or city.
  • They can take place in any state, city or township, at any time and in any location.
  • The reasons a shooter decided to begin his or her deadly rampage are only known to the shooter and not by the victims who were intentionally or accidently selected. People always ask me, “Why did he do it? What was he thinking?” But that has nothing to with the gun in your face.
  • While high-profile shootings have occurred at schools and colleges, they can also occur in all kinds of business settings or even an open environment such as a street or parking lot.
  • Shootings can occur in a private or public sector facility, a hard or soft target, and in a restricted or unrestricted location.
  • The active shooter could be a current or former student, current or former employee, or just random.

As a community, we already know active shootings are not going away any time soon. Nor will the effects of an active shooting be less painful for a victim’s family and friends, or the first responders who experience the carnage first-hand.

Is your organization prepared?

Active shooter incidents are on the rise, with the number more than doubling from 2000 to 2013. (Source: <em>Active Shooter</em>, Elsevier 2015, based on FBI statistics)We do know that schools and businesses can no longer play the odds that “it won’t happen here” and not take the necessary steps to prepare for an active shooting. Preparedness begins well in advance of any emergency. A company plans for a fire by purchasing the necessary technology, following sound policies and procedures, and training all staff members about their roles, duties and responsibilities. Why isn’t the same approach being taken for an active shooting?

For a school system fire drills are mandated once or twice a year by code. In some states and school districts earthquake drills are mandated once or twice per year by code. Consider these questions in preparing for an active shooting:

  • Are there any codes mandating active shooting preparation in your county or state?
  • What technology has been purchased to prevent entry and protect all individuals in the classroom from an active shooting?
  • What communications system has been installed to warn all individuals on campus, including parents and visitors inside the theater, basketball court and football field?

How should individuals respond in an active shooting?

During an active shooting, the recommended response for students and visitors on campus is different than for school administers, teachers and staff. For students and visitors, the Department of Homeland Security’s response of “Run, Hide, Fight” provides options for them to protect themselves.

Each individual should consider the four cornerstones of action:

  1. What is your location to the active shooter?
  2. What is the distance to the active shooter?
  3. What is your mental and physical ability to act?
  4. How much time does the individual have to react?

However, if the school administration has trained on responding to an active shooting, they have identifiable protective measures, actions and procedures that may take into consideration the four cornerstones.

At a minimum each individual who is confronted with an active shooting should begin with “Situational Awareness.” If you are in an active shooting situation, you should:

  • Consider your surroundings
  • Look for escape routes out of an area.
  • Listen for danger sounds.
  • Be observant.
  • Be aware of suspicious activity.
  • When attempting hide from an active shooter, consider the hiding place that will offer either cover or concealment.

What is the teacher’s role?

For the school administration the philosophy of “everyone one for themselves” is not valid as the school has assumed the position of loco parentis, which means “in the place of a parent” for students on campus. Just as a parent will not leave their child to fend for themselves in the face of a deadly active shooter, the school administration must consider the safety of all students on campus regardless of their physical and mental abilities, age, sex and race.

Here are some aspects for a teacher to consider during an active shooting:

  • Keep all students together; you’re responsible for keeping them safe. A teacher should not leave any students behind to fend for themselves or allow half the class to escape without direction. However, there is a caveat: a younger student doesn't possess the same skills and instincts as high school or college students. Also, there’s safety in numbers. (For example, even a classroom of young children could protect themselves by throwing canned goods at the shooter.)
  • The age of the students will have an impact on their ability to assist the teacher in defending against the shooter.
  • Just like adults, students may fall into one of three different response postures: fight, flight or freeze. Additionally, consider the age of the student plus their mental and physical abilities. For example, students who freeze cannot move desks to block doors, fight to protect themselves or be forced to move and flee. Further, if the teacher has a special education class, the options are greatly limited.

What about arming security guards and teachers?

Soon after the Oregon shooting, media reported that the campus was a gun-free zone and that the security guard on duty was unarmed. After any campus shooting, the question arises as to whether teachers should be armed and whether campuses should have armed law enforcement or volunteer armed security.  Also, some school districts are considering arming volunteer retired law enforcement officers to fill the staffing gap in law enforcement demands for schools.

Before you answer yes or no to whether a teacher should be armed – and whether retired law enforcement officers should be hired – consider the following questions:

  • What is the impact on the school, parents and students if the teacher has an accidental discharge?
  • Is the teacher required to obtain a Carrying a Concealed Weapon (CCW) permit, and who will pay for the permit?
  • What is the impact on the parents and students if the teacher can only carry a  weapon in the open that can be seen by all?
  • How will law enforcement know which teachers are armed when responding to an incident?
  • What are the ramifications on the teacher and school if the gun is stolen or physically taken off the teacher, then used in a criminal act either on or off the property?
  • What types of weapons are allowed to be carried by the teacher?
  • What type of training will they receive, and who pays for the firearms training?
  • What impact will arming teachers have on insurance?
  • What are the rules of engagement for the teacher?
  • What warrants the use of force by the teacher?
  • Just because the teacher has weapon, does that mean the teacher must seek out and engage the active shooter or use the weapon to protect those students around them?
  • If the teacher’s weapon is secured in a lock box, how fast should the teacher be expected to remove the weapon?
  • How many teachers should be armed on campus to be effective?

In an active shooting or any emergency, the individual will react based on their own internal instincts and experiences, training they have received specific to this type of emergency, preparedness or their own mental and physical abilities.

It is unfortunate that active shooting today is all too common. I wish it would fall to the same category as the old fall-out shelter drills in the 1950s and 1960s, which involved preparing for an event that would never come to pass.

The Author

C. David Shepherd has more than 45 years’ experience in security, law enforcement, counter-terrorism, risk management, crisis management and active shooting. His expertise includes military, private security, law enforcement and SWAT, as well as a former criminal justice adjunct professor and co-chairman of resorts under the Commercial Facilities Sector Coordinating Council (CFSCC).

C. David Shepherd, MBA, MPAJA, CHS-III, is the author of ><a target="_blank" href=";utm_source=publicity&amp;utm_medium=ElsConn&amp;utm_campaign=ActiveShooter"> Active Shooter: Preparing for and Responding to a Growing Threat</a>(Butterworth-Heinemann,
  2015) Shepherd is the co-author of Active Shooter: Preparing for and Responding to a Growing Threat, published in August by Elsevier’s Butterworth-Heinemann. The book provides the tools to identify potential violent individuals, along with the options and responses needed to save lives, reduce corporate liability, and recover from an active shooter event should it happen.

The authors show why many perpetrators initiate attacks, what they often are thinking, and some of the indicators that could have been identified prior to the attack. They describe how organizations can develop an active shooter program, walking readers through the entire process including training exercises to test the efficiency of the program. And they illustrate how to communicate with law enforcement, government agencies, and the media in the event of active shooter incident, and how organizations can recover promptly, which is crucial for operational survival.

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