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Active Shooter Training: Lessons Learned

Written by Phelps, Penny

“The officers ran right past us without saying a word; they left us to die.” As a police officer responding to reports of an active shooter in a school, this comment made by one of the victims may anger you. After all, the first responding officers have the grave responsibility of locating the shooter and eliminating the threat. Who has time to talk to victims?

Getting the perspective of the victims was the primary intent of the joint training held by the Monroe County, Fla. Sheriff’s Office, the Monroe County Public School District, and the Treasure Village Montessori Charter School. In addition, the schools and the Sheriff’s Office wanted to practically apply the principles of the A.L.I.C.E. (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) program and examine the results. The A.L.I.C.E. program offers options (run, hide, fight) for students and teachers who find themselves in an active shooter situation. 

We conducted three types of joint training with the schools: 1) shooting blanks from shotguns and pistols in various locations throughout the schools during teacher in-service days; 2) telling students and teachers to evacuate (run) from the school without using any role players or officers; and 3) full-scale, two-hour training scenarios complete with active shooters, students, teachers, principals, parents and responding officers. After each training exercise/scenario, Training Division debriefed all of the participants. 

 

Simulated Gunfire Exercise

During teacher in-service training, the Training Division took shotguns and pistols, loaded with blanks, into the schools. Teachers and staff were told to conduct business as if school was in session and students were in the building. The shooter walked throughout campus and fired several shotgun blanks.

When the shooting stopped, teachers and staff were gathered together and asked for their comments. “I thought it would be louder.” “It sounded like someone slammed a door.” “I could have given a student a hall pass to go to the bathroom and sent him/her into the hallway right into the path of a shooter and not known it because I did not hear anything.”

The lessons learned during the simulated gunfire exercise stressed the importance of the alert component of the A.L.I.C.E. program. The teachers learned they could not rely upon hearing gunfire to become aware of the presence of a shooter. The use of the school’s public address system proved to be the most effective, efficient method of alerting everyone on campus about the presence of a shooter. 

 

Evacuating the school exercise

The Treasure Village Montessori Charter School, pre-K through eighth grade, agreed to conduct an evacuation of the entire school. The school obtained permission from the parents of the students who participated. The students were told that someone with a gun was in the school.  They were told to get out of the building and run to safety. The teachers and officers acted only as observers and did not provide direction to the students.

The older students, fifth through eighth graders, separated into small groups and immediately ran away from the building. When they got to the chain link fence bordering the school’s property, many of the older students climbed the fence. “I climbed the fence to get as far away from the school as I could.” The younger students stayed together as a class. They ran to the playground equipment and hid behind it. “I wanted to climb the fence, but I am too little.” “I was hiding.”

Younger students exhibited the same “run until you find something to hide behind” behavior during the full-scale training scenarios. Even when teachers escorted them out of the school, the younger students would often stop running and hide behind the first object they encountered.  They hid behind trees, playground equipment, other buildings, and bushes. 

The high school students ran, but many of them did not bother to hide. The high school students ran away from the school, but stayed close enough to wait for their friends to escape and/or watch the activities. “I felt safe the minute I was out of the school.” “I couldn’t leave until I knew my friends were OK.” “The officer told me to run, but didn’t tell me where to go.”    

The lessons learned from the mock evacuation and the full-scale training scenarios emphasized the importance of the evacuation component of the A.L.IC.E. program. Every time students and teachers opted to run from the building, they ran down the middle of the hallway. This reinforced Jason Wuestenberg’s (2008) findings when training with Arizona officers. This phenomenon greatly impedes the effectiveness of a Diamond or T response. 

Reunification points should be discussed and developed. Officers must know the reunifications points for each school. Whenever possible, students must be given clear directions. Locate hiding places for younger students on the school grounds; hopefully these hiding places can conceal an entire class. 

 

Full-scale Training Scenario

Two-hour training scenarios were held in elementary, middle and high schools throughout the district. Every attempt was made to have each patrol squad train as a team in a school located within their patrol district. Officers drew numbered chips to determine the arrival order. The arrival times were staggered to replicate actual response times. 

Officers were equipped with blue guns, blue TASERs, etc. Active shooters had shotguns with blanks so gunfire could be used to drive the officers’ response. Two communications officers per scenario handled all the phone calls and radio traffic. Teachers, principals, civilian employees from the Sheriff’s Office, community members and students (with signed permission slips) volunteered to participate in the scenarios.

All of the civilian role players were briefed prior to the start of each scenario. The run, hide, fight options were discussed. They were told to listen for gunfire and/or the public address system to help them decide what action to take. They were then told, “Your goal is to survive. Do whatever you think you would do if this were real.” The scenario then started.

Among the lessons learned, it became painfully apparent that some officers had not taken the time to learn the layout of a school in their patrol district. Precious minutes were wasted by officers’ repeated requests for the communications officers to tell them where a building or room was on campus. Once on campus, officers could not tell one building from another because the buildings are not labeled. 

All Sheriff’s Office employees have electronic access to the floor plans for every school.   However, these floor plans are detailed schematics that provide extraneous, confusing information. Many of the floor plans do not clearly identify the name of a given building. 

The detailed schematics will be given to the respective School Resource Officer (SRO) to reduce unnecessary information and provide clearer identifiers.

The schools are in the process of putting identifiers as high up as possible on each building so first responders can quickly locate a building. Officers will be mandated to walk through the schools in their patrol districts.

 

Ignored Intelligence Information

Officers often ignored the information and/or assistance offered to them by teachers, students and principals, even when active gunfire was not driving their response. Principals offered master keys, teachers tried to give the shooter’s description, and students offered to show officers back hallways to access rooms. Most of these offers were ignored. Civilians were repeatedly told by officers, “Just leave. Get out of the building. Run.”

All teachers and principals continually emphasized, “I will not leave the building until I know all of my kids are safe.” “You can yell at me, threaten to arrest me, or put me in handcuffs, but I am not leaving the building.” It became clear that Adam Lanza had killed a principal and five teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary School who were doing what all educators would do…protecting their kids.   

Gunfire from an active shooter drives the law enforcement response. A shooter, who is not active, gives officers a moment to assess the situation, gather intelligence, and assault with a strategic advantage. Officers should use available resources to help them prepare their strategic assault. Officers should be prepared to tell teachers and principals what they can do to help get kids to safety.

 

Run

In some of the scenarios, the SRO had been fatally shot. Many of the students went to the aid of the SRO. Some students used the SRO’s radio to call for help. Students unfamiliar with how a police radio functions kept the microphone open making it impossible for officers to use the channel. A communications officer’s quick thinking diverted all responding officers to another channel while maintaining radio contact with the student using the SRO’s radio.

One elementary school teacher was helping her kids out of the window when a police officer came into her classroom and told her to stop putting kids out of the window. The officer said, “There may be a shooter out there; it isn’t safe for the kids to be outside.” During the debrief, the teacher indicated, “Our training for the teachers must include instructions on listening to the police when they arrive. I have been trained to run, hide or fight. It was only when he told me that I may be putting my kids in harm’s way that I started to listen to him.”

 

Hide

Officers conducting secondary searches found several barricaded doors. “We dragged everything we could in front of the classroom door. I did not want the shooter coming into my room. Students hid anywhere and everywhere. Many of the students would not come out of their hiding places even though officers were announcing that they were the police. “I was not coming out of my hiding spot until I knew it was safe.” “I was scared. I thought the shooter was telling me he was a police officer to trick me into coming out.” People who had hidden behind locked doors refused to come out of the locked room.

Officers should be prepared to prove they are police officers. Slide identification cards or business cards under locked doors. Tell the person behind the locked door to call 9-1-1 to confirm your identity. Communications officers should be prepared to tell the caller the first name and badge number of the officer on the other side of a locked door. Officers should use clear, simple language to communicate to hidden people. “The officer kept saying that the threat had been resolved. I did not know what that meant.”  

Officers can use a teacher to help them call to the students and tell them to come out of hiding. “When I heard my teacher say my name and tell me it was safe, I knew it was OK to come out.” Officers can also have the principal use the school’s public address system to tell everyone that it is safe to come out of hiding.

           

Fight

During one scenario, a first responding officer was fatally shot as he came into the library. A father was in the library with his daughter as part of the school’s reading program. The father took the downed officer’s gun. He was fatally shot by other responding officers. “I took the gun to protect myself. I never thought about the police thinking I was the shooter.”

During another scenario, a student hiding in a classroom called his dad and told him what was happening. The father immediately came to the school, armed with a gun, to save his son. The father was shot by officers in the school. 

In yet another scenario, a teacher brought a gun to school to protect herself. She hid in a locked bathroom. When officers told her to open the door and come out, she did. She was holding the gun in her hand and was shot by the officers. The students, who had been unable to run, quickly hid. 

Some of the students grabbed books and backpacks to defend themselves. One student grabbed a glass beaker from the science lab. “If the scenario were real, I would have broken the beaker and used it as a knife.” Officers should be prepared for students, teachers and parents who are trying to protect themselves and others. The physiological fight or flight response was readily apparent during the scenarios.

 

Injured People

“The officers ran right past us without saying a word; they left us to die.” “When the officer moved away from my hurt kids, I followed him and begged him to help the kids.” The victims in the first six scenarios told us that the officers ran past injured and dying people without saying anything to them. The victims repeatedly voiced shock, fear and an overwhelming sense of abandonment by the officers’ actions.

Prior to the start of the seventh scenario, the Training Division instructed officers to talk with injured people as they moved past them to find the shooter and eliminate the threat. The officers were instructed to say things like, “I have to leave to help you be safe. I will be back. Help is on the way.  If you can, help someone who is hurt.”

During this scenario’s debriefing, the victims did not express fear or abandonment. When asked to describe how they felt when the officers moved past them, the victims said, “She said she was coming back.” “He told us help was coming.” “He said to find stuff to put on anyone who was bleeding.” Officers should be prepared to offer quick, verbal reassurance to victims. It has a positive impact on the victims.              

The joint training provided valuable insight into the perspective of victims involved in an active shooter situation. Applying the principles of the A.L.I.C.E. program will allow the Sheriff’s Office and the school district to make adjustments to each school’s safety plan. More importantly, the training allowed law enforcement personnel and educators the opportunity to see an active shooter situation from each other’s perspective. Working together ensures the safest strategic advantage. 

 

Captain Penny Phelps’ 30 years of law enforcement experience includes six years as a SWAT commander. Her current responsibilities include training, SWAT, Bomb Team, Hostage Negotiators, the Communications Center, Traffic and Aviation. She is affiliated with LouKa Tactical Training and their Instructional Leadership programs.


Published in Law and Order, Feb 2014

Rating : 10.0


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