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Supervisory Response to the Active Shooter

Written by Scott Oldham

The success or failure of a law enforcement agency’s response to a crisis is often determined by the first supervisor on the scene. The response to the event is often cast in the first few critical minutes. It is absolutely crucial that first line supervisors—the ones who will be present in the immediate timeline of critical events— be thoroughly trained in how to respond to the vast array of possible situations that might confront them.


The patrol response to a critical incident such as an active shooter can be a juggernaut with many moving parts. Slow to start and in the end very complex, the sometimes unwieldy mechanism of a total law enforcement rescue and stabilization operation will be required to deal with a situation of this magnitude.

The response mechanism of any law enforcement agency is a multi-layered system of complementing skill sets: patrol, investigation, evidence collection and administration. The entire system is slow to build steam when reacting to a crisis and must be directed into activation via a carefully thought-out process. No aspects can be missed and no time can be wasted.

Gone are the days of law enforcement being a hodge-podge of people all “doing their own thing” in regard to a critical incident. Today, the scene of any incident must be managed with careful consideration as to “what comes after the call.” On-scene commanders must consider the immediate tactical situation that confronts them, as well as the agency’s strategic goals in regard to the resolution of the incident.

The initial officer’s response to any large-scale event, such as an active shooter, has by now been firmly established in most agencies. Thus, the duty shifts to training supervisory personnel on what to do once the initial contact teams have gone into the hot zone. Here we have made the move from the tactical response of “enter and engage the suspect” to the strategic response of ensuring that there are enough personnel on-scene to supplement those already in the building.

Supervisors must begin making provisions for the large-scale investigation, which is sure to take place in the wake of an active shooter, as well as worrying about backfilling for street level officers who have responded to the incident. While these are critical decisions that must be made early in any incident, they are rarely brought up in training.

The response by a supervisory officer to a critical incident such as an active shooter is something that very few first line command training courses cover, but with good reason. Most command schools are directed at the new supervisor who must learn how to manage a group of officers as well as how to lead that same group in day-to-day life. Throwing special circumstances into the mix in a basic supervision class is a recipe for disaster.

The line between management and leadership is often misunderstood, which results in missed opportunities for breeding success. Remember, “Do as I say” is not the same as “Do as I do.” There is a time for each.

1. Stop the Killing

In an active shooter situation, the supervisory response to an incident must take many things into account simultaneously. First and foremost, we must stop the killing. That may mean that, upon arrival, the supervisor’s role would become a leadership one.

In this scenario, the “follow me” line of thinking should be paramount. Just as the U.S. Marines proudly say that every Marine is a rifleman first, every police officer should be a law enforcement officer first and a supervisor second.

When the supervisory officer is one of the first on the scene, incident management takes a back seat to scene stabilization. Given sufficient on-scene resources, stabilization and management can take place concurrently. If there is any doubt, default to stabilizing first (i.e., stopping the killing), and then manage later.

Given a situation where there are sufficient resources at a scene, how does the first responding supervisor begin to manage the event? While there is a myriad of possible policy and training options for resolving, or at least containing, the incident, the first thing to take care of is always to stop the killing. By any method possible, stop the killing. This is where the principles of officer safety and the speed of intervention by law enforcement come into conflict. Some of each must be sacrificed in the name of the other. Only those on the scene can make the determination as to how much of each is enough.

2. Rescue the Wounded

After the suspect is apprehended or stopped and the danger is over, the job of the supervisor should shift toward rescuing the wounded, preserving the evidence and assisting with the continuity of operations within the jurisdiction.

First, however, all officers on the scene, and actually all officers working that shift, must be accounted for. There should be a pre-planned template of action for doing so. While throughout the event supervisors should have been attempting to think several steps into the future, it is not until the moment after the violence has been stopped that they should turn their attention toward the multiple phases of crisis response.

Once the suspect is under control, the wounded will need to be attended to. Effort should be made early on to notify emergency medical services of the event and the likelihood of numerous traumatic injuries.

With just 15 minutes warning, a properly prepared hospital can begin to halt all non-essential services and begin instituting disaster protocols. Additional personnel such as trauma surgeons, anesthesiologists and others can be called in; more blood can be summoned from the regional blood bank; and additional, outlying hospitals can be notified to stand by to receive the lesser wounded.

3. The Investigation Begins

Once the wounded have been evacuated from the scene, the investigation will need to begin in earnest. You can be sure that this will not be a short process. Many investigators, evidence technicians and other experts will be required to adequately process the scene. While they are doing that, the work of the police department must still continue. The normal 9-1-1 calls will continue, domestic disturbances will occur and accidents will happen.

Officers involved in the resolution of the active shooter incident will need to be relieved from the scene for debriefing, rest and refit. Off-duty personnel will need to be called in, and rotations of work will need to be established. Also, a separate command and control system should be established. While the easiest way to do this is to simply call in the next shift scheduled to report for duty, it is important that this is planned before an incident occurs.

Other things must also be considered, such as barricades to shut off vehicular traffic in the area and the establishment of “no fly zones” to guard against mid-air collisions among all of the law enforcement, media and Med-Evac helicopters orbiting the area.

Control the Media

One of the first things that should be done immediately after the situation is under control is to establish a media holding area and provide the media with a public information officer as a means of contact so that investigative personnel can be left alone to do their jobs. Also, a PIO can be used to funnel information to a worried and distressed public to keep fears in check and provide victims’ families with the most up-to-date information possible.

Establishing good plans and procedures prior to a disaster of this type is important. No matter what methodology your agency chooses to use when responding to a crisis of this kind, it is absolutely crucial that first line supervisors receive thorough and complete training so the decisions they make can save lives while resolving the incident.

Scott Oldham is a lieutenant with the Bloomington, Ind., Police Department. After 18 years with the department’s tactical unit, Lt. Oldham recently left the team after serving in various capacities, including team commander. He can be reached at oldhams@bloomington.in.gov.

Published in Tactical Response, May/Jun 2011

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