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Active Shooter’s Forgotten Factor

Written by Paul Brandley, Jr.

Several events of great magnitude have altered the course of policing. For example, the active shooter event at Columbine High School forever changed the way law enforcement would respond to suspects whose ongoing, life-threatening actions could result in death or serious bodily injury to innocent people if a response is delayed. Officers and administrators know the need for patrol rifles. Agencies have trained personnel in the use of these weapons, and in many cases have now equipped first responders with this equipment. Our leaders and personnel have been educated, so they now realize patrol officers cannot wait for SWAT’s arrival on scene to handle this type of situation.

Instead, they must actively move toward the suspect(s) and engage them to stop their violent behavior. Most training seminars and tactical articles have addressed the tactics of rapid deployment used in response to the active shooter. Most officers have been trained on how to move inside a building to accomplish this by using designated formations, be they Diamond, T, Modified T, or Y. This training has been useful and relevant.

However, nearly all this training has been based upon one assumption. And this one overlooked factor could minimize the timely response and negate effective application of all this hard training in a real-life incident. It has been assumed that responding officers can actually access the building where the acts of violence are taking place. The question...Can the responding patrol officers really gain entry to a variety of buildings? The answer…probably not.

Total Lockdown, Locked Doors

The educational community and various commercial businesses have been instructed through their professional organizations and trainings to institute a lockdown procedure in the event of a violent incident, such as an active shooter. Many school districts throughout the country now practice this procedure. In this time of increased security, it is not uncommon for the exterior doors of school buildings to be locked during the school day to control access and prevent intruders.

While this preventive measure is valuable in decreasing the likelihood of an event like an active shooter, it is not foolproof. Any officer—even those with limited experience—know a determined person will find a way to perpetrate the act he wishes to commit. Therefore, it is likely the people who will be most impacted by the locked doors when entering a building will be those officers who are sent there to resolve the incident.

These lockdown tactics not only apply to the exterior doors but also to the interior doors. In a true active shooter event, it is unlikely the room that contains the active shooter will be locked, due to the dynamic pace of events; however, one cannot rule this possibility out. It was widely reported that the suspect involved in the recent Amish school shooting brought lumber with him to fortify the entrances to the location.

The problem for the responding patrol officer is that in most police and sheriff departments, the only people who have access to breaching tools are specialty units such as narcotics and SWAT. After a great deal of time and effort, most first responders now have the appropriate weapons, mindset and training, and are prepared to immediately get into the building.

They will perform as they have been trained, except they may still have to wait for SWAT or another specialized unit to arrive with the tools that will allow them to gain entry into the building, resulting in the loss of valuable time that could cost lives.

Teach Tactical Breaching

To correct this problem, rapid deployment training should include a module on breaching. Although it may seem elementary that officers would know how to breach doors, it is important to remember the officers responding to an active shooter or some other rapid deployment event will have a wide range of years of service, experience and common sense.

These officers may have never learned how to quickly examine a door to determine if it opens in or out, or what tool is appropriate to force open each type of door. Officers may simply assume they can “kick in” any door they confront that is locked or barricaded, not realizing this most likely will not be possible; in a majority of jurisdictions, the doors will be outward opening due to fire code. Additionally, these doors may be made of steel and fastened in steel frames.

Therefore, during the breaching segment, officers should be taught to immediately look to see whether or not the hinges are on their side of the door, indicating the direction in which the door opens, toward them in this case. Second, patrol officers should be taught which tools are appropriate for opening each type of door and how to effectively use them.

If possible, officers should be able to practice breaching inward- and outward-opening doors with the correct tools. This could be accomplished through using one of the commercially manufactured re-breachable doors or by breaching doors on an abandoned building, and re-securing them after each breach.

After training, the next task that needs to be addressed to adequately prepare officers to deal with locked doors during rapid deployment incidents is to ensure officers have the tools immediately available to them on the street. These breaching tools must be very portable so they can be instantly accessible to officers once they enter the building and encounter locked office or classroom doors.

Officers also need to be able to go hands free, as well as deploy their shoulder-fired weapons, while carrying a battering ram, sledge hammer, or Halligan tool. The tools must have a strap or be in some type of carry bag or backpack for rapid deployment.

Common Breaching Tools

The tools needed to conduct manual breaching for rapid deployment are very simple and probably quite familiar to most officers. As stated, most doors are going to be outward-opening doors due to fire code. This means that they cannot be “kicked” in, and therefore must be pried open. The standard tool for such a task, originated with the fire service, and is called a Halligan tool, or hooligan tool, depending upon what part of the country you are from. In essence, it is a large pry bar. Also, you need the Halligan tool’s counterpart, the sledgehammer.

The Halligan tool is a very versatile tool and can serve multiple uses. The spike on a Halligan tool can be used to break padlocks. Generally this would apply to padlocks on a chain. The key here is to make sure there is no slack in the chain. Insert the spike in between the U-shaped hasp and the body of the lock. Then strike the Halligan tool on the side directly opposite the spike with a sledgehammer, forcing the spike further into the space, spreading or separating the body of the lock from the U-shaped hasp.

Although it is not the common means of breaching an inward swinging door, the Halligan tool can be used to accomplish this task. To do this, one officer inserts the duckbill into the door jamb directly above the locking mechanism of the door. A second officer with a sledgehammer will then strike the back of the duckbill to drive it deeper into the door jamb. The Halligan man will then either step and pull back, or push and step forward, (depending which side of the door he is on), forcing the door’s locking mechanism to separate from the jamb.

The primary function of the Halligan tool is to open outward-swinging doors through prying. Generally speaking, as one approaches a door, if he can actually see the hinge, the door will open toward him. Using the Halligan tool on this door is a two-person operation. To employ this technique, one officer, holding the Halligan tool, inserts the duck bill or forked end in the space between the door and the jamb, directly above the locking mechanism.

A second officer then forces the duck bill or fork deeper into the space by striking the back of the tool with a sledgehammer. Driving the Halligan tool into the space between the door and the jamb creates a fulcrum point, so the Halligan tool can then be used as a prying lever. To use this fulcrum point, the Halligan man then steps back, pulling on the bar and forcing the door open. A drawback to the Halligan tool is that officers are working in front of the door that may have a direct threat on the other side.

Kick or Sledgehammer?


While inward-opening doors may be forced in by kicking, officers need to know that the doors they will most likely encounter will be commercial-grade steel doors or heavy, solid, wooden doors in steel frames. These will not be easily forced in by kicking. Officer can apply much greater energy and force to a door with a battering ram than with a kick, increasing the likelihood they will defeat the locking mechanism. Trying to kick in a heavy door is more likely to cause an injury to an officer, take more time, and have a lower probability of success than using an appropriate tool.


The sledgehammer can be used with the Halligan tool, and also it can be used by itself to break glass and even breach an inward-opening door. To do this, an officer positions himself on the hinge side of the door. The officer will then take a full swing and strike the door directly above the door knob.


As in swinging a golf club, baseball bat, or a baton, the motion should come from the rotation of the hips in order to generate the most amount of force possible. The officer is not going to stop this motion when he makes contact with the door, but rather is going to continue to “swing through the door” to ensure that the maximum amount of force is transferred to the door.


If the door is equipped with a deadbolt, the officer would strike between the doorknob and deadbolt. Appropriate sledgehammers would weigh at least 6 pounds, and the average sledgehammer in use is 8 pounds.


Many times, a door is equipped with good locks and deadbolts but inadequate hinges. It is also possible to attack the hinge side of the door. To accomplish this, the officer first swings the sledgehammer in a golfing motion, striking the door about 9 inches above the floor, in the area of the hinge. After two to three strikes here, the officer then strikes the top 6 inches of the hinge side of the door with an overhead swing. Alternating a couple swings high and then low may defeat the hinges of the door, causing it to break free.


Battering Ram

The battering ram is the most common manual breaching tool used for inward-opening doors. The preferred method of using the battering ram has the officer standing to the knob side of the door. The officer then swings the ram in a sideways motion, again rotating at the hips to generate maximum force, while fixating his eyes on the part of the door he intends to strike. The strike should hit directly above or beneath the locking mechanism, as close to the jamb as possible without striking it.


This motion would be repeated until the door is forced open. Like the sledgehammer, the ram can also be used to force the door from the hinge side as well. The officer would use an underhand swing and repeatedly strike the door on the hinge side, close to the jamb. The disadvantages to the battering ram are its size, weight, and difficulty in carrying long distances.


Lastly, officers may also have to break glass. Older schools that have not updated their classroom doors may still have doors with nice big windows in them. This glass could be broken to unlock a door. The glass in these doors would be simple enough to break, but more modern facilities may have wire-reinforced security glass. This is usually two layers of glass, (which may be safety glass), with a wire mesh sandwiched in between layers, mounted in a metal frame.


This glass is difficult to break, even after striking it with a baton. The Halligan tool can be used to break this security glass. If the tool has a spike, simply strike the glass with the fine, sharp point to penetrate it. The spike should easily fit into the wire mess and could provide a means by which to clear the wire reinforcement. If there is no spike on the Halligan tool, striking the glass with the duck bill should generate enough force to break the glass and penetrate the wire mesh also.


Barricaded Gunman

In addition to responding to a call for an active shooter, patrol officers can also encounter other dynamic situations, such as a hostage situation or barricaded gunman, which will require them to contain the location and await the arrival of SWAT. While awaiting the arrival of SWAT, the suspect’s behavior could transition from a standard hostage situation, (a SWAT response), to an active shooter. Patrol officers would then need to get in and stop the suspect’s deadly behavior.


It is possible that officers may need to conduct a breach in order to do that. Unlike normal patrol officers, most tactical teams consider the possibility of having to make an immediate, unplanned breach by having their emergency assault team take some method of breaching with them. This could be the normal manual breaching tools, a breaching shotgun, or explosive entry charges. Patrol officers would normally be limited to manual breaching tools by virtue of their assignment and lack of specialized training.


The bottom line is that times have changed, and law enforcement leaders have made significant progress in recognizing the need to train and arm patrol officers for responding to rapid deployment situations. In order for their vision and efforts to not be in vain, they must now be made aware of the need to provide first responders with the tools they will need to access a secured building in order to resolve an ongoing crisis situation.


To accomplish this, some portable entry tools need to be in the trunks of individual patrol units or at least patrol supervisor vehicles. This would make the tools immediately available on scene to first responders and prevent them from being on the outside of a crisis situation looking in.


Paul Brandley is a patrol sergeant with the Pawtucket, RI Police Department and a team leader / training coordinator on the Special Response Team. He has a master’s degree in criminal justice, is a graduate of the 226th session of the FBI National Academy and has been in law enforcement for 14 years. He holds instructor certifications in MP-5 submachine gun, patrol rifle, defensive tactics, rapid deployment techniques, and currently serves as vice president for the Rhode Island Tactical Officers Association. He can be reached at pjb1858@aol.com.


Published in Tactical Response, Mar/Apr 2008

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