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Responding to the Active Shooter

Preparing for an active shooter incident through reality-based training is more important now than at any other time in our history. Law enforcement, fire, EMS and communications must collectively train for a unified response plan when dealing with the threat of an active shooter.

The implementation of a well-planned active shooter training exercise must include proper equipment, progressive tactics and real communication procedures. Preparedness for an active shooter incident will enable first responders to reach a better resolution faster. Your agency must dedicate the time and training necessary in preparation for the next active shooter incident.


Equipment Considerations

Characteristics of active shooter incidents have distinct similarities to that of a combat situation. This creates new training and equipment challenges for law enforcement officers. Tactical equipment including go-bags, higher-rated body armor, rifles, optics, ballistic helmets, medical supplies for trauma, and high-capacity firearms magazines are becoming standard issue equipment for the patrolman’s duty bag.

Law enforcement officers must familiarize themselves with the equipment they will deploy during an active shooter incident. More importantly, officers should train with the equipment they will have access to during an active shooter incident rather than equipment that will become available after the initial response.

Police trainers should be designing scenarios and range drills that require officers to incorporate equipment that will be used in an active shooter incident, such as ballistic helmets and equipment within go-bags. Repeated training and exposure to such items builds confidence and ensures the equipment needed is in proper working condition.

While many go-bags contain similar items including spare magazines and flashlights, it is also important to consider what medical supplies should be carried. Dr. Patrick Lilja, Senior Ambulance Medical Director, and 37-year veteran of emergency medicine for North Memorial Medical Center, recommended carrying medical supplies, which will control massive hemorrhaging and open airways. Lilja advised that items such as tourniquets, self-clinging bandage rolls, rapid clotting combat gauze, and nasal cannulas should be in every officer’s go-bag.

Dr. Lilja stressed the importance of incorporating these life-saving medical devices into law enforcement training exercises. Repeated training with tourniquets is especially important to facilitate application in the field. He also recommended training to apply tourniquets strictly by feel and with the use of only one hand for self-application.

Obtaining the appropriate equipment and dedicating the time to train with the equipment is fundamental to active-shooter response training. Uniformity of equipment among first responders also simplifies the objectives of eliminating the threat while rendering aid. This is due in part by responding officers having the knowledge of what is in their partner’s go-bag, where it is located, and how to use the equipment inside.


Bounding Overwatch

We learn from incidents involving our partners and sometimes ourselves. Problems we encounter during an incident are debriefed and shared with other agencies in effort to save lives. This painstaking process leads to the development and training of new law enforcement tactics intended for strategic response plans.

According to Dr. J. Pete Blair with the Force Science Institute Ltd., one in five active shooter incidents goes mobile or occurs outdoors. Responding officers should train to engage a suspect upon arrival or prepare for the suspect to go mobile. Therefore, it is always important to consider an immediate confrontation upon arrival to the incident location.

A recommended tactic for responding officers is bounding overwatch with the use of directed fire. Whether the entry point is confronted or not, this tactic allows for a safer approach. The concept of bounding overwatch with directed fire is nothing new for our military counterparts; however, for law enforcement, this tactic is new and requires training.

Bounding overwatch involves the process of at least two teams of officers sprinting to cover while a secondary officer(s) is prepared to fire at a suspect(s) or in a suspect’s direction while officers continue to move forward until entry is accomplished. Both teams take turns sharing the responsibility of providing overwatch and directed fire during this forward movement. This tactic does not replace the fundamental use of a perimeter as additional resources become available.

In addition to using a bounding overwatch approach to an active shooter incident the use of a “patrol sniper” should be considered. As most agencies now provide squad-ready access to AR-15 or M16 long range rifles, a patrol sniper is able to stay back and cover rooftops and windows in the event a suspect was to suddenly confront officers from an elevated position. The deployment of patrol snipers on opposite corners may be a useful tactic until a secure exterior perimeter can be established.


Unified Response

Perhaps one of the most innovative solutions and key components in responding to an active shooter incident is through the use of a unified response plan. Under a unified response, initial first responders form teams and divide their duties by discipline. Police officers, firefighters and paramedics respond to the incident simultaneously and work alongside each other to meet their respective objectives. Success of a unified response plan requires training and thorough preplanning from all participating disciplines. 

Kip Springer, Deputy Chief with the Plymouth Minnesota Police Department stated, “cooperative training efforts between police and fire departments benefit all involved by combining resources and breaking down the barriers between police and fire departments.” Springer also pointed out that fire departments are often well versed in setting up a unified command post, providing medical aid and evacuating victims. When these critical functions are carried out by fire personnel, police are able to more rapidly eliminate the threat and assist with evacuation.     

Under a unified response, the very first police officers on scene form an assault team, make entry into the building, and eliminate the threat. This process may take minutes or much longer. The objective of the assault team is not to render aid to victims but to engage the suspect(s) by taking the person into custody or using deadly force to end the threat. For purposes of training, the assault team is entering the, “hot zone.”

The next officer and firefighter on scene and ideally a supervisor or veteran fulfills the critical role of field operations commander (FOC). The primary purpose of this position is for police and fire to manage and organize the allocation of resources by creating a staging area for first responders near the incident location. The main objectives of the FOCs are to serve as a communications link between the assault team, dispatch and responding units. The FOC organizes contact teams to enter the building for victim rescue and also declares a patient collection point for EMS.

From past experience, agencies have learned that the egress and ingress to these incident locations become so over cluttered by first responders that entry and evacuation is actually hampered by the very people who are attempting to render aid. The FOC prevents this from happening using the strategies mentioned above.    

The next additional resources are forming contact teams comprised of three to four police officers. A team leader identified within the group assigns personnel to be the rear guard and communications officer. Police officers within the contact team then enter the building to locate victims and create a more safe area or, “warm zone.”

The warm zone is an established but mobile area where the contact team has conducted a primary search near the area where victims have been located. As police officers provide cover and secure the warm zone, firefighters are then escorted into the building by law enforcement in order to render aid and evacuate victims.

The warm zone may include a secure classroom or conference room where basic first aid can be administered before bringing the victim to a designated patient collection point for medical transportation. Officers securing the warm zone must be prepared for the suspect to appear unexpectedly and address the threat. It is also important that contact teams and firefighters stay focused on rapid removal of victims rather than attempting to search too much area actively look for the suspect(s).

As first responders, our primary duty is not to triage patients but to provide basic first aid and facilitate transportation to a medical facility. Dr. Lilja explained, “The best treatment for trauma is to get the patient to the hospital.” Dr. Lilja also emphasized the importance of rescuing the first victims you come across and transporting them to a patient collection point rather than determining who is in greater need of medical attention. Once all the victims have been removed from the warm zone, the contact team should continue searching for victims and repeating this procedure.


Locating the Threat

When should officers hold, wait for SWAT, and evacuate victims versus attempting to locate a suspect who may be in an unknown location? One of the most seemingly obvious objectives during an actual active shooter incident is that the first officers on scene must locate and eliminate the threat. Yet this topic continues to generate debate as questions arise. What if the threat isn’t actively shooting? What if you hear one shot after initial entry and then no more shots? What if there are victims but no shooting? Is the incident in a large building or school where victims are being shot but officers wouldn’t be able to hear?

These questions, and many like it, complicate active shooter training and response. Variables that dictate response include real-time on scene intelligence, such as information indicating the suspect’s location, clothing description, and the type of assault taking place. Other variables may include the size of the venue and if the building is a target-rich environment such as a school. The dynamic nature of active shooter incidents makes training for and responding to a real event more difficult. Agencies should train for a variety of assault types and anticipate possible variables in preparation for actual active shooter incident.   

You must also consider your duty and moral obligation as a police officer during any active shooter incident as much as the policy manual. As history has taught us, the risk is too great not to search the premises for the suspect due to the likelihood of a continued assault. However, victim evacuation and threat elimination may become competing priorities initially when no active shooting is heard upon arrival. As resources become available, it will be possible to meet both of these priorities simultaneously. These variables must be discussed and trained during and active-shooter response exercise.   


Training for Reality

Liam Duggan, veteran police officer with the Saint Paul Police Department and national active shooter police trainer reminded officers, “We don’t get to dictate when the fight starts or where it starts, but it is essential to train officers and firefighters out of the same book.” Duggan stated that the “wait for SWAT mentality may be the perfect plan too late.” Therefore a level of consistency must be achieved in training between law enforcement agencies, fire, EMS and radio communications, which will allow for a better resolution in a more timely manner.

In the event of an active shooter incident, a multi-jurisdictional response from police, fire and EMS is expected and therefore training together from start to finish should be too. An actual incident is no place to iron out the tactical wrinkles and communication shortfalls between agencies and disciplines.

Developing a reality-based training exercise involves teamwork and preparation. The Plymouth, Minn. Police Department in a combined effort with the Plymouth Fire Department conducted a full-scale active shooter exercise by first developing training objectives and then dividing the training committee into subgroups. One group organized the logistics of the training while the others developed scenarios and created stations to train with more progressive tactics and equipment. Each subgroup included members and input from local EMS, fire, police and radio communications.  

As with any critical incident, training exercises should be debriefed pending its conclusion. Duggan suggested debriefing each scenario first as a large group and again later within your respective professions. Duggan explained, “Debriefing allows outside agencies and various disciplines to gain a better understanding of each other’s roles and learn what each agency can offer the other.” This model allows for open discussion as a large group, builds camaraderie, and allows for a more critical analysis, which can be discussed and disseminated at a later time.

A risk facing first responders when searching for an active shooter is the possibility of a “blue-on-blue” or friendly fire incident. With adrenaline, stress and emotions at the forefront, such tragedies can occur. Target acquisition and communication in the field between contact teams is an essential preventative measure.

Training in full uniform or actual duty wear is encouraged to allow patrol officers, detectives and narcotics officers to see one another in the training as they would in the field. It should be emphasized that training is a learning environment. Scenarios can and should be stopped, discussed, and restarted to improve as a whole and reinforce the objectives of the training.    



Essential to the objectives of the training is to improve radio communications for first responders and dispatchers alike. The urgency of an active shooter incident requires effective communication and dedicated rescue and tactical radio channels. 

In the world of emergency radio communications, less is more. LaVae Robinson, training supervisor with the Minneapolis Emergency Communications Center, encouraged the use of face- to-face communications as much as possible to reduce radio traffic. Robinson also encouraged short precise transmissions, which allow the radio channel to be open longer for critical updates. 

First responders must be prepared to change over to the appropriate rescue and tactical channels when arriving. It is critical that other responding units important during an active shooter incident is to leave the primary radio channels open for the assault team so they can provide critical updates for arriving contact teams. Utilizing your local communications center during a training exercise adds to the reality of the scenario and hones communication skills between all agencies and personnel involved.

The unfortunate reality is that active shooter incidents can impact any community without warning. Law enforcement must continue to implement life-saving equipment, progressive tactics and most importantly, train for an active shooter incident.    


Jeff Dorfsman is a 10-year veteran with the Plymouth, Minn., Police Department. He currently works as a detective and is a police trainer for defensive tactics and active shooter response. Dorfsman may be reached at Photos courtesy of Mark Bevins.

Published in Law and Order, Sep 2014

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