Listen to Melissa Alterio and Anthony Weed talk about training for an active shooter and you’d think the possibility is imminent.
And to them, even if it isn’t, you better be prepared.
“Visualize the situation, know what you’re going to do, so when it happens, you’re ready,” said Weed, a Lt. Police Officer for the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, N.Y. “It becomes automatic.”
Weed and Alterio, Training Supervisor, Communication Center, Orange County Sheriff’s Department, presented the “Active Shooter Incidents for Telecommunicators” session at NAVIGATOR 2015 as sort of a snapshot of the eight-hour course that Weed designed for the sheriff’s department and broadened to include dispatch responsibility at Alterio’s request.
“I took the course through the sheriff’s office and knew this is where dispatch should be,” Alterio said. “There’s a lot of responsibility on the dispatcher’s shoulders. We’re the first to the call. We’re the first to ask questions. We’re the first to keep our officers safe.”
The program was so informative—and proactive—that Dave Warner, Priority Dispatch System™ Program Administrator—Law Enforcement, decided to attend and, from there, invited Weed to help in the development of Police Priority Dispatch System (PPDS) Protocol 136: Active Assailant (Shooter).
Weed said he was honored; the Academy’s recognition was an affirmation of his dedication to a proactive response.
“We become complacent,” he said. “We don’t expect this to happen, but it does. And no matter how remote, you have to practice in the event it does.”
Alterio advised thinking ahead to determine what resources are available in case an incident occurs and to make sure the communication center is prepared to act instinctively.
“Mentally prepare,” she said. “The only way you’re going to get through that call is through training. Never stop training. You can always improve performance.”
Weed refused to believe Columbine was the first active shooter incident and his subsequent research led to incidents dating to the 18th century. On July 26, 1764, in Franklin County, Pa., four Native American warriors invaded a pioneer school, killing a teacher and nine of his 12 students. The raid was launched as part of Pontiac’s Rebellion to drive away the British soldiers and settlers.
Other active assailant incidents highlighted in the presentation include:
- Aug. 1, 1966: Charles Joseph Whitman brought multiple weapons to the University of Texas campus, killing 14 people and wounding 32 others in a mass shooting; Austin Police Officer Houston McCoy shot and killed Whitman.
- April 20, 1999: Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 students and one teacher at Columbine High School, Colo.; both committed suicide within five minutes of the SWAT team’s arrival.
- April 16, 2007: Seung-Hui Cho shot and killed 32 people and wounded 17 others in two separate attacks on the campus of Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va. He committed suicide.
- Dec. 14, 2012: Adam Lanza killed 20 children and six others (total of 26 people killed) at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.; he committee suicide inside the school following the rampage.
The active assailant
PPDS Protocol 136 defines an active assailant as “An armed person who has used any type of weapon to inflict deadly physical force on others and continues to do so while having unrestricted access to additional victims.”
The qualifier “unrestricted access to additional victims” distinguishes the use of Protocol 136: Active Assailant (Shooter) from PPDS Protocol 106: Assault/Sexual Assault. While Protocol 106 refers to an “unlawful attack, or attempted attack, upon another person,” which may include multiple victims, Protocol 136 more specifically addresses active assailants in wide-open places offering a large number of potential victims such as shopping centers, school campuses, and movie theaters.
Prior to the mass shooting at Columbine High School, the traditional law enforcement response favored an attempt to cordon off the area and await the arrival of tactical teams, such as SWAT teams. However, this strategy resulted in time lost waiting for other units to take over and more opportunity for the active shooter to engage innocent victims and raise the level of pandemonium.1
Law enforcement agencies across the country have since moved to a more aggressive response to limit the number of casualties. The first responding officer(s) conducts a “Rapid Deployment” or “Movement-to-Contact-to-Fix” military type offense. Although specific tactics vary by agency, the underlying goals are the same and favor immediate pursuit by police with the goal of containing or neutralizing the killer(s) as quickly as possible.
Surveying the scene for hazards is the very first action a responder takes at the time of arrival to an active assailant incident. The responder cannot treat the wounded or attempt to save lives until the scene is rendered safe.
Protocol 136: Active Assailant (Shooter) reflects this current and evolving tactical philosophy, as it provides calltaker questions and instructions that complement police procedures in response to these situations. The information calltakers gather through Key Questions can heavily influence deployment tactics used by responders and law enforcement administration, and in assisting EMS and fire agencies.2
The Active Assailant (Shooter) Protocol was introduced in PPDS v4.1 and has been subsequently updated in later versions.
How it works
The Active Assailant (Shooter) Protocol adds another ECHO determinant to the PPDS to allow for early dispatch initiation to address specific immediate dangers and minimize the loss of life.
However, unlike most ECHO determinants, the pathway for Protocol 136 does not immediately direct the calltaker to Pre-Arrival Instructions (PAIs) from Case Entry, nor does it link to the Caller In Danger (CID) Protocol.
Callers reporting an ACTIVE ASSAILANT (SHOOTER) should always be considered to be in imminent danger, but these incidents are best addressed on Protocol 136, as it includes specialized questions and instructions for these high-risk situations.
For active assailant situations discovered during Case Entry, the EPD should initiate a 136-E-1 response, provide Case Entry PDI-b, and then go to Protocol 136 immediately after completing Case Entry.
The links to PAIs appear within the Key Questions section of the Active Assailant (Shooter) Protocol. This allows the EPD to first address critical responder safety questions before beginning PAI Protocol S and immediately instructing the caller on the best actions to take to save lives (either evacuation or LOCKDOWN).
The critical role of the EPD
Active assailant situations change rapidly and can quickly overwhelm the capacity of emergency service agencies with overloaded phone lines, limited availability of police resources, and the number of victims exceeding the capabilities of paramedic crews and emergency room space.
This places 911 in a critical role with the ability to contribute to a more positive outcome via the collection of necessary information to assist police with deployment and the EPD’s provision of lifesaving instructions to callers.
Specialized Key Questions
The Key Questions on Protocol 136 are specifically designed to quickly collect the information responders need to address these unique incidents, as discussed here:
- “What type of weapons are involved?” The risks associated to responding officers differ greatly depending on the type of weapon the assailant is using. The question is formatted in red because it is a scene safety issue.
- “When was the last time you heard shots fired?” This question aids the calltaker in determining 1) Activity level of the assailant at the time of the call and 2) Callers with the most up-to-date information because of their proximity to the assailant. The National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) cautions against a change in police response based on a time delay of when shots were reportedly last fired. The NTOA statement is provided as follows in Protocol 136:
This time delay, by itself, does not negate the need for an immediate response. The perpetrator may be using, or preparing to use, other weapons (knives, IEDs, etc.), or her/his shots may not be audible. If the threat’s location is not known, officers should begin searching or rescue wounded victims. Officers should transition to a hostage/barricade situation if necessary, based only on the totality of circumstances.
- “Does the suspect appear to be wearing a bulletproof vest or body armor?” Body armor on suspects limits the effectiveness of responders’ weapons.
Note: In PPDS v5.0, “bulletproof vest or body armor?” has been formatted in black rather than the red format associated with scene safety questions. A question formatted in black does not negate its importance to responders in formulating a tactical response to a threat. The change was made to emphasize scene safety considerations—in red—of the highest priority.
- “Did you see the suspect carrying anything?” This question can elicit information to indicate the use of explosives, chemical or biological weapons, or other weapons that will hinder a law enforcement response.
- “Did you hear the suspect saying anything?” This question can help provide insight into the suspect’s motives, level of preparation, and intended target.
If the caller reports hostages have been taken, the EPD should stay on Protocol 136 to find out the number of hostages and where the active assailant has taken them. It is not appropriate to turn to the Hostage Taker Protocol listed separately in the PPDS, as these instructions are intended for situations in which the EPD is speaking directly to the hostage taker.
The process adds another layer of precaution, said Shawn Messinger, Priority Dispatch System Program Administrator—Law Enforcement.
“We actually teach that in the unlikely event an active assailant calls in 1st party, the EPD will still use Protocol 136 and rephrase the Key Questions to account for a 1st party caller,” Messinger said.
Since phone contact with callers can be lost at any time, the EPD must give PAIs early in the call to address critical responder safety questions, as mentioned, and to prepare callers to escape (evacuation), to move to a confined space and further safeguard themselves from the assailant(s) (LOCKDOWN), or to prepare to defend themselves if found.
These specific instructions can prevent a panicked caller from making the situation worse, as illustrated with the following Evacuation instructions:
- “Get out of the building/area even if others won’t follow. Help others escape, if possible.”
- “Take an evacuation path that’s away from the suspect.” The shortest route out of the area may not be the safest. A panicked caller might not give second thought to the potential danger associated with the shortest route without the calltaker’s cautionary instructions.
- “Do not attempt to move wounded people.” Attempting to move wounded individuals slows the evacuation and puts the caller and others at further risk.
- “Do not rush towards officers, keep your hands visible at all times, and follow all of their commands.” Panicked callers swarming responders hinders their ability to assess and address possible threats and puts victims at risk of accidentally moving into the line of fire.
Callers unable to safely evacuate should remove themselves from sight and conduct what is commonly referred to as a LOCKDOWN. The simple act of securing everyone into a room with a locking door, or a door that can be barricaded, and turning off the lights and closing the blinds gives the shooter fewer targets and makes potential targets more difficult to access. Sitting or lying on the floor right next to the wall with the door minimizes the danger from bullets fired through the door. During lockdown, everyone should silence the ringer and vibration mode of their cellphones to further prevent the assailant from discovering the location of those in hiding.
Once in a safe space, no one should leave, and no one should answer or open the door for anyone. Opening the door to a safe space may give an active assailant the opportunity to rack up the body count as quickly as possible.
An Axiom new to PPDS v5.0 adds: “A true LOCKDOWN supersedes a fire alarm unless the smoke or fire is an immediate life threat.” It is critical that callers stay in lockdown even if a fire alarm is heard, unless smoke or fire put them in danger.
Often, the suspect will hunt down victims at random, once through the initial shooting. Individuals caught in the “hunt” who cannot flee from the active assailant should be mentally prepared to fight for their lives by using weapons, throwing objects, acting aggressively, and yelling. Instructions for self-defense can help change the mindset of a caller from victim to fighter
1 “Active Shooter Research.” Hard Tactics Blog. 2010; April 19. http://www.hardtactics.com/Blog/?p=17 (accessed Aug. 29, 2015).
2 Messinger S. “Special Update Report: Protocol 136.” International Academies of Emergency Dispatch; Salt Lake City. 2013.