My students often ask me: “Mr. Moldenhauer, what’s the worst call cops could ever go on?” My response is always the same, an active shooter call. I have had my share of terrible calls in my career that will stay with me forever (i.e. suicides, child deaths, and fatal car accidents just to name a few). However, I don’t feel any of these could ever be as bad as responding to an active shooter call.
I couldn’t imagine the horror of showing up to a call that someone is actively killing innocent people. We in law enforcement all took an oath to protect and serve. The trainings I have been to with my fellow brothers and sisters in blue makes me confident that we will do whatever we can to stop these horrible incidents as fast as humanely possible.
We have come a long way in training for these incidents. I can remember when I first started as a police officer attending active shooter training, we had one goal in mind. That goal was to take out the shooter as fast as possible. While at training we would work on tactical and rapid response techniques on how to stop these violent suspects from killing innocent people.
Taking out the shooter is still our number one priority. However, what do we do with the people that have been shot and are possibly dying? We didn’t train on how to save these people when I first started. But now we have improved our training and adopted a new philosophy: STOP THE KILLING, STOP PEOPLE FROM DYING, GET THE INJURED TO A MEDICAL FACILITY. We do this collaboratively with firefighters and EMS.
As police officers we must STOP THE KILLING. After all, we are the ones with the guns and body armor. We need to respond quickly. This was tough for us at first because we were taught that we may need to sacrifice our own safety to stop the killing. When we would attempt to seek cover or use slower, more controlled tactics, our instructors would reprimand us and tell us to keep moving.
They reminded us that every time we heard a gunshot, we were to presume someone was just killed. Our instructors told us the priority of life goes as follows: lives of hostages, lives of innocent civilians, our own life, and lastly the killer’s life. This was tough for us to get used to. Throughout the entire police academy and our careers, we were told officer safety is first priority. However, in an active shooter incident, all bets are off and we may need to sacrifice our safety to persevere life.
After the killer has been taken out or contained, we must STOP PEOPLE FROM DYING. We do this by applying tourniquets on people and triaging severe injuries as quick as possible. Several trainings I have been in lately have included assistance from firefighters and EMS personnel. We form teams of firefighters and EMS personnel, protected by police officers, to assist in getting the most severely injured victims out as quick as possible.
I am happy we have incorporated firefighters and EMS personnel into our training. I commend them for their bravery to enter these violent scenes with us. Working together has produced some impressive results. Our final priority is to GET THE INJURED TO A MEDICAL FACILITY. Once the victims are outside the hazard zone, fire and EMS have the primary responsibility for triaging, treating and transporting.
Something to keep in mind with training for active shooter incidents with your department is to keep the training as real as possible. When we train in controlled environments, where we can slowly go through our tactical evolutions, results are near perfect. However, the minute we introduce stress into the scenarios, police officer behavior changes and it impacts our performance.
For example, we may introduce stress by arming the shooter and officers with simulated ammunition (i.e., paintballs) and crank up scary music with screaming and gunshots. This changes everything! Armed with simulated ammunition, I have witnessed police officers, put under stress, shoot other police officers when they round corners, police officers shoot other police officers in the back, officers freeze in doorways and I have witnessed a complete breakdown of communications among teams.
You may recall from my previous article titled “Do We Train to Fail”, I noted practice makes permanent. When we respond to one of these horrific calls we must be prepared to handle the extreme stress we are going to encounter. Training that requires officers to perform under highly stressful conditions will improve critical thinking skills and tactical performance.
Situational awareness is key to officer survival and will help us save as many lives as possible when dealing with an active shooter. Consider conducting mental rehearsals of active shooter scenarios. During a mental rehearsal you would image yourself in an active shooter situation and think through what the environment would be like. Imagine using all of your senses (e.g., what would you be seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting and smelling). Vividly imagine the situation in as much detail as you can.
Practice “if-then” decision scenarios. For example, you might think: If I was in a hallway and I heard a gunshot on the floor above me, then I would ________ (fill in the blank). Rehearse as many “if-then” scenarios as you could imagine, building complexity into the scenarios as you gain confidence.
One of the benefits of mental rehearsals is two-fold. First, mental rehearsals can reduce surprises. Our critical thinking skills can be impacted by the element of surprise. When you find yourself in a real-world situation that you’ve mentally rehearsed, you won’t be surprised. You’ll be expecting it and you will have already thought through one (or more) decision options.
The second advantage of mental rehearsals is they will help improve our prediction skills. In active shooter situations, we have to always be thinking ahead of our current action – being mindful of not only what is happening right now, but also thinking about what is going to happen next (e.g., What’s going happen around the next corner?).
When practicing “if-then” scenarios and performing mental rehearsals, think beyond yourself. Imagine the actions of other members of your team (e.g., other officers, fire, and EMS personnel who may be with you).
- Discuss how active shooter training under stress changes officer behavior.
- Discuss the benefits and challenges you can anticipate from working collaboratively with your local fire departments and EMS provider.
- Share some examples of mental rehearsals you have performed.
- Share some of the specific “if-then” scenarios you have practiced.
About the authors
Drew W. Moldenhauer, M.S, has 15 years of Law Enforcement experience with two police organizations in Minnesota. Some of the titles he has held in his tenure are Active Shooter Instructor, Use of Force Instructor, Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Instructor and Field Training Officer. He is currently a full-time licensed police officer that works part-time with the City of Osseo Police Department. He holds a Master’s Degree of Science in Public Safety Executive Leadership from St. Cloud State University. He is a Master Instructor in Situational Awareness and has a passion for training his clients in this very important subject.
Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, CSP is widely considered a trusted authority on human factors, situational awareness and the high-risk decision making processes used in high-stress, high consequence work environments. He served 33 years on the front lines as a firefighter, EMT-Paramedic, company officer, training officer, fire chief and emergency incident commander. His doctoral research included the study of cognitive neuroscience to understand how human factors flaw situational awareness and impact high-risk decision making.