When I was in the police academy and went through Active Shooter training it was designed solely for police officers. There was never a mention of EMS or fire department response and how they could assist in these situations. It took approximately 8 years into my career until I went to a training that involved the assistance of EMS and firefighters. It really opened my eyes as to how much value EMS and firefighters can add to these catastrophic events.
In the most recent trainings I have participated in, we have incorporated using EMS and firefighters to assist with rapidly evacuating people that have been injured and it significantly improved our efficiency. We set up a rescue team where police officers provide protection and guided a group of EMS and fire personnel through a building to get the injured victims out. Training as a single unit in these rescue teams and working in collaboration with each other has been very beneficial will save more lives.
One of the things I noticed that firefighters do well is they are very good at setting up incident command and being able to communicate well with each other on the radio. Ever since I have been a police officer I have always been really impressed with how fast firefighters mobilize incident command and run their incidents so efficiently. As police officers this is something we can definitely learn from our partners in the fire service. This works well when an Active Shooter event is unfolding, and teams need to be organized before heading to the hot zone. Firefighters have a lot of experience in incident command and it definitely shows during these collaborative training events.
WORDS OF ADVICE TO SURVIVE AN ACTIVE SHOOTER
Active Shooter events are becoming more and more common throughout the United States. It’s a good thing to reach out to your fellow agencies to conduct joint training so that everyone is on the same page if one of these events were to ever unfold in your jurisdiction. It requires coordinating a lot of moving parts and when we train together in a stressful environment we will be better prepared for when real event occurs.
If you’re a firefighter or EMS worker and you find yourself on a routine call that rapidly becomes an active shooter event there are a few things you should know and practice. First, if you can safely do so, RUN! Get out of the situation as fast as possible. You’ll improve your chances of knowing where to run if, in advance, you are thinking about your way out far before you have to flee (think pre-plan). Once the event turns hostile, you will have little time to think about your escape route.
If running is not a safe option because the shooter too close then you should hide. I’m not talking about hiding under a desk. That, in fact, may be your worst option. Hiding under a desk makes you a sitting duck. Hiding under desks may work in the movies, but it’s a bad plan in real life. When I say hide I mean actively barricading behind cover. If you cannot find cover, then find a way to conceal yourself.
Think of cover as a barrier that can stop bullets (e.g., the engine block of a car or a brick wall). Concealment, on the other hand, is something that will conceal (i.e., hide) your body, but bullets can still penetrate through (e.g., drywall or a wood door). When you hide, barricade and lock the door if possible. Put large heavy objects such as tables, computers, or desks in front of the door so it cannot easily be opened. Wait there as long as you need until law enforcement arrives and the officers retrieve you.
Lastly (and only if the first two options don’t work) you will need to fight. As a firefighter or EMS worker you can improvise weapons (e.g., SCBA, oxygen tanks, fire extinguishers, scissors). If you are by yourself, your best option is to hurl any object available to you at the shooter and try to get away to cover or run out of the building. Use any means you can imagine to slow down the shooter.
If you are with a group, your best chance of survival is to improvise weapons and throw them all at the shooter all at the same time. Once you are able to distract or confuse the shooter, try to incapacitate the shooter until law enforcement arrives. Think of Flight 93, the group of passengers on that plane used improvised weapons (e.g., hot coffee, carts) and subdued a group of armed terrorists. A group effort is the way to go, it requires training and leadership but will give you the best chances of survival. Keep in mind that acting aggressively toward the shooter is your last resort option.
DOS AND DON’TS OF RESPONDING TO AN ACTIVE SHOOTER
I always knew when I arrived on a house fire or accident scene that this is the fire department’s jurisdiction. I also knew that when I arrived on a medical scene it belonged to EMS and I was there to provide support. For my fellow brothers and sisters in fire and EMS I have a question for you: Does it frustrate you when a police officer parks in front of a working house fire? How about when a police car blocks your access where someone was having a heart attack and you can’t back your ambulance into the driveway?
I would be lying if said I’ve never done this. It took a few reminders from fire and EMS to help me remember not to do that. Well the same applies for police officers when it comes to a dynamic shooting scene. Make sure on an Active Shooter scene you’re parking far enough away to allow law enforcement personnel to be able to access the scene. Our job is to take out the shooter and establish a safe perimeter as quick as possible. Blocking our routes with fire trucks and ambulances makes are job more difficult – and dangerous.
Also, do you have a member that loves talking on the radio? (We have those people in law enforcement too.) During a rapidly evolving active shooter event, we would all serve each other better if we keep radio traffic to a minimum (i.e., only transmit the most essential information). Early on, the scene is going to be chaotic and confusing. It is very important for law enforcement to keep lines of communication open and accessible. Non-essential chatter is distracting and can draw an officer’s attention off-task and increase their risk.
Situational awareness is key for survival and saving as many lives as possible in an active shooter situation. Consider mentally rehearsing active shooter events thinking through, in advance, what your actions would be if you found yourself in that situation. Conducting simulated active shooter training (under stress) and practicing rapid response techniques, can improve a firefighter’s and EMS crew member’s ability to predict what may happen in these events and help you prevent bad outcomes.
Not all law enforcement officers have advanced training on how to handle an active shooter situation. Do not depend, entirely, on the officers to keep you safe. Use situational awareness best practices to improve the safety of your crew. (Here’s a hint: There’s more to situational awareness that paying attention and keeping your head on a swivel.) Be prepared to take quick action, if necessary.
One final note: According to the FBI, from the years 2000-2018, 98% of active shooter incidents had only one shooter. Statistically speaking, chances are your event will only be one shoote. However, there’s always that chance there could be more than one. History also shows that when there are more than one shooter they are, most often, together. But, as you can imagine, there are no rules for active shooters to follow. Put yourself in the mindset that anything is possible and anything can happen.
- Discuss what you would do if an active shooter situation were to evolve unexpectedly during a fire or medical call.
- Discuss how you could work more collaboratively with your local police departments to prepare, train and coordinate during active shooter events.
- Discuss ways you could build stress into active shooter training to improve realism and to ensure you are prepared for the stress you will experience during an actual event.
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.