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Apply best-available data to active shooter incident planning, training

Paramedic chiefs and field providers have much to learn from the FBI’s ongoing summary and analysis of active shooter incidents


A Broward County Sheriff's Office captain refused to allow Coral Springs Fire-Rescue paramedics, deploying as a Rescue Task Force, entry into Marjory Stoneman Douglas (Parkland, Fla.) High School.

Deputy Chief Michael McNally wrote in a recently released incident report, "The [BSO] incident commander advised me, 'She would have to check.’ "After several minutes, I requested once again the need to deploy RTF elements into the scene to ... initiate treatment as soon as possible. Once again, the incident commander expressed that she 'would have to check before approving this request.'"

McNally’s request to send in Rescue Task Forces – teams of EMTs or paramedics escorted by police officers – was denied six times, including after the shooter had been arrested. SWAT medics were allowed into the school, though a SWAT or tactical medic is more commonly deployed to care for SWAT personnel or suspects taken into custody, rather than a shooter’s multiple victims.

ASIs are a potential threat in every community and the public has a high expectation that we will respond quickly and effectively. (Photo/AP)
ASIs are a potential threat in every community and the public has a high expectation that we will respond quickly and effectively. (Photo/AP)

The failure to allow RTFs into the high school is a perplexing and potentially life-threatening reminder that more pre-planning, training and on-scene coordination is needed to ensure that victims receive care as soon as possible inside the warm zone. Severe bleeding control and airway management can’t wait for the scene to be declared safe or for tactical police officers to evacuate the injured to casualty collection points or guide the non-injured to safe harbor.

Use best-available data to plan, train and respond

Active Shooter Incidents in the United States in 2016 and 2017,” released by the FBI in April 2018, reports the bureau’s findings and analysis of 50 active shooter incidents in the U.S. The two-year report supplements the “A Study of Active Shooter Incidents in the United States Between 2000 and 2013” and “Active Shooter Incidents in the United States in 2014 and 2015” with the same methodology and definitions.

An active shooter, according to the FBI, is defined “as one or more individuals actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area.” The FBI excludes “gang- and drug-related shootings and gun-related incidents that appeared not to have put other people in peril.”

Here are findings from the report that stood out to me:

1. All 50 shooters were male and all of them acted alone.

2. Those shooters were responsible for 943 casualties – 221 people were killed and 722 were wounded.

3. Three active shooter incidents generated a significant percentage of the causalities:

4. Citizens confronted the shooter in 10 of the 50 ASIs. In eight of those incidents, citizens safely and successfully ended the shooting.

5. Layperson actions to shelter innocents, lead others to safety, control bleeding, apply other first aid measures or transport victims in POVs to hospitals are not included in the FBI report.

I highly encourage EMS leaders, paramedic chiefs, training officers, exercise planners, educators and field personnel to read all three FBI reports. ASIs are a potential threat in every community and the public has a high expectation that we will respond quickly and effectively. The lack of coordination in Parkland may have had an immediate impact on the delivery of care and also has potential long-term impacts of furthering public distrust of public safety personnel, erosion of morale in the responding departments, and litigation from the victim’s survivors.

4 active shooter incident recommendations

Here are my recommendations to learn from the Parkland incident report, as well as the FBI analysis of active shooter incidents.

1. Collaborative planning with police, fire and EMS.

Multi-jurisdiction plans for ASIs must be made, regularly reviewed and disseminated to all levels of leadership and field personnel. The best time to ensure a Rescue Task Force will be allowed into the warm zone is months or years before the incident happens.

It’s also increasingly clear that public safety leaders – locally and regionally – need to make decisions about whether children should shelter-in-place, evacuate before and as police arrive, or wait to be guided by law enforcement out of the hot zone along protected evacuation routes. School shooters have been reported to begin their assault by activating the fire alarm, drawing students and teachers out of the relative protection of classrooms and into hallways which lack opportunities for cover and concealment.

2. Train for single shooter incidents

ASI training can mistakenly spiral into the realm of implausibility with multiple shooters, innocents turned into shooters and explosive devices scattered throughout the training area. Focus training on what we know to be most likely, which is a single shooter who is likely to be stopped by citizens or first-arriving police, or to take their own life when confronted.

EMS providers need to have Rescue Task Force training focused on moving with law enforcement into and through the warm zone. Design active shooter training response to improve these areas of knowledge, skill and ability:

Also complete inter-agency ASI training for multiple environments. Schools often come to mind as a focal point for training, but the FBI analysis points to the need to have protocols and training experiences adaptable to all environments, including churches, community buildings, businesses and outdoor mass gatherings.

3. RTF personnel must go in

It’s an unacceptable command failure to bar RTF personnel from entering a scene.

Jim Morrissey, tactical paramedic and an organizer of the Urban Shield training program teaches all responders do what they are trained to do — stop the killing to stop the dying.

“The primary mission for law enforcement is to stop the killing,” Morrissey said. “Once that occurs, the mission for everyone, including law enforcement, is to stop the dying.”

Through face-to-face planning meetings and regular communications, every police, fire and EMS chief needs to make sure their on-scene incident commanders understand the importance of the RTF and will not restrict their access to the victims in need of lifesaving care.

4. Turn ASI lessons learned into lessons applied

The 2016-2017 FBI ASI analysis includes this in the conclusion, “No active shooter incidents took place at institutions of higher education or on military property in 2016 or 2017.”

I am not willing to solely attribute this to luck, though chance may be at play. I think the lack of incidents can also be attributed to preventive measures, community members willing to report suspicious behaviors, increased and visible law enforcement presence on campuses and military bases since Virginia Tech and Fort Hood, higher probability of victims or witnesses being armed, and intentional measures to harden areas or restrict access.

All of us as public safety and community leaders have a responsibility to review the FBI’s report of past active shooter incidents, learn from reports of specific incidents written by the people who responded, share what we have learned with other responders, and apply those lessons to our own jurisdiction’s protocols and training events.

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