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Active shooter response training for EMS: Get it done!

If the leaders of an EMS agency have failed to prepare personnel for an active shooter response, they need to get the training done, one way or another


Police officers and medical personnel stand at the scene of the Las Vegas shooting.

AP Photo/John Locher, File

Article updated August 28, 2018

Each time we experience mass violence in our nation the discussion of training and preparedness is rekindled in the EMS community. An EMS professional in the northeast recently wrote to me:

“We know that we need to train together for an active shooter response, but our police, fire, and EMS chiefs don’t cooperate so what can we do?”

When something bad happens, the folks on the street — the cops, firefighters and medics — usually get the job done. Will they feel prepared or will they be winging it? Do they have confidence in the procedures that other responders will use or will they be worried that they don’t know what others are doing?

If your leadership isn’t preparing you for an active shooter incident, well, they are not really leading. There are too many folks occupying leadership positions that don’t want to confront the tough issues. If you are in one of those organizations here are some different tactics.

Lead from below

Don’t wait for your hierarchy to come up with the idea of training for a mass violence event. For many reasons, that might never happen. If every EMT paramedic, firefighter and patrol officer requests rescue task force training to his or her supervisor and asks that supervisor to pass the word up the chain, who knows what might happen? You might create an opportunity for the chiefs, managers and directors to reach out to one another and cooperate.

Involve your friends

Even when the bosses don’t work together, actively or passively, in most communities the medics, firefighters and cops work together pretty well. Ask for help from your friends in public safety. Sometimes, there are stronger hooks like SWAT medics who are friends with the SWAT team leaders. The educators in your department might have connections with middle and upper management that they can leverage on your behalf.

Just make it happen

There are communities where first-line EMS officers, police sergeants, fire department battalion chiefs have started cooperative training without involving upper management. One small training session, perhaps with some media exposure, could go a long way towards motivating leadership to join the effort.

If you can’t get ‘em all, get what you can

Some jurisdictions are complex. For example, a single county EMS agency may serve an area covered by a dozen law enforcement agencies and 20 fire districts. Invite leaders from your peer groups — association presidents, union leaders, rescue officers — and begin something with whoever is interest. Again, you can step up, lead the way, and with a little good publicity others may be motivated to join.

If you must, go it on your own

It is best to train with your co-responders and that should remain your goal. If you are not making any progress and constantly encountering obstacles to multi-agency, multi-disciplinary training, do some training on your own. Maybe you can recruit a few law enforcement officers to help or the SWAT medics can role-play the law enforcement parts if they have completed rescue task force training within their teams.

Proceed with caution

There are a couple of important caveats to going your own way. It is not optimal, but it is better than nothing. To be best prepared if an active shooter does happen and you have not trained together with your co-responders from law enforcement please keep these steps in mind:

1. Complete similar training

Find out what curriculum is being used to train law enforcement officers in your area and build your internal training around that curriculum. Some police agencies may be using the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) or something from the state criminal justice agency. Nonetheless, try to match your efforts to what other agency personnel are doing.

2. Recognize law enforcement is in charge

Remember an active shooter is primarily a law enforcement event. Police officers will be in charge and we need to effectively develop a unified command (UC). But UC is not a core law enforcement skill set or a frequently utilized skill set. Be gentle, but persistent in establishing UC.

3. Communicate with all organizations

Let everybody know what you are doing. Send out training announcements, invitations and letters to the chiefs of other organizations. Knowing that someone else is taking the lead may help to motivate inter-agency cooperation and participation.

4. Ask the medical director to assist

Involve your medical director. While chiefs may not get along, your medical director has access to other persuasive resources. Hospital administrators, police chiefs and fire chiefs may not play well on their own, but the professional and moral authority of the medical director may be helpful.

5. Reach out to your neighbors

Don’t forget resources from other jurisdictions or commercial training vendors. Nearby to your community, there may be a jurisdiction that really has its stuff together in the area of active shooter response preparation. They might be willing to send a training team to work with your personnel or to have your trainers observe their training. There are entrepreneurs who offer excellent training at a reasonable cost. Be sure to check resumes and references, but outside trainers sometimes bring an extra level of credibility.

There is really no reason that every agency hasn’t completed active shooter or mass violence training, but some unfortunately have not. Concerned EMTs and paramedics should make this type of training a personal and agency priority. The ultimate goal is high-quality, multi-agency training, supported and sanctioned by the chiefs of all involved agencies. If that is not possible in your community, don’t give up. Make something happen and share your success to inspire and motivate others

And be safe out there!

Skip Kirkwood has been involved in EMS since 1973, as an EMT, paramedic, supervisor, educator, manager, consultant, state EMS director, and chief EMS officer. He is a past president of the National EMS Management Association, is a vigorous advocate for the advancement of the EMS profession, and a frequent speaker at regional and national EMS conferences.