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How to avoid the most common active shooter training mistakes

Great active shooter incident training takes a concerted effort to make exercises real, relevant, interesting and captivating for all participants

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Without proper planning, many of these well-meaning exercises leave the responders no better off than before or possibly even worse.

Photo/Jim Morrissey

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Active shooter training exercises are becoming more commonplace across the country; which is a good thing. However, without proper planning, many of these well-meaning exercises leave the responders no better off than before or possibly even worse. A strong, multi-discipline exercise design team, a solid exercise plan and buy in from the responding disciplines are critical ingredients for success.

Use these lessons from active shooter exercises I have observed to develop best practices for designing, implementing and executing a worthwhile, productive and enlightening exercise to better prepare all of the emergency responders for the – once in a career – horrific day. The following active shooter incident (ASI) training exercise observations are all real. Read the scenario and pick out what’s wrong before reading my commentary.

ASI training scenario #1: Value of multi-discipline response

What happened: Law enforcement officers entered a chaotic active shooter scene, stepped over dead and injured victims and chased the male shooter into the cafeteria. They engaged in a gunfight and neutralized the shooter.

“END-EX” (end of exercise) was called by the controllers. The law enforcement officers high fived each other at the timely and successful elimination of the threat. The team then regrouped to switch roles and do it again.

What could have happened: There is a useful mantra in the two phases of a successful response to an active shooter incident. Phase one is to stop the killing and, just as important, is phase two: to stop the dying.

While this specific ASI exercise had the goal for law enforcement to eliminate the threat, it is a disservice to not consider the importance of initiating lifesaving interventions at the earliest opportunity. This requires an equal valuation of eliminating the threat and practicing the lifesaving efforts of the remaining casualties by both law enforcement, EMS and other medical responders. After all, we are in this business to save lives.

ASI exercises have far more value if the multi-discipline response has something for everyone, including:

  • Leadership and unified command.
  • Contact teams.
  • Rescue task forces.
  • Ambulance transport assets.

ASI training scenario #2: Train like you fight, fight like you train

What happened: The shooter was isolated to another building and the building with all of the casualties was been deemed safe. Law enforcement escorted a rescue task force into the area where 15 casualties were located. All of the simulated victims were inflatable training mannequins with triage tags already applied. I witnessed the rescue task force medics tucking a couple of mannequins under each arm and dropping them off at a casualty collection point. There was no medical assessment, no interventions and no medical care.

What could have happened: This scenario deteriorated into a joke filled, non-realistic, and casual event that will not prepare them for real life. Law enforcement, especially tactical teams, are often heard saying, “train like you fight, and fight like you train.” The same is true for all of the emergency response disciplines in ASI exercises. Role players and a little moulage go a long way to make the scene more realistic and relevant to real life.

ASI training scenario #3: Reality-based pathway to success

What happened: The law enforcement contact team eliminated the threat and secured the scene. The rescue task force entered the scene and began casualty care. At that point, a second bad guy jumped out of a closet with an improvised explosive device and detonated, killing everyone in the room. Bad idea!

What could have happened: First off, evidence and statistical analysis has shown a second shooter and IED attacks are an extremely rare event in real life. A comprehensive FBI report looked at 160 active shooter incidents. All but two of the incidents were perpetrated by a single person and only two had non-functional IEDs on site. Most active shooter events are over before any responder arrives on scene.

Scenario design needs to show a pathway to success if most of the emergency personnel responses are performed in a timely manner and reasonably well. Training scenarios can include a secondary device, but be advised that all public safety emergency responders could, and probably should, pull all assets from the crisis scene and refuse to enter if a secondary device is discovered before detonation. Your exercise is now dead in the water and some people may resent being tricked.

I saw another exercise where an evaluator in a high visibility vest suddenly became a bad guy and started shooting at the RTF. An unfair and unsettling exercise element. It was made clear in the briefing that anyone wearing a high-visibility vest was “out of play” and were either evaluators or observers. This a sure fire way to anger participants.

Avoid these active shooter exercise flaws

I have been planning and executing medically focused simulated mass casualty incidents my entire career. I have created countless backcountry accidents and recreated incidents based on real-life horrific events, such as Waco, Texas, cult compound; Columbine; Pulse nightclub; Virginia Tech; Las Vegas shooting and dozens of other events. For the last 12 years, I have been intimately involved in creating and executing hyper-realistic scenarios for Urban Shield, the largest multi-discipline exercise in the world. I have seen what works and what does not in terms of exercise design and execution.

Here is a list of seven common exercise design and execution flaws to avoid if you want to create an exercise that is powerful, positive and memorable:

1. Prolonged shoot-out

A simunition gun fight with a bunch of bad guys having a full-on shootout with the law enforcement might be fun, but it does not help in preparing for real-life active shooter incidents. Keep those plans for the paintball teamwork day.

2. Crowds of active shooter training observers

Having too many evaluators, observers, safety officers, videographers, proctors and controllers compared to the number of participants can be distracting. It is unnerving and frustrating for an emergency responder team to tactically maneuver through a gantlet of reflective out of bounds safety vests. Keep the vest-wearing watchers minimal and out of the way.

3. Inadequate training equipment for rescue task force

Not having enough training equipment, (e.g., having the participants say, “I would put a tourniquet here. I would put a chest seal on this wound”, or “I don’t want to break into my kit for an exercise”) is not effective. It is critical to have medical training equipment participants can actually use during the exercise.

4. No crisis actors with moulage

Not using any crisis actors with moulage wounds or using pre-filled out triage tags on role players is incredibly lazy and dramatically downplays the importance of what we are trying to accomplish. EMTs and paramedics need to actually touch, assess and perform the medical interventions needed.

5. Lots of downtime

Having any group of first responders – police, fire, EMS, incident commanders – having too much down time leads to boredom and complaints will mount quickly. Timing and keeping things moving is very important.

6. Persnickety active shooter exercise evaluators

Instead of getting too persnickety and coming down overly hard on participants, evaluators should guide the participants in the right direction. An active shooter exercise should not be an experience like a military boot camp. Most of the emergency responders will be in a role that they do not perform very often and have had little or no training in. This should be a learning experience with the evaluators using teachable moments to help guide the participants. Gaps and corrective action plans for training and future exercises should be identified, but it does no good to embarrass or be overly negative on participants.

7. Unrealistic scenarios

Use real world events, statistics and reports to come up with realistic scenarios, rather than lots of bad guys and only a couple of injured people. Typically it is one, maybe two perpetrators, and lots of people injured, with many panicked people hiding, running and some even helping.

Real, relevant, captivating training

Sometimes exercise designers feel the need to make a scenario complex; this is not necessary. Having a single shooter, several deceased victims and multiple injured casualties will stress out any responding disciplines. Much will be learned from this level of complexity. This kind of single shooter scenario is also much more likely to happen in a real event.

Some say, “any training is good training,” but to make it great training takes a concerted effort to make it real, relevant, interesting and captivating. Use the lessons from others on what works and what does not. Remember also that you will learn a ton from putting on an exercise and the next one you are involved in will be better than the first.

Jim Morrissey is the tactical medical program director for the Alameda County EMS Agency and a former FBI SWAT tactical paramedic. He has a Master’s Degree in Homeland Security from the Naval Postgraduate School. He is an internationally recognized expert in the field of the multi-discipline response to active shooter incidents. He can be reached at