Planning for mass violence incidents

CarolinaFireJournal - August Vernon
August Vernon
01/11/2010 -

Mass Violence Overview

A rapid, safe and successful response to a mass violence incident requires preparation. No jurisdiction is immune from these types of incidents. The tragic attacks such as Fort Hood, Virginia Tech and Mumbai, India present a current and growing threat to all response agencies. Today’s “bad guys” (criminals and terrorists) appear to be more determined, violent and heavily armed than ever before. Responders are not only faced with the possibility of large numbers of victims during these incidents, but also with serious threat of harm and death to response personnel.


Unfortunately, the likelihood that emergency responders will someday be called to respond to a mass violence incident appear to be higher than ever before. It is also important to recognize that domestic and international terrorists and criminals are constantly improving their methods and are looking for more efficient and lethal tactics. The lack of a properly coordinated and planned response can lead to confusion, bad publicity and even death and injury to responders and the public. These incidents will be a large scale, multi-agency, mutual-aid response.  This article is designed to help fill gaps in the responder’s knowledge of mass violence incidents and help them prepare for, respond to and recover from such incidents.

If and when a major mass violence occurs in the United States, trained and educated first responders can help lessen the impact with a safe and effective response. A mass violence incident can take the form of a single 15-year-old high school student armed with a handgun attacking his high school to a large scale, multi-shooter, multi-target, combination attack such as Mumbai, India or Beslan.

Scene Size-up

Upon arrival at any mass violence incident it is important to conduct a quick “windshield survey,” even when a scene is stated to be “secure.” It is always important to gain as much pre-arrival information as possible and listen for key verbal indicators that may come across as indicators for a large scale incident —such as victim numbers and types. For Fire/EMS agencies, typical procedures require that law enforcement is dispatched to any type of incident that has the potential for violence, but you may find yourself on the scene due to a wrong address, victims coming to you or discover an incident suddenly.

The Incident Command System (ICS) is one of the best tools for agencies to utilize when responding to these types of mass violence incidents. During the initial size up there are some actions that the Incident Commander  will need to take, including notifying dispatch of the command post (CP) location, assess the situation as best as you can by quickly gathering information from witnesses and other responders. You will also need to direct arriving units and designate at least one or more staging area.

EMS Considerations 

Quickly conduct the initial scene size-up or “windshield survey” and provide that intelligence to communications and other responding units. Rapidly establish a unified command post with the other responding agencies and staging areas outside of the hazard area. Start building the Incident Management System as soon as possible. Deploy trained and equipped tactical medical personnel to assist in rapid deployment and downed person rescues in the “hot zone.” EMS may need to utilize “scoop and run” and “load and go” from the immediate incident scene. Casualty collection points (CCP) may be established in safe areas inside a structure or outside in an open area location. EMS may need to implement disaster procedures such as triage, triage tags, casualty collection points (CCP) and field treatment areas for minor injuries. Implement local mass-casualty/mass-fatality procedures. Quickly remove victims from the area, and render aid in a secure location. Conduct triage outside the hazard area. Helicopter landing zones for medical evacuations may need to be established. Use litters, blankets, SKEDs or backboards. Triage will be conducted at least twice, once at the scene and again at the hospital.

Fire Dept. Consideration

Quickly conduct the initial scene size-up or “windshield survey” and provide that intelligence to communications and other responding units. Rapidly establish a unified command post with the other responding agencies and staging areas outside of the hazard area. Start building the Incident Management System as soon as possible. Law enforcement may need immediate access to breaching tools and equipment such as ladders, tools, SKEDs, fire extinguishers, etc. The Fire Dept may be the lead EMS agency or may need to assist EMS operations with triage, victim extraction, and casualty collection points (CCP), etc. There could be the potential of vehicle and/or structural fires from explosive or incendiary devices. The incident commander (IC) must decide whether fire operations should be offensive or defensive in nature. Helicopter landing zones for medical evacuations may need to be established. You may have to search beyond the immediate scene for victims who are not able to call for help or fled the area. These incidents will be a large scale, multi-agency, mutual-aid, multi-alarm response.

Scene Safety

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Fire Fighter Fatality Investigation and Prevention Program conducts investigations of fire fighter line-of-duty deaths to formulate recommendations for preventing future deaths and injuries.

For additional information on the program visit NIOSH recently released report.

FACE-F2004-11 listed the following recommendations for fire departments involved in the responding to scenes of violence:

  • Develop standard operating procedures (SOPs) for responding to potentially violent situations
  • Develop integrated emergency communication systems that include the ability to directly relay real-time information between the caller, dispatch, and all responding emergency personnel
  • Provide body armor or bullet-resistant personal protective equipment; train on, and consistently enforce its use when responding to potentially violent situations
  • Ensure all emergency response personnel have the capability for continuous radio contact and consider providing portable communication equipment that has integrated hands-free capabilities
  • Consider requiring emergency dispatch centers to incorporate the ability to archive location, or individual, historical data and provide pertinent information to responding fire and emergency medical services personnel
  • Develop coordinated response guidelines for violent situations and hold joint training sessions with law enforcement, mutual aid and emergency response departments.



This brief article is intended for basic information only, and to spur further discussion and planning within response and planning agencies. The likelihood that emergency responders will someday again be called upon to respond to a mass violence criminal or terrorist incident is higher than ever before. Remember to follow your local guidelines and procedures and update those plans if they are 2-5-10 years out of date. Each community and organization should have a plan in place to address these types of events. The more our public safety agencies at the local, state and federal level prepare, the better they are prepared to safely respond to and effectively manage any type of mass violence situation that might arise. The community has entrusted us with their safety —SO LETS PREPARE NOW!

August Vernon is currently the Assistant Coordinator/Operations Officer for the Forsyth County Office of Emergency Management, NC. He returned to his position at Emergency Management after a year in Iraq as a security contractor. Vernon has been employed in Emergency Management for nine years and also served as a member of the fire service and a fire service instructor. He is author of the new First Responders Critical Incident Field Guide published by Red Hat Publishing.
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