In 2016 the Federal Bureau of Investigation stated that second only to terrorism, active shooter events are the most complex problem facing public safety agencies in the United States. These events include multiple, immediate, life-safety priorities for public safety agencies. An active shooter event may simultaneously include ongoing, unrestricted homicidal violence; smoke and fires; hazardous materials, including improvised explosive devices, improvised incendiary devices, and chemical bombs/munitions; as well as a mass casualty event. Each of these events in themselves may require numerous public safety resources. Combined, the event may require an unprecedented response never seen before in a community.
Universally, nearly every active shooter event after-action report has identified problems with command and control. At the 1999 shootings at Columbine, each of the five SWAT teams that arrived set up their own independent command post. At Columbine, there was no single, unified incident command post during the event. At the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, law enforcement and EMS set up their own independent command posts, and neither communicated with each other. At the recent 2017 Hollywood International Airport shooting, 10 different public safety agencies all attempted to establish themselves as the incident commander.
At the 2015 San Bernardino attacks, incident commanders had to deal with three separate locations — Inland Regional Center, the perpetrators’ house, and the location of the final shootout. In addition, this was a multi-jurisdictional response that ultimately was the jurisdiction of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. With the increasing threat of domestic and international terrorism as the nexus behind an active shooter event, public safety leaders need to recognize that command can quickly transition from local to state law enforcement, and then from state to federal law enforcement.
One of the most important aspects of command and control is recognizing each responding agency’s equity during the mitigation phase of the event. Law enforcement primarily focuses on recognition, containment and neutralization of the threat or threats. The fire department must address the threats of fire, either intentionally or unintentionally set, hazardous materials release, and deployment of rescue task forces to treat and extract the injured. Emergency medical services primarily focuses on the triage, treatment, and transport of the injured, along with deployment of tactical medics to support operations within the crisis site.
Law enforcement is ultimately in charge of the event. However, the equity of each agency shifts throughout the event. In the case of an active shooter with an active fire, the spread of fire and smoke can potentially kill many more people than the perpetrator. In this case, the equity — or involvement — of the fire department rises to a level that is equal, if not greater than that of law enforcement. Conversely, once the threat is contained or neutralized and patient extraction occurs, the equity of EMS now significantly increases. Agency equity may increase or decrease depending on the event, or the phase of the event.
One of the single most important factors of successful response is the rapid formation of a unified incident command post. To be effective, the incident commanders must be in literal touching distance of each other. Regardless of the jurisdiction, victim point-of-wounding care time and victim extraction time doubles when there is not a unified command post. The unified incident command post should be clearly identified, and the location announced to all responders.
At many of these events, the incident commanders have all expressed how overwhelming the scenes are to manage, and how much information is rapidly processed into the command post. Information will come from a plethora of 9-1-1 calls, witness information and responder information. A large amount of information will also come from social media, as cell towers fail and 9-1-1 centers become saturated with calls.
Because of the vast information posted on social media by witnesses and injured people, it is critical to quickly establish an Information and Intelligence Branch to monitor social media. This branch can work to rapidly identify the number and identity of the perpetrator(s), location of injured victims and location of people hiding. Numerous events demonstrate that people inside the crisis site will quickly turn to social media as their avenue for information exchange.
The use of mobile data terminals will fast become ineffective because of the large volume of information processed into the call notes by 9-1-1 communicators. At the Pulse Nightclub shooting there were more than 300 individual computer aided dispatch (CAD) notes entered by communicators. If an incident commander is attempting to follow the individual notes in CAD, they will find this to be an overwhelming and nearly impossible process. The incident commander may elect to assign one person at the command post as a scribe to analyze information as it is entered into the CAD notes.
A second universal problem with every event is radio communications. Radio channels will quickly become overwhelmed with multiple units and multiple agencies all trying to communicate at once. At the 2017 Hollywood International Airport shooting, the 800 system became overwhelmed and went into “fail soft” mode four times. Each time this occurred, the system throttled down and then throttled back up, causing a radio blackout for several minutes each time. In the official after-action report, it was noted that during these times, communications became broken and severely limited. Officers attempting to report “no shots fired” had their communications broken so that only “shots fired” was transmitted. This led to massive confusion, as incident commanders thought that there were multiple shooting events occurring at the airport.
An important consideration for incident commanders is to quickly establish a channel for operations and a separate channel for communications from the 9-1-1 center and the incident command post. Because of the amount of information, these two operations typically cannot occur on the same channel. Officers going to direct-to-threat will request the securing of the tactical channel, leaving the channel open only for emergent, critical communications. The 9-1-1 center will have a large amount of information to send to responders, but will not want to broadcast on the tactical channel when officers have requested radio silence as they go direct-to-threat. This is also the same reason why police, fire, and EMS should not all operate on the same tactical channel. Communications will quickly become overwhelmed and critical information will be missed by commanders and responders.
Jurisdictions also need to develop a standard system for labeling a building. In the fire service, a building is typically labeled with sides A, B, C, D, and so forth in a clockwise motion. In law enforcement, a building is typically labeled with sides 1, 2, 3, 4, and so forth in a clockwise motion. Federal law enforcement officers use a color system to label the building, naming sides white, green, black, and red in a clockwise motion. Other responders will use geographical descriptions such as north, south, west, and east. Still other agencies use plain text, such as front side, left side, back side, and right side. Regardless of the method used, all area responders should use a standardized method for labeling buildings. The National Incident Management Systems (NIMS) recommends the alphabetical labeling of building starting with “A”, and then moving clockwise. This federally recommended system is a good method to adopt universally to avoid confusion and streamline operations at any emergency event.
Multiple after-action-reports have identified a new problem occurring with frequency at these events. Ranking public safety officers arrive at the event, but do not want to take command. Instead, these chief officers walk around the scene as observers. This has led to significant confusion as responders recognize ranking officers and report to them, only to find out the ranking officers are not in command and are simply observing. The concept has been coined, “The Big Quiet.” The official after-action report of the Aurora shooting found this to be a significant problem throughout the event that led to unnecessary confusion among responders. To prevent this from occurring, ranking officers who arrive on scene either need to take command, or remain at the unified command post.
Incident command and control at active shooter or active assailant events is exceptionally challenging. The primary key to successful command is the rapid integration of a unified incident command post. Equally important is extensive inter-agency training and preparation by jurisdictions prior to the event. Each responding agency must recognize the equity of the other agencies, and develop strategies that will allow each agency to meet their individual response objectives.
Active Shooter Fast Facts from Official After-Action Reports:
- At the Virginia Tech shooting, two communicators and one supervisor handled 2,027 9-1-1 calls
- At the Aurora Century 16 Theater shooting, 13 communicators handled 6,000 9-1-1 calls
- At the Paramus, New Jersey mall shooting 1,000 9-1-1 calls were received in the first 45 minutes
- At Columbine, 1,000 police officers from 35 law enforcement agencies responded
- At the 2013 Los Angeles International Airport shooting, 1,000 law enforcement officers responded
- At the 2017 Fort Lauderdale Hollywood International Airport shooting, 2,000 law enforcement officers responded from three counties
- At Columbine, 191 firefighters from six fire departments responded
- At Columbine 48 ambulances and five helicopters responded from 12 different agencies
- At the 2013 LAX shooting, there were five gunshot wounds, one fatality, and 400 people transported by EMS with ancillary medical conditions
- At the 2017 Hollywood International Airport shooting, there were six gunshot wounds with five fatalities, and 48 patients transported by EMS with ancillary medical conditions