Police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical services technicians (first responders) who come to a school because of a 911 call involving gunfire face a daunting task. Though the objective remains the same – protect students and staff – the threat of an“active shooter” incident is different than responding to a natural disaster or many other emergencies. Emergency calls can involve actual or future threats of physical violence. This violence might be directed not only in or at the school building, students, staff, and campus but also at nearby buildings on or off school grounds. “Active shooter situations” are defined as those where an individual is “actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.”
The better first responders and school personnel are able to discern these threats and react swiftly, the more lives can be saved. This is particularly true in an active shooter situation at a school where law enforcement responds to a 911 call of shots fired. Many young and innocent lives are at risk in such a concentrated space. This is why it is critical that schools work with first responders, emergency management staff, and all community partners to identify, prepare, prevent, and effectively respond to an active shooter situation in a coordinated fashion. Active shooter situations are unpredictable and evolve quickly. Because of this, individuals must be prepared to deal with an active shooter situation before law enforcement officer arrive on the scene.
Responding to an Active Shooter Situation
No single response fits all active shooter situations; however, making sure each individual knows his or her options for response and can react decisively will save valuable time. Depicting scenarios and considering response options in advance will assist individuals and groups in quickly selecting their best course of action.
Understandably, this is a sensitive topic. There is no single answer for what to do, but a survival mindset can increase the odds of surviving. As appropriate for your community, it may be valuable to schedule a time for an open conversation regarding this topic. Though some parents or personnel may find the conversation uncomfortable, they may also find it reassuring to know that, as a whole, their school is thinking about how best to deal with this situation.
During an active shooter situation, the natural human reaction, even if you are highly trained, is to be startled, feel fear and anxiety, and even experience initial disbelief and denial. You can expect to hear noise from alarms, gunfire and explosions, and people shouting and screaming. Training provides the means to regain your composure, recall at least some of what you have learned, and commit to action. There are three basic options: run, hide, or fight. You can run away from the shooter, seek a secure place where you can hide and/or deny the shooter access, or incapacitate the shooter to survive and protect others from harm.
As the situation develops, it is possible that students and staff will need to use more than one option. During an active shooter situation, staff will rarely have all of the information they need to make a fully informed decision about which option is best. While they should follow the plan and any instructions given during an incident, often they will have to rely on their own judgment to decide which option will best protect lives.
Respond Immediately - Observe, Think, Act
It is not uncommon for people confronted with a threat to first deny the possible danger rather than respond. An investigation by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (2005) into the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001, found that people close to the floors impacted waited longer to start evacuating than those on unaffected floors. Similarly, during the Virginia Tech shooting, individuals on campus responded to the shooting with varying degrees of urgency. These studies highlight this delayed response or denial. For example, some people report hearing firecrackers when in fact they heard gunfire.
Staff need to overcome denial and to respond immediately, including fulfilling their responsibilities for individuals in their charge. For example, train staff to recognize the sounds of danger, act, and forcefully communicate the danger and necessary action (e.g., “Gun! Get out!”) to those in their charge. In addition, those closest to the public address or other communications system, or otherwise able to alert others, should communicate the danger and necessary action. Repetition in training and preparedness shortens the time it takes to orient, observe, and act.
Upon recognizing the danger, as soon as it is safe to do so, staff or others must alert responders by contacting 911 with as clear and accurate information as possible.
If it is safe to do so for yourself and those in your care, the first course of action that should be taken is to run out of the building and far away until you are in a safe location. Students and staff are trained to
Leave personal belongings behind;
Visualize possible escape routes, including physically accessible routes for students and staff with disabilities as well as persons with access and functional needs;
Avoid escalators and elevators;
Take others with them, but not to stay behind because others will not go;
Call 911 when safe to do so; and
Let a responsible adult know where they are.
If running is not a safe option, hide in as safe a place as possible. Students and staff are trained to hide in a location where the walls might be thicker and have fewer windows. In addition:
Lock the doors;
Barricade the doors with heavy furniture;
Close and lock windows and close blinds or cover windows;
Turn off lights;
Silence all electronic devices;
Hide along the wall closest to the exit but out of the view from the hallway (allowing for an ambush of the shooter and for possible escape if the shooter enters the room);
Use strategies to silently communicate with first responders if possible, for example, in rooms with exterior windows make signs to silently signal law enforcement officers and emergency responders to indicate the status of the room's occupants; and
Remain in place until given an all clear by identifiable law enforcement officers.
If neither running nor hiding is a safe option, as a last resort when confronted by the shooter, adults in immediate danger should consider trying to disrupt or incapacitate the shooter by using aggressive force and items in their environment, such as fire extinguishers, and chairs. In a study of 41 active shooter events that ended before law enforcement officers arrived, the potential victims stopped the attacker themselves in 16 instances. In 13 of those cases they physically subdued the attacker.
While talking to staff about confronting a shooter may be daunting and upsetting for some, they should know that they may be able to successfully take action to save lives. To be clear, confronting an active shooter in any school employee’s job description; how each staff member chooses to respond if directly confronted by an active shooter is up to him or her.
Active Shooter Situations: Interacting With First Responders
Staff are trained to understand and expect that a law enforcement officer’s first priority must be to locate and stop the person(s) believed to be the shooter(s); all other actions are secondary. One comprehensive study determined that more than half of mass-shooting incidents—57 percent—still were under way when the first officer arrived; in 75 percent of those instances that solo officer had to confront the perpetrator to end the threat. In those cases, the officer was shot one-third of the time.
Students and staff are trained to cooperate and not to interfere with first responders. When law enforcement officer(s) arrives, students and staff must display empty hands with open palms. Law enforcement may instruct everyone to place their hands on their heads, or they may search individuals.
Source: United States Department of Education Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools https://rems.ed.gov/K12ActiveShooterSituations.aspx.