Campus response: Lessons learned from an active shooter exercise

Planning active shooter response training with police, fire, EMS and medivac helicopters is a complex and challenging task


By Chief Shawn Burns and Dr. Harry Hueston

For several years, West Texas A&M University (WTAMU) has conducted an active shooter response training program for all local police agencies in the Amarillo, Texas, area. This article outlines the lessons learned from this training and provides a blueprint for designing, implementing and evaluating a campus-based active shooter response training exercise in your jurisdiction.

Exercise logistics

Volunteers participating in a training exercise for an active shooter simulate exiting the main entrance of Hopewell Elementary School with injuries Wednesday, May 25, 2016, in West Chester, Ohio. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Volunteers participating in a training exercise for an active shooter simulate exiting the main entrance of Hopewell Elementary School with injuries Wednesday, May 25, 2016, in West Chester, Ohio. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

It is imperative all local stakeholders meet and train together to mitigate the impact of potentially devastating active shooter events. WTAMU’s latest exercise was modified to involve additional first responders such as local fire department personnel, emergency medical services personnel and even air assets. Key steps include:

1. Select a location

The WTAMU Classroom Center was chosen because the building’s design lends itself to being secured to prevent uninvolved campus visitors/workers from entering the active training area. Affected offices relocated for the day and practiced their business continuation plans, which are required as part of the emergency preparedness activities of the university.

Multiple email notifications were sent in advance of the exercise to notify the campus community of the training. Role player volunteers were solicited from the campus to educate campus community members about emergency response during an active shooter scenario, helping to build better relationships with community members.

2. Invite participating agencies

We focused on the primary agencies in Randall County that would respond to such an event. The Randall County Sheriff’s Office (RCSO) was contacted first as they are the largest agency in Randall County that would be responding and are already established as a mutual aid partner with WTAMU. The RCSO has several instructors of Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) on staff, thus fulfilling the requirement imposed by the WTAMU Chief of Police that all primary instructors or safety personnel are ALERRT certified. The RCSO also helped facilitate the involvement of other groups to secure an adequate number of role players and safety personnel.

The first meeting involved the following agencies: WTAMU Police Department, Canyon Police Department, Canyon Fire Department, Randall County Sheriff’s Office, Randall County Fire Department, Texas Department of Public Safety, Amarillo Police Department, Amarillo Fire Department, Baptist St. Anthony’s Emergency Medical Services, Amarillo Medical Response Services, Lifestar Air Ambulance, Department of Energy Office of Secure Transportation and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

3. Prep volunteers

WTAMU’s theatrical faculty applied moulage to the victims to give medical personnel visual aids to match victim symptoms. This allowed the event to expand to better include medical triage, treatment and transport.

WTAMU volunteers were assigned less serious injuries and some were left as uninjured but sheltering to allow participants the opportunity to see all aspects of such an event.

4. Set up a safety area

The west end of the building was fenced off as a designated safety area void of all live weapons. An armed WTAMU police officer was stationed at the entrance to serve as armed overwatch in the event someone attempted to target the unarmed first responders involved in the exercise.

A break was made in the fence to allow ambulances to drive through the safe area in order to simulate medical transportation from the scene. All exercise participants were provided safety glasses as standard PPE, and non-participating exercise evaluators were provided with safety vests for identification. No other PPE was used. 

Exercise design

Exercise objectives were designed based on training the responders had received in the six to eight months prior to the drill:

  • Objective 1: Demonstrate safe weapon handling skills.
  • Objective 2: Demonstrate basic first responder tactics used during an active shooter scenario.
  • Objective 3: Demonstrate the importance of securing the immediate crisis point quickly and effectively using any and all reasonable and necessary force options.
  • Objective 4: Demonstrate the need to formulate and communicate a clear and concise immediate action plan that is understood by all first responders working inside the crisis site.
  • Objective 5: Demonstrate actions to be taken when closing down a room and securing suspects.
  • Objective 6: Demonstrate link-up procedures between initial responders and follow-on responders.
  • Objective 7: Demonstrate basic life-saving techniques that can be used to treat wounded civilians, first responders and suspects.
  • Objective 8: Demonstrate the process of setting up a casualty collection point.
  • Objective 9: Demonstrate techniques used to evacuate casualties from inside the crisis site.

The exercise began with blanks fired from a Simunition FX marking weapon that prompted role players to call simulated 911. Role players were given the temporary number to our event dispatch center, as well an event texting number that could receive text tips from the occupants of the building. The text option is being developed at this time and this exercise was a good opportunity to see how it would function in a controlled training environment.

Responding officers were staged in the safety area and held for approximately three minutes – the national average for response time in this type of event. During that time, the officers received information from dispatch as they would in a real-life event based on the information provided by the role players participating in the exercise.

After the initial three-minute delay, a contact team of officers (2-3) were allowed to enter the building and begin processing the scenario. The officers were provided with Simunition FX marking cartridge weapons loaded with blank ammunition. After another minute or two, a second group of officers was allowed to enter to simulate the arrival of other units. Those officers were supposed to link up with the first team and continue the scenario.

The contact team’s primary responsibility was to find the shooter and neutralize the threat. Once that was accomplished, attention turned to security, immediate action plans and medical responses.

The initial contact team requested a rescue task force response, which deployed another group of officers paired with medical first responders. If a second rescue task force was requested, then another group of officers and medical personnel were then released to respond.

The participants were allowed to work through the process, with occasional input from the instructors, and create a triage area and casualty collection point. They then began to evacuate personnel according to their injury rating as transport resources became available.

Four ambulances were provided for the training from the two agencies responsible for this geographical area. Time between ambulance arrivals was planned into the scenario to simulate the drive time that would likely be a reality in an actual event. The most serious injuries were taken to an idling medivac helicopter, which allowed the participants to experience the feeling of the rotor wash and to practice safe movements around an idling aircraft.

While the event was occurring inside the building, additional police, fire and medical resources were assembled outside for deployment if requested from the teams inside the building. A unified command structure of police, fire and medical representatives was accomplished inside a fire department vehicle that was located outside the building as it would actually be in a real event. The dispatchers answering event calls and dispatching officers were stationed within the RCSO mobile command vehicle parked inside the safety perimeter. Mobile dispatch was staffed by 2-3 dispatchers and overseen by participating department supervisors.

Areas for exercise design improvement

Lessons identified related to both overall setup and security of the event and exercise objectives:

1. Exercise safety, security and design

Due to the increased presence of first responders and vehicles for the exercise, the safety perimeter should have been expanded to allow the first responders to group together farther away from the actual exercise site. The exercise perimeter forced participants to leave the secure area in order to stage for the event. In future exercises, we would expand the fence to include any potential areas where participants could stage prior to actually engaging in the exercise.

Not all agencies had the selected frequency on their portable radios, and the helicopter crew could only monitor one of the two frequencies being used. One channel was designated for the law enforcement contact teams while the other channel was designated for the rescue task forces, but there were certain conditions where the RTF used the law enforcement frequency, leading to confusion between command and the two teams.

A large number of monitors or personnel not actively participating in the scenario were moving about inside the secure area. In the future, non-participants should be restricted to one area during the exercise.

Due to a lack of detailed instruction, some role players made up new injuries or increased their symptoms during the exercise. Future exercises should contain symptom cards for each role player detailing the symptoms they are to exhibit.

2. Meeting learning objectives

There are areas where even though the objectives were technically met, the goal should always be to continually improve the response and tactics.

Objective 4 specified the need to formulate and communicate a clear and concise immediate action plan understood by all responders. The contact teams seemed to become overwhelmed fairly quickly and failed to immediately request a rescue task force. By failing to notify the command of the need for rescue task forces, the medical aid that was staged outside was delayed in its deployment. When the contact team heard gunfire, they responded quickly and efficiently to that threat, performing whatever was necessary to neutralize the threat (Objective 3). The problem was that once that gunfire drew them away from the initial injured, it did take a few minutes for the groups to refocus on the tasks at hand. While they eventually recovered and requested the Rescue Task Force (RTF), those lost minutes are crucial in mass casualty incidents and could be the difference between life and death for some victims. While overall the teams performed satisfactorily for a first time event, additional training in this subject will improve the response time.

Additional training is needed to help law enforcement feel confident in providing basic life-saving medical treatment. By increasing the amount of medical training provided to law enforcement and our campus constituents and having hemorrhage control kits available, it would be possible to improve victim survival.

Objective 9 required the demonstration of techniques used to evacuate casualties from inside the crisis site. The desire to move victims quickly often led to a group of victims being evacuated without sufficient armed cover. Officers should have been assigned or requested in order to make sure the evacuating group received adequate protection when moving in and out of the building. This process will become more efficient as these types of training are provided more frequently in this area. The establishment of a casualty collection point and effective triage will make the evacuation of wounded faster which will likely lower the overall death rate of those injured in such an event.

3. Dispatch

Dispatch quickly became overwhelmed with calls, which is a likely real world outcome in a similar situation given that WTAMU typically only has one dispatcher on duty. The ability to utilize larger outside dispatch centers through mutual aid agreements needs to be addressed.

Giving the role players the exercise emergency number to call allowed the dispatchers to focus on this training, and the role players gave the dispatchers information that would be very similar to what they might hear in a real event. The one unrealistic part was that the number of people who called or texted their emergency was limited to the number of role players participating in the exercise. In an actual event, the number of calls will increase exponentially, which will likely overwhelm dispatch even faster than it happened in this exercise. Should future exercises want to better test their dispatch system, role players who are witnesses and concerned citizens should also be recruited to call the exercise dispatch center.

This exercise also tested the text-to-911 system and, while it worked, the exercise revealed it is unrealistic to expect three dispatchers to have time to respond to texts in addition to the massive number of phone calls coming in. Additional training on how to prioritize calls and texts, as well as how to quickly identify, extract and relay relevant information would greatly benefit dispatchers.

After-action report

Our after-action report identified several areas for improvement:

The fact that some participants became overwhelmed quickly indicates that active shooter training is still an ongoing need. Even though the officers dealt with the threat appropriately, doing so as quickly and effectively as possible will increase the likelihood of a favorable outcome and mitigate the loss of life in such an event.

Dispatch will quickly become overwhelmed in an active shooter event, so additional planning needs to be undertaken now to develop a contingency plan.

Future exercises should focus more on sheltering in place and the activities required of on-campus stakeholders to strengthen the response of those immediately affected by such an event.

Partnering with other agencies in the county is essential, but training the administration and others on campus must also be practiced in order to mitigate the loss of life at every possible avenue. Making active shooter survival training mandatory would be one way to address this contingency. The campus could also expand its offering of basic life-saving medical treatment to members of our campus CERT team or even campus constituents at large so they would be empowered with knowledge of how to lend a hand in a mass casualty event.

In conclusion, the full-scale active shooter exercise was a success, and served to strengthen relationships between WTAMU and the community.

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