Intruder Response: Filling the Gap

Active shooters have transformed our need, and method, of responding to a crisis. Let’s continue to adapt and improve.

In this day and age in our society, there is a recurring problem as it relates to school shootings as well as workplaces, churches, and other public domains. As a society we are constantly searching for solutions and trying to identify who should be responsible for carrying out the protection, safety, and security of our children and others.

We refer to these incidents by a number of names but as a rule it is generally called an active shooter. Do words matter? Yes, and I will tell you why. Prior to Columbine you never really heard the words “active” and “shooter” together, but now it is an everyday term used by many people. These words can have a direct impact on a person’s response, either in a positive way or in a negative way. If I train you to only respond to shots fired, I may set you up for failure, meaning someone will only respond to a threat of a firearm. However, we have seen incidents where other deadly tools have been used; knives, baseball bat, tire iron, so in reality you are training to respond to the threat of a possible homicide in progress. There is not a focus on the weapon being used, but instead, focuses on the potential outcome so that you immediately recognize the threat, assess the threat correctly, and respond accordingly.

“There is a buzz phrase being repeated a lot lately: ‘When seconds count the police are minutes away.’”

Having come from a law enforcement background and understanding the limitations on all officers, there is a lot of truth to that statement. It is not meant to disparage public servants because every officer I have ever known in my 27-year career wants to help, but the reality of life is simple: we cannot be everywhere at once.

The good news: We’re learning

The good news as it relates to law enforcement response is we have learned from our past mistakes and continue to learn. Prior to 1999, police were not really training to respond to a school shooting. It took the death of 13 students and 23 more wounded on an April day at a school called Columbine in Littleton, CO. Law enforcement did what they had been trained to do: surround the building, maintain containment, and wait for a SWAT Team. Columbine had not been the first school shooting in the U.S., but we were resistive to change. We heard comments like “that won’t happen in our town” or “that happens only in big cities,” but it was a watershed moment because the public demanded to know what we would do “if” it did happen in our jurisdiction.

So across the United States, local police officers started training to respond to a school shooting. At first, there were many different thoughts on what the training should consist of. Many focused on firearms training; others focused on small element team tactics. After many years, the overall consensus now is simply that officers understand they can no longer stand by on the outside while homicides are being committed on the inside.

On the other side of the issue, prior to Columbine, schools typically did not have any type of intruder response plan or lockdown policy. As a result of Columbine, they started formulating their plans for lockdown. Just like law enforcement, there were many thoughts and various approaches to a solution for lockdown. There was one big difference with this solution: while we conducted regular fire drills to practice our response, we did not regularly practice lockdown drills. In many ways, the various lockdown theories had not been tested, and over and over in real situations, we still refused to learn the important lessons.

This is where there is a major disconnect in our intruder response theory. Here, in the U.S., schools and police do not regularly train together or develop their response plans in conjunction with each other. Most people view this type of incident as a law enforcement response issue. School personnel did not enter this career field to train to keep an intruder out of their school; they are unarmed, generally not tactically minded or aware, etc. police officers are supposed to take care of this problem. Again, while in theory, this is probably a very accurate thought process, but I have to ask one important question:

“What will you do until they get here? This is what we can refer to as ‘the time gap.’”

So, does time matter? How long will it take to get an officer on scene to your location? Yes the police are coming, as fast as they can, but there are many factors that can impact their response time. Even if an officer is on duty at a school, he has to be notified of the incident, figure out where the threat is located, respond, and find the threat and stop the threat. We will hear numbers such as 5-10 minutes, which in most cases would be pretty accurate and that does not seem bad. It isn’t bad in the perspective of every day life, but in an emergency situation, it is a lifetime. If you don’t think it is that bad, I want you to take a deep breath, now hold it … for the rest of this article. Now we start understanding the value of time.

Bridging the time gap

How do I start to bridge the “time gap?” There are several things that will play directly into your ability to respond to an incident. First and foremost, we don’t want to rely on instinct; we want to train to overcome instinct. Our body’s natural reaction to a dangerous, immediate threat will often times engages the sympathetic nervous system, the “fight or flight” response. This reaction could be extremely detrimental because we are relying more on luck than an educated response.

The second thing to be done is remove the thought of “denial” from our thinking. The thoughts of “this will never happen here” does nothing to make you safer, but only allows you to push your head further into the sand so you can’t see the problems. Once you accept risk, you can start countering the risks.

Third, you have to maintain a level of awareness anytime you are out in public, at work, church, the mall, etc. What this means is you have to listen to that inner voice that is saying, “I don’t feel comfortable right now” and trust yourself. I don’t refer to this as instinct because we have spent our entire lives developing this ability to read situations and people. Each of us has various levels of intuition based on life lessons learned through our lifestyle, background, environment(s), etc. Do not try to explain someone else’s actions away or take them for granted. This ties directly into threat recognition (I see a man with a gun, sword, knife, and I recognize the threat), and that allows me to hopefully assess the threat correctly and respond. Many times people try to explain the situation or actions away so they feel better: “Oh look, there’s a man with a gun. Oh it must be a video production.” “This must be a skit or drama” (improper threat assessment). If you are in denial and have no sense of awareness this time spent failing to understand reality, and then making an attempt to rationalize someone else’s actions is delaying your possible response. Time is everything!

I want to give you two examples of time in actual events. The first is Columbine. The first shot until the two suspects were dead was a total of 49 minutes. So in this case they had a total of 49 minutes and full, free access to the entire school, so why weren’t there more fatalities and injuries? I am not down-playing the seriousness of the loss of life but it could have been much worse. If you listen to actual 911 tapes from Columbine, you will actually hear dispatchers asking teachers if they can lock and/or barricade their doors. The lesson learned from this incident should have reinforced how lockdowns did work and will work.

The second incident to look at from a time stand point set the record for the most killed in a school shooting; this was Virginia Tech University. In this incident, there were 32 killed and 27 wounded. The shooter planned in advance for a law enforcement response by chaining doors closed. When you review the incident, you find out that the 911 call notifying police of the second shooting at Norris Hall came in at 9:46 A.M., and two SWAT Teams as well as additional police officers were on scene at Norris Hall at 9:48 A.M. Therefore, you have two fully equipped SWAT Teams on scene at a school shooting in two minutes, which has to be the best possible response imaginable. To summarize, law enforcement set the record for the best possible response to an active shooter in a school, and the shooter set the record for the most killed in a school shooting by one man armed with only handguns. Was it a failed response by law enforcement? No, the failure resulted because there was no plan for failure by the school, and once the shooting started, the faculty and students did not know how to respond. The entire incident lasted approximately nine minutes. Look at the difference in time between the two incidents: Columbine 49 minutes, 13 killed, 23 wounded, Virginia Tech nine minutes, 32 killed, and 27 wounded. Even with the decrease in time, the outcome was very different. The “true first responder” – T.F.R. is the person on the scene when the incident starts, and their response will have the biggest impact on the success or the failure more than any other single issue.

The whole lockdown process is designed to prevent access to victims and assist them in bridging the time gap until law enforcement can arrive and intervene on their behalf. They are both working together to the same end: a good outcome. To put it another way, I want you to understand that by putting a trained response plan in place that you are actually controlling the process of your response to the incident. If you can control the process, you have a better likelihood for a good outcome. You never have control over the outcome, so it is imperative to control the process and guide toward a better outcome.

Let’s take a closer look at the process of lockdown and what it entails. In the course of the last 6-7 years we have had the opportunity to train over 17,500 school personnel in 15 different states, which represents over 375 various school districts and universities. This is what we have found out as it relates to lockdown policies: most policies state to close and lock your door, turn the lights off, move to the safe area of the room, and take roll call.

In theory it sounds pretty good but these theories are usually only written for the classroom and reality is you are not in your classroom every minute of every day. So, what about when you are in the hallway during passing period? The gymnasium? The theater? Outside on the playground at recess? Also when you closely examine the classroom, you have to ask yourself how does your classroom door lock? From inside the room or from the outside in the hallway? Do you have to use a key? If I have to use a key, and I am a substitute teacher, do I even get a key? So during an emergency, you are going to have to step into the hallway, take your key, and lock your classroom door, then step inside and start the rest of your process. Not bad, unless the threat happens to be in the hallway near your classroom. This leads us to the next dilemma: what do I do if I can’t lockdown or my lockdown is failing?

 Courtesy COD Newsroom, Flickr Courtesy COD Newsroom, Flickr

Planning for failure

Every lockdown policy should have a plan for failure, and it should be a trained response. There are many reasons to plan for failure. For example, you are in an area that cannot be locked down, you were unable or incapable of locking a door, the intruder is defeating your door or lock, etc. Most current school policies are asking you to do no more than hide from an intruder protected only by a mechanical lock. When we ask principals what their role is during a lockdown, the normal response is they walk through the hallways making sure all of the classrooms are secured. This is very admirable, but this originated during training drills and now the belief has carried over that they should do this during an actual incident. When questioned further about what they carry, we get responses that include: my radio, my cell phone; all good, but what they forget they are carrying is their keys. On that key ring is a master key to every classroom in the school, so if they are the first casualty, the intruder takes his/her keys and now every lockdown has the potential to fail. We also ask custodial staff what their role is during a lockdown. The general answer is a shrugging of their shoulders with the response that no one has ever told them, but again, they carry a master key that could provide access to every room.

We teach a very simple failure plan that is easy to remember. We call it the “3-Out Approach.” This is a system of principles that can be applied at virtually any location, and the more you etch it into your thinking, it will provide you with the best responses in a given situation. The “3-Out Approach” is:

  • “LOCK OUT” – Can I lock this space down and/or barricade it to prevent or delay entry to me? If I cannot lock the space down, then I automatically default to option two of the –“get out.”
  • “GET OUT” – Can I get out or away from the area of the shooter? It may not mean leave the building, but get around a corner in a hallway away from the threat; then re-evaluate if you can get into a space that allows you to lock down. This means be aware of secondary exit points that may be around you. It doesn’t have to be a door but could be a window even if you have to break it out. If my “lock out” and “get out” options are failing, then I am left with the last resort option-“take out.”
  • TAKE OUT” – You have no other option but to fight at this point and try to direct others around you to do the same. I know the question is “what do I fight with?” And the answer is simple: what ever you have available. This could be keys thrown or used to enhance the damage done with a punch, thrown cell phones, books, cups, staplers, hole punchers. Pens and pencils can be used as a stabbing device. What gives the intruders their strength is the fact that they have the gun, but they are also hoping for the easy victim(s) willing to allow them to execute them. We are not going to tell you that you won’t be killed or injured fighting back but what other options do you have? We have a saying: “You may get beat, but get beat doing something!”

Here is a quick example of using the 3-Out approach proactively. You decide to go to a movie theater to watch a movie. As soon as you walk into the theater, you ask yourself the first of your three options: can I lock this space out? You know that is probably not a possibility because of the design of the building. Also, you are a guest and have no keys or other options. So at this point, you are left with two options: “get out” and “take out.” You choose to sit in the top row, center seat to watch the movie and as more people arrive, they fill the row beside you. By choice you have just eliminated your “get out” option. Now you understand that for the next two hours, while watching the movie if anything happens, your response will be to fight. At this point, you do a quick mental checklist on items available to fight with and enjoy the movie. By going through the process to a point of making it a habit, you are much farther ahead of the fight than you would have been.

Once you have gone through the 3-Out options, you will have to prioritize all of your other actions. Let me give you an example, which one is more important: calling 911 or barricading your door? Even if you call 911, this will not prevent the intruder from gaining access to your location. The easiest way to assist you in determining which one has priority is to break them down into two categories: EMERGENCY and ADMINISTRATIVE tasks.

Here are the definitions of both of these:

Emergency (n.): A serious, unexpected, and often dangerous situation requiring immediate action.

Administrative (adj.): relating to the administration of a business, organization, or institution

The immediate actions needed as they relate to an intruder are to prevent access, have a plan for failure (3-Outs), barricading or reinforcing your lockdown, planning a get out option in case of lockdown failure, and preparing to fight.

Once the emergency tasks are completed and you feel confident you and others are safe, then we can look at administrative tasks: things like calling 911, making a list of missing and extra students, turning the lights off, treating wounded personnel.

We have covered a lot of information, and I hope I have made you think about your policy and response plans. We do believe that it is imperative to train and prepare as a “community response”. When these sad incidents happen, it affects the community from top to bottom. The shooter generally comes from the community and is known to people; he attacks a location in the community made up of children, teachers, and others who are from the community. And the immediate responders, police, fire and EMS personnel that respond are also community members. Therefore, the community will be directly impacted, have to respond to it, and recover from it. Unfortunately, it will be a long recovery process, and the truth be known: you never really fully recover.

Mark Warren is the Vice-President of Strategos International and began his 27-year law enforcement career in the U.S. Army Military Police Corps. He has experience as an undercover operative, a tactical team member, and an instructor. He has been involved in the planning, implementation, and execution of hundreds of high-risk arrests, and spent five years with a large multi-agency task force working as an undercover operative and team leader. Mark was the Firearms/Use-of-Force Program Manager for his department. Mr. Warren is currently a retired sergeant from a local agency and was the 2000 Missouri P.O.S.T. Part-time Instructor of the Year.