Preparing for a school shooting: 13 lessons learned during a training exercise

By Topics & Tactics for Law Enforcement

“Shots fired in the school. Several students down. Gunmen are still in the building with hostages.”

Is your agency prepared for a call like that?

Do you have a tested emergency response plan in place to handle a mass emergency like a school shooting? In light of recent news reports of active shooters terrorizing schools across the country—even a one-room Amish schoolhouse in which at least 6 people were killed—it is wise to ensure that you do have such a plan in place.

Beloit (WI) PD wisely anticipated the risk of school shootings several years ago and held an intense mass emergency training exercise at a local middle school. The lessons learned that day are still valid today.

After 5 months of planning, the PD in coordination with numerous local fire departments, EMS teams and hospitals staged an in-school shooting scenario.

The training exercise involved an emotionally disturbed father in the throws of a messy divorce showing up at the school with a friend to retrieve his children. When school officials tried to prevent the father from getting to his kids, he pulled a gun and opened fire, shooting students, teachers and anyone else in his way.

When the father and his accomplice reached the second floor they were confronted by a school resource officer. After shooting him, the father and friend took several students and teachers hostage and barricaded themselves in a second floor classroom.

The challenge to responding agencies: handle it.

While they did, they learned some things that you and your agency can benefit from. The Calibre Press Street Survival Newsline interviewed Beloit PD Det. Doug Anderson, now retired, who at the time played a key role in the planning and execution of this training exercise. He shared some of the discoveries the training yielded and introduced things you and your agency should keep in mind when creating your own crisis response plan.

1. Develop a multi-agency command hierarchy utilizing universally recognized command titles.

Meet with leaders of all the agencies that will respond to the emergency — law enforcement agencies, fire departments, emergency medical response agencies, etc. — and develop a command hierarchy designating the responsibilities to be held by each agency and agency leaders.

“When developing your emergency command structure, remember that agencies often have different terms for the same positions and responsibilities,” said Anderson. “Be sure to use easily understood, universally recognized titles for each position to prevent confusion.”

2. Develop a plan to quickly locate key players at the school and create a process for maintaining contact with them.

When Beloit PD held their training exercise, they learned that in their haste to evacuate the school, they hustled the principal out of the building then failed to maintain contact with her.

“We lost one of the people who had the most knowledge about the school,” said Anderson.

Later, the principal explained that she could have played a vital, time-saving role in helping police locate the room where the gunmen and hostages were by using the school’s P.A. system to check each room in the school from the relative safety of the main office.

After the exercise, the command staff also realized that a school principal can be helpful in calming and controlling the students.

“A principal can be a friendly, familiar face that can help control the students who were evacuated and calm any students who may have been injured,” Anderson said.

“Another key player to quickly locate and utilize is the building janitor or engineer,” he continued. “This person will have intimate knowledge of the building’s layout, entrances and exits, stairwells, back hallways, storage areas, etc. and will likely have immediate access to the building’s power sources, monitoring systems and communications systems.

“He or she will also likely have keys to all the doors and secured areas in the building.”

3. Be sure your communications equipment is sufficient enough to handle a mass emergency.

“A few years ago, Beloit PD got radios that have the ability to have other agency’s frequencies programmed in,” said Anderson. “This allowed one channel to be used solely for SWAT team communication and others to be used for patrol duties at the scene, regular calls for service that came in during the incident and emergency medical communications.

“One communications element that fell short was the state’s mutual aid channel used for this exercise. We discovered that it had inferior range. It’s better to find this out during an exercise than during a real emergency.”

4. Have emotional support professionals available at the scene.

During their exercise, Beloit PD made sure police chaplains and critical incident stress management professionals were available for the emergency responders.

“A mass emergency like a school shooting is emotionally stressful not only for the students, teachers and school staff but for the responding professionals as well,” said Anderson. “We recognized that the emotional health of the officers and other emergency personnel was as important to deal with as their physical well being.”

5. Be sure to involve hospital personnel in your exercise and be sure hospitals are properly equipped.

During their training, Beloit PD surfaced, and subsequently resolved, a unique problem that may arise during an emergency involving injured officers.

“Our training scenario involved an officer being severely injured,” said Anderson. “EMS treated him at the scene, prepared him for transport, then had him flown to a hospital for treatment.

“Before transporting the officer, EMS and police personnel failed to secure his gun. This resulted in personnel at the receiving hospital being responsible for safely securing the weapon.

“We found out later that they were not properly equipped to handle this. They didn’t have an appropriate area to store the weapon and no police supervisor was initially available to take control of the gun.”

After discovering this, Beloit PD bought locked gun security boxes and distributed them to the local hospitals so they could safely store any weapons that might be brought in.

“These boxes can also be used to secure illicit drugs that may be found on patients in other situations,” said Anderson.

6. Plan for adverse weather conditions.

Remember that a mass emergency can occur in any type of weather. Be sure you have the appropriate equipment to handle extreme temperatures and other adverse conditions.

For example, if a mass emergency were to occur during extremely cold weather, are you equipped with sufficient amounts of warm clothing for emergency responders who may be spending hours exposed to the elements?

Do you have a generous supply of blankets available, or know where to get them quickly, for the injured who may be required to spend some time outside waiting for medical transport?

Have you identified nearby buildings that will house those who have been evacuated?

If you are in snow areas, do you have shovels, or know where to get them quickly, should you need to clear potentially snow-clogged entrances for law enforcement access?

Consider all the weather possibilities when creating your plan.

7. Be cognizant of potential air space difficulties.

If your local media have helicopters, be prepared for air space over the scene of the emergency to quickly become crowded as news helicopters arrive. Meet with media leaders ahead of time to outline air space restrictions that must be followed during emergencies to ensure that medical and police air response is not jeopardized.

Also identify appropriate landing locations for medical and police helicopters and be prepared to quickly secure them.

8. Create a plan for traffic control.

In a mass emergency situation, be prepared for an onslaught of traffic tie-ups caused by family members, media and curious onlookers clamoring to get to the scene.

Be prepared to clear both inbound and outbound streets and nearby highway exit and entrance ramps to ensure that emergency vehicles can freely move to and from the scene. Also be prepared to ensure that routes to and from nearby hospitals are cleared.

9. Be prepared to handle belligerent people in the crowd.

“We knew that crowd control was a big issue in mass emergency situations,” Anderson said. “So we arranged to have role players act as distractions in the crowd outside the school. We wanted those who were charged with crowd control to be faced with the challenge of handling the type of upset, often belligerent people who may be at the scene.”

10. Have an alternative emergency command center location available.

During the Beloit training exercise, the emergency command center was set up in the city hall building. During debriefing, coordinators realized that they had not arranged for an alternative command location to use in the event that the city hall building was unavailable.

“It is important to remember that the building you have chosen to house your command center may not be available in the event of a natural disaster that may have damaged the building or in the event that the building is the site of the emergency,” Anderson cautioned.

11. Be sure that fire department and EMS command vehicles are equipped to make quick contact with police.

During debriefing, coordinators realized that had fire and EMS responders arrived at the scene before police personnel, which was a possibility in the Beloit area, they would not have been able to immediately communicate with police supervisors to begin sharing intelligence.

Be sure non-police first responders are able to quickly make direct contact with police supervisors by ensuring they’re equipped with the necessary communications gear to do so.

12. Thoroughly debrief after the training exercise.

“When planning for the scenario, each agency was responsible for listing the goals they hoped to achieve,” said Anderson. “They identified what they wanted to accomplish, how quickly they wanted to accomplish it, what they wanted to avoid.”

When you have completed your exercise, hold thorough debriefing sessions to identify not only successes but shortcomings and unexpected problems that need to be dealt with.

13. Make mass emergency training exercises a consistent part of your training.

“During our exercise, we learned a lot,” said Anderson. “Officers and other emergency responders were placed in unfamiliar positions and given challenges they had not faced before. We were able to identify some shortcomings and make the changes necessary to ensure that our next response — be it during a training exercise or, God forbid, the real thing — would be even stronger.

“The key to a successful response is consistent training. We plan to hold mass emergency training exercises at least twice a year.”

How did the Beloit training scenario end? The friend of the distraught father suddenly decided to abandon his partner and sprinted out of the classroom and into the waiting hands of the SWAT team.

Shortly afterwards, the father shot and killed himself and the hostages were retrieved unharmed.

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