The rise in frequency of active shooter incidents has led agencies outside of law enforcement to develop plans and strategies on how to respond to these events. Emergency managers can facilitate active shooter planning in two key ways: (a) by activating the jurisdiction’s emergency operations center (EOC); and (b) by assisting law enforcement in the mitigation and preparedness phases to manage such threats.
Historically, law enforcement agencies have faced hostage situations with regard to this type of incident. Responding officers would form inner and outer perimeters to isolate the incident, request a tactical team and hostage negotiators, and utilize “time, talk, and tactics,” which is a phrase used in the law enforcement community to describe a strategy for hostage situations. If the parties could not reach a resolution through negotiations, the tactical unit was on hand to resolve the situation.
The Columbine High School active shooter incident that occurred in Colorado on 20 April 1999 was a turning point for law enforcement response tactics. During that incident, the offenders issued no demands and, instead, actively killed victims. After the Columbine shooting, law enforcement officers began immediately entering active shooter situations in small teams. In order to stop the threat, they bypass fleeing survivors and wounded victims as they move toward the active shooter’s location.
The Role of EOCs for Any Incident With the need for rapid response, one resource that law enforcement planners may overlook is the activation of the EOC. Although the incident itself may last less than an hour, the overall event can have a much longer duration and include the coordination of multiple agencies and systems.
This type of situation could quickly become a national media event. Although the activation of the EOC is not necessary to have a Joint Information Center (JIC), the public information officer (PIO) will find it much easier to establish a JIC with the resources that the EOC can offer. Media coverage may extend for days after the incident has ended, which justifies the establishment of a JIC.
The EOC also can serve several important functions with regard to senior staff and elected officials. First, the EOC provides a single location where these staff members and officials can gather, receive information about the incident, and determine how to disseminate the information to the public. Second, it provides them with a location where they can make strategic decisions for the recovery phase. Perhaps most important, the EOC moves these people away from the incident scene.
Emergency support functions of the EOC can help coordinate where to transport wounded victims, thus ensuring that no single trauma center is not overwhelmed. It also can aid in the activation of additional resources if needed. For example, active shooter incidents may result in mass casualties and/or fatalities, where the bodies become part of the criminal investigation. The EOC can assist in the activation of a temporary morgue using an established mass fatality strategy to ensure that the decedent remains are handled in a respectful manner, and secured according to evidentiary requirements.
During the recovery phase, while witnesses are being interviewed, relatives and friends of persons involved in the incident may arrive and need a place to wait for information about the location and condition of survivors as well as decedents. Through their emergency operations plans, EOCs have access to community resources to assist with reunification locations and coordination of counselors and mental health professionals. Two resources that the incident command’s logistics chief can call for support are the Red Cross and Salvation Army, which can provide food and drink for first responders at the crime scene.
Preincident Planning Beyond the EOC, emergency managers can assist during the mitigation stage of an active shooter incident by providing research material to planners who may be involved in the building of schools, offices, and businesses. This material can provide insights into strengthening the security of these structures. Sometimes emergency managers can even help secure grant funding to pay for all or part of the suggested building modifications.
The preparedness phase is another area where emergency managers can assist with planning for active shooter incidents. First, the emergency manager can help design exercises: (a) discussion-based exercises such as tabletop exercises that involve law enforcement, fire, emergency medical services, hospitals, and the EOC; or operations-based exercises such as drills and full-scale exercises. Second, emergency managers can assist local agencies in securing grant funding to acquire equipment that could be useful in active shooter cases.
Activation of EOCs and the roles that emergency managers play can assist large law enforcement agencies, but their effect is multiplied for law enforcement agencies in smaller jurisdictions where resources may be less plentiful. By activating the EOC for an active shooter incident, the responding law enforcement agency can access resources that support many functions in all phases of planning, response, and recovery.
Dave Points is a retired lieutenant with the Omaha Police Department, where he has won awards for the development of tactical teams and contingency planning. He has served as the homeland security training specialist with the Tri-County Urban Area Security Initiative in Nebraska. He serves as a part time emergency manager for the Nebraska Humane Society. He is currently an assistant professor and the director of the Emergency Management Program at Bellevue University.