On April 20, 1999, in the quiet suburban town of Littleton, Colorado two high school seniors set off to school that morning with one goal in mind, to kill. When the day was done, twelve students, one teacher, and the two murderers were dead. That day will forever be etched in the history books as ‘The Columbine Massacre’ and has changed the way local Law Enforcement Agencies deal with such a tragic situation. Active shooter incidents are becoming more frequent, and are escalating in severity. Schools, malls, and churches have been targeted and predicting the location of a future incident is almost impossible. Since the Columbine tragedy, police agencies have developed new techniques and strategies to respond to active shooters. Law enforcement agencies are often restricted by inadequate equipment, personnel budgets, and limited intelligence prior to an incident. With the proper tools, effective policies, training, and strong leadership, an agency will be more prepared to handle a potential active shooter. The purpose of this paper will be two-fold: to illustrate effective strategies in minimizing the risk of dealing with an active shooter situation utilizing the five phases of Emergency Management and the vital role a Geographical Information System (GIS) can play.
Introduction: Identification and Planning
The first phase of any effective Emergency Management plan is the Identification and Planning phase. Wikipedia defines an active shooter as “an armed person who has used deadly physical force on other persons and continues to do so while having unrestricted access to additional victims.” During an active shooter situation it is assumed that not every police agency will respond in the same way. It is imperative that agencies have clearly defined, strict policies that every member of that department will adhere to in the event of such a scenario. Agency tactics of involving quality leadership, training, and technology are applicable to all departments, but will need to be modified to meet specific department needs.
I work for a local law enforcement agency which has developed clear and effective policies to follow in the event of an active shooter at one of our numerous elementary and secondary educational buildings. Additionally, all of the officers within my agency are given annual training in active shooter scenarios. This training is comprised of seminars, lectures and more importantly hands on activities. The ability to actually go into the schools and familiarize ourselves with the floor plans and practice our formations and communication is vital.
Strong leadership tactics in conjunction with the Incident Command System, along with proper training and clearly defined agency policies are essential components of the Identification and Planning stage. The intent of a policy is to state how an agency meets goals and accomplishes its mission while providing consistency throughout (Carpenter, 2000). With each active shooter incident it becomes more apparent that officers must be trained properly (and frequently refreshed), have a working knowledge of the incident command system, and must practice effective and competent on-scene leadership. Schaefer (2008) states that effective police leadership is ‘a crucial determinate of police organizational efficiencyâ€¦every officer is a leader’ (p. 13). With the development of new technology in the future along with additional training resources, an agency will be more prepared to handle a potential active shooter.
Prevention and Mitigation
The second and third phases of an Emergency Management plan are referred to as the Prevention and Mitigation phases which are very similar. The most important means for dealing with active shooters is prevention. Campus officials, as well as their colleagues serving K-12 schools, play an essential role in identifying potential shooters before they act. For prevention to be effective, however, these officials must overcome traditional obstacles such as denial, anxiety about negative effect on enrollment, apprehension over stereotyping or profiling, and concern about parental reaction. Faculty, staff, counselors, and local police and security personnel are in the best position to identify and react to warning signs such as ambiguous messages in papers and student projects, direct threats, rumors about guns and other weapons in school, victimization by social groups or individuals, change in emotion or interests, isolation, repeated engagement in minor offenses or violations, and lack of family connection and support.
In facilitating prevention and mitigation, school officials must establish a relationship with faculty and students based on trust and shared objectives. A trust-based relationship becomes the catalyst for the most effective prevention measures, and is the foundation of prevention and interdiction. Steps to cultivating and maintaining trust are as follows:
Build an environment in which students know where to go and whom to trust to share information about rumors, suspicions, and deviant behavior.
Reinforce a “no weapons” policy and, when violated, enforce it quickly, to include expulsion. Parents should be made aware of the policy. Officials should dispel the politically driven notion that armed students could eliminate an active shooter.
Educate and work closely with members of the faculty to improve their skills in dealing with disgruntled students.
Improve the quality of school officials’ interview skills to increase depth of inquiry.
Consider public address (PA) systems in classrooms and exterior locations.
Focus on school administrators and monitors.
Recognize the need to continuously maintain and cultivate critical relationships and communications strategies due to turnover among officials, faculty, students, and law enforcement.
Building trust requires more than simple information sharing. Repeated sessions with students, high visibility by key administrators, faculty involvement, student relationship with police and security personnel, and the involvement of special interest groups are paramount to building trust.
Mitigation is the action a school can take to eliminate or reduce the loss of life and property damage related to an event or crisis, particularly those that cannot be prevented. Mitigation strategy development identifies effective methods for avoiding or reducing loss exposure to acceptable levels and accurately defines the costs associated with those measures. This process yields a range of options and costs for consideration by the leadership of an organization. The following list illustrates a small sample of mitigation strategies to consider when dealing with an active shooter scenario in a school:
Access control and identification systems
Closed circuit TV systems
Security officer operations
Security incident detection, reporting, and analysis
Standards based security policies and procedures
Security communication and command center
Visitor and contractor controls
Incident simulation and evacuation exercises (Drills)
Coordination of planning with public emergency response agencies
Weapons and contraband detection systems
Emergency notification systems
All of the items listed above can assist officials in conducting vulnerability assessments of the buildings and grounds which is an essential component of the Mitigation phase. Another essential component includes assessing the culture and climate of a school. For example, high rates of alcohol or other drug use can bring a host of problems to a school and increase the likelihood of violence. Effectively dealing with those issues would help prevent an active shooter scenario from taking place.
The Preparedness phase designs strategies, processes, and protocols to prepare the
school for potential emergencies. Preparedness activities may include:
Establishing an incident command system for organizing personnel and services to
respond in the event of an emergency.
Developing all-hazard policies, procedures, and protocols with input from such
key community partners as law enforcement, medical services, public health and fire
Assigning personnel to manage each ICS function and defining lines of
succession in an emergency plan as to who is in charge when key leaders are
Developing plans to unify students, staff, and faculty with their families.
Defining protocols and procedures for each type of response strategy (lockdown or evacuation)
Establishing an emergency notification system using multiple modes of
communication to alert persons in the school that an emergency has occurred.
Working with school and community mental health professionals to establish a
behavioral threat assessment process that involves mental health professionals for
evaluating persons who are at-risk of causing harm to themselves or others.
The Response phase can be defined simply as taking action to effectively contain and resolve an emergency, in this case the active shooter. The main goal for the first arriving officers is to locate and stop the threat. Commonly referred to as the ‘active shooter protocol’ officers are not only trained but expected to enter a building and stop any threat no matter the circumstance (Cullen, 2009). These officers will have to move past the dead or wounded victims who will be pleading for help in order to satisfy that goal. Effective response requires informed decision-making and identification of clear lines of decision authority. Some selected response activities to an active shooter scene would include the following:
Neutralizing the threat
Activating Local and County Emergency Response Teams
Setting up a Command Post
Establishing a landing zone for the seriously injured
Staging areas for evacuating students and arriving parents
Effective crowd and traffic control plans
The Recovery phase establishes procedures, resources, and policies to assist a
school and its members’ return to functioning after an emergency. Recovery is
an ongoing process and is critical for capturing key lessons learned and recommendations for improvements. This phase will help you identify what worked and what could have been improved within Emergency Management plans and responses. The type of recovery activities will vary based on the nature and scope of the emergency. However, the primary goal of the recovery phase in a school shooting is to restore the learning environment. Planning for recovery begins in the Preparedness phase and requires support from school officials to ensure that decisions contribute to implementation and resolution of all four components of recovery. Recovery in a school shooting will always include the following:
Psychological and Emotional Recovery
Restoration of the Academic-learning Environment
Physical and Structural Recovery
The Role of GIS
The following was taken from the website www.gis.com in an effort to better understand the functions of a GIS. “GIS allows us to view, understand, question, interpret, and visualize data in many ways that reveal relationships, patterns, and trends in the form of maps, globes, reports, and charts. A GIS helps you answer questions and solve problems by looking at your data in a way that is quickly understood and easily shared. GIS technology can be integrated into any enterprise information system framework.”
Earlier in this paper, I alluded to the importance technological advancements will play during an active shooter incident in the future. There is more to disaster management than the first, adrenaline-filled, on-scene response to it (Greene, 2002, p. xi). A Geographical Information System is a prime example of technology at work. It allows us to now combine conventional maps with computer graphics and databases to create Geographical Information Systems (GIS). GIS is used to display and analyze spatial data which are tied to databases. This connection is what gives GIS its power: maps can be drawn from the database and data can be referenced from the maps. When a database is updated, the associated map can be updated as well. GIS databases include a wide variety of information including: geographic, social, political, environmental, and demographic.
My employer, the South Brunswick Police Department currently utilizes ThinkGIS developed by WTH. This software produces a map of South Brunswick displayed to all Officers and Telecommunicators via laptop or desktop. ThinkGIS provides officers with pinpoint mapping, address location, aerial photography and site specific information. Dispatched calls are immediately mapped for officers through the interface. The 9-1-1 interface also immediately maps 9-1-1 calls for officers and public safety telecommunicators. ThinkGIS has several different layer options which can all appear on the map with the touch of a button. These ‘layers’ include: Districts, Highways, County Roads, Counties, Bodies of water, Railroads, Fire Hydrants, etc. Recently, our Department was able to link every township schools floor plan to this software. Every officer now has the ability to see exactly where every entrance, stairwell and classroom is located within each building before they arrive on scene. This is just the beginning; future enhancements to this software which would be beneficial during an active shooter incident can include the following:
An overlay that could show the heating and duct work at a location.
An overlay displaying the number of students in each classroom.
An overlay displaying security camera or pull station locations.
Outside elevations that could be beneficial in providing cover for evacuees.
An overlay displaying where landing zones or staging areas could be set up.
Unfortunately school shootings are becoming an all too familiar reality. It is virtually impossible to determine when or where the next one will take place but one thing is certain; there will be another one at some point in time. Law Enforcement personnel are expected to take an immediate tactical response when responding to an active shooter. What happens during these first critical moments could be the difference between life and death. With strong leadership, proper training, and technological advancements; officers will be better equipped to handle such stressful situations and have a greater chance of a successful outcome.
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