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How 5 active shooter incidents have changed police training

Tragically, since Columbine, there have been many active shooter case studies from which lessons can be learned

The violence at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999 was the watershed event which led to the creation of our current day active shooter response programs. But several high profile shootings in recent years also deserve close review. Through careful and analytical dissection of each incident, training programs and future response protocols are being be developed, tested, and prepared.

Although there are many variations of first responder/active shooter training, the most successful and comprehensive programs include much of the same curriculum: a history of active shooter events, small team movement, room-clearing techniques, rescue team tactics, and actual scenario-based exercises to name a few. However, as with any training curriculum, professional first responder/active shooter instructors should constantly reevaluate their courses of instruction. Tactics as well as response theory should be examined using the most recent violent events as a guide for preparing for future critical incidents.

Tragically, since Columbine, there have been many active shooter case studies from which lessons can be learned.

Breaching Capabilities
On the morning of October 2, 2006, at the West Nickel Mines Amish School in Bart Township, Pennsylvania, a male suspect assaulted the one-room school taking the teachers and students hostage. After releasing the male children and several adults, the suspect barricaded the door to the school with lumber he had brought to the scene and began tying up the remaining female children. Approximately 25 minutes after the first officer arrived on scene, the suspect started shooting the hostages and then committed suicide. The first responding officers had to forcefully breach their way into the school to get to the wounded hostages and confirm the suspect was deceased.

The Virginia Tech shootings on April 16, 2007, reinterated the critical need for first responders to hone their forced breaching capabilities. Before beginning his shooting spree in Norris Hall, the suspect used padlocks and chains to lock and barricade the three main doors into the university building. He also placed a note on one of the doors indicating that there was a bomb on the door as well, and any attempt to open the door would create an explosion.

Many of the first responders to Norris Hall were actual SWAT Team members from the Blacksburg Police Department and the Virginia Tech Police Department. Both teams had been activated by forward-thinking police administrators only hours earlier in response to the shooting of two unrelated victims in a dormitory. These SWAT team members had advanced training in breaching, and knew how to use a shotgun to breach a door to gain successful entry into Norris Hall. It is believed the suspect committed suicide upon hearing the responding officers “shotgun breach” the door to gain entry.

The use of rams, Halligan tools, shotguns and other breaching tools for forced entry into structures is a staple for almost every law enforcement tactical team. However, events such as the Virginia Tech and the Nickel Mines School shootings illustrate the need for all first responders to have some type of forced entry breaching capability. Low-cost breaching tools such as pry bars, window punches, sledge hammers, bolt cutters, and even specially constructed battering rams should be considered routine equipment in patrol vehicles.

One exigent breaching tool which is often overlooked is the standard-issued police shotgun. Unfortunately, with the prevalence of patrol rifles being deployed in the field, many officers and agencies have stopped carrying the shotgun in patrol vehicles. Historically used by military special operations units, the shotgun is a very effective breaching tool that is gaining popularity in civilian law enforcement. As demonstrated at Virginia Tech, this weapon, when properly used by trained personnel, can be an extremely effective breaching tool.

Trained Terrorists Striking Multiple Targets
The terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India on November 26, 2008, demonstrated the tactical nightmare that a group of trained and committed terrorists can bring to any community in the world. A small cell of ten Islamic terrorists from Pakistan trained and planned for up to a year to pull off simultaneous coordinated attacks throughout the city of Mumbai. This cell struck under cover of darkness and attacked highly-populated areas including train stations, a café, a hospital, and hotels with small-arms fire, hand grenades and explosives. After three days of battling local and military forces, all but one of the ten suspects was killed, and 166 victims were dead.

An attack of this magnitude would test even the most highly trained, elite military units of the United States, much less local law enforcement. Coordinated attacks by trained and determined terrorists on multiple targets within a single community or city within the United States would most likely be catastrophic. Historically, American law enforcement has never trained to a standard to have the capability to effectively respond to this type of attack. A single active shooter has typically overwhelmed the capabilities of local agencies. It is difficult to imagine an event of this magnitude in one of our communities, however this is a clear and present danger which should be cause for concern within American law enforcement.

Ft. Hood - Open Area Engagements
Another recent high-profile active shooter event occurred on November 5, 2009, at Ft. Hood, Texas when an active duty United States Army Officer opened fire at a Solider Readiness Processing Center, killing 13 people and wounding 30, including one police officer. First responding officers encountered the suspect when he exited the building in pursuit of victims who were fleeing the gunfire. Ft. Hood Police Sergeant Kimberly Munley engaged the suspect first, and was shot and wounded. Sgt. Mark Todd then shot and wounded the suspect bringing the shooting to an end.

Although the shootings at Ft. Hood started inside a building, the first responding officers actually engaged the shooter outdoors. Small team tactics traditionally taught in active shooter courses typically include interior team movements, linear assault strategies, and room entries. These tactics are generally sound and required for engaging a shooter inside a structure. But when applied in an outdoor environment the same tactics can be unsound and ineffective.

Medical Training for First Responders
The theater shootings in Aurora, Colorado on July 30, 2012 provided another tragic example of the need for law enforcement officers to have medical training for active shooter events. First responding law enforcement officers have become very proficient at getting in the door and stopping the killing in active shooter events. However, our profession still needs to work on stopping the dying. In mass casualty events, EMS and other medical first responders will be overwhelmed very quickly. Historically, police officers have been reluctant to engage in medical treatment and deferred all medical issues to EMS and fire personnel. Today, law enforcement officers must be trained to step up and assist with immediate life-saving aid prior to the arrival of EMS and other medically trained personnel.

New medical training programs for law enforcement officers founded on the principals of the military’s Tactical Combat Casualty Care (TCCC) training are being established and delivered across the country to help officers save themselves, their partners, and innocent civilians. Taking lessons learned from combat operations overseas, this training is providing police officers with the life-saving skills that are critically needed in active shooter and mass casualty events. Along with the actual hands-on training in hemorrhage control, airway management and other skills, this training also addresses triage and preparing victims for movement from the crisis site to the hands of trained medical personnel.

Lessons Learned
Active shooter training, as with any training program, should be constantly evaluated and updated to address lessons learned from recent events. While additions and changes to existing curriculum can often be implemented without changing the core course content, significant new skill sets may require their own programs of instruction. Specific skills such as breaching, open area assaults, and medical training can be taught as stand-alone skills, with instruction separate and apart from active shooter courses. However, it is also critical that these skill sets be incorporated into first responder and active shooter training courses as well. Only by merging these varied skills into one tactical response capability will we be able to quickly and efficiently respond to the next active shooter incident.

Is Your Agency Ready For An Active Shooter?
The Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) Center at Texas State University-San Marcos stands at the national forefront of active shooter response by providing first responding police officers from across the country with the skills to stop the violence committed by homicidal/suicidal subjects, such as active shooters in schools, and domestic and foreign terrorists. The ALERRT course catalog includes: 2-day Level I Active Shooter Response; 2-day Level II Active Shooter (medical); 5-day Active Shooter Train-the-Trainer; First Responder-Breaching; First Responder-Operations in Rural Terrain (FORT); Plain Clothes Response to Violent Encounters (PCRVE) and Low Light/Close Quarter Techniques.

Limited funding for this training has been made available through the Bureau of Justice Assistance and the Texas Governor’s Office- Criminal Justice Division. These classes are awarded to agencies who are on the ALERRT request list as funds become available. ALERRT is also certified through the Department of Homeland Security.

Many states and agencies also use their Department of Homeland Security funding or other state funds to bring this training to their regions. For program information, availability and costs, visit or contact Diana Hendricks, Director of Communications, at 512-245-1744 or

About the author
Terry Nichols is a retired Commander from the San Marcos, Texas Police Department where he was the Commander of the multi-agency Hays County SWAT Team. He currently serves as the Assistant Director for the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) Center at Texas State University-San Marcos. He can be reached at or 512-245-1471.

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