Lessons learned from 7 years of active shooter response training

LEOs must develop fundamental knowledge and skills in tactical operations to credibly address horrific active shooter incidents


By Major Rich Kuong and Colonel Richard L. Herrington

Of all the duties LEOs can be called upon to perform, the most dangerous is the call that requires officers to run toward gunfire while others run away. However restricted training budgets and budget allocations often result in LEOs responding without the optimal knowledge, skill sets and tools to succeed.

The worst-case scenario is an active shooter incident carried out by a terrorist cell. This will be a game-changer in America, as our current tactics, equipment and mindset are focused on a lone officer entry against a lone gunman. Limited training funds force law enforcement to focus on this most probable scenario, but a well-armed, trained and motivated “unto death” group of terrorists would constitute high-intensity conflict (HIC). Law enforcement is neither trained nor equipped for HIC. LEOs must develop fundamental knowledge and skills in tactical operations to credibly address horrific active shooter or HIC tactical incidents.

Restricted training budgets and budget allocations often result in LEOs responding without the optimal knowledge, skill sets and tools to succeed.
Restricted training budgets and budget allocations often result in LEOs responding without the optimal knowledge, skill sets and tools to succeed.

For over seven years, Kilo 1 Applications Group, LLC and associates, conceived, developed and administered FAST (Full Active Shooter Training/Counter-Terrorism Course) for a target audience of non-SWAT LEOs, municipal through federal agents. We would like to share some of the lessons identified over seven years of FAST/Counter-Terrorism courses. These lessons are intended to provoke tactical thought and debate. We encourage you to read with an open, inquisitive mind.

FAST Course lessons learned

Mental preparation: During a gunfight is too little, too late. Therefore, perhaps on a midnight shift, sit in a school or mall parking lot and mentally wargame scenarios regarding how you would tactically approach the school or mall and breach, alone, with a partner or a strike team of about four LEOs. Because of this thought preparation, your reaction time and OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act – how the human brain works) would be compressed during a real callout. Operate inside the bad guy's OODA loop and make them reactive to you.

Read: Why mental rehearsal is crucial to officer survival

Warrior mindset: Develop this aggressive fighting spirit to survive a gunfight. In USMC, words like “retreat” don’t exist. You “pull back” or “fight in another direction.”

Reps are key: In life or death scenarios, we operate from our mid-brain, which is limited. Instinctual reps will take over. Generally, it takes 2,000-3,000 reps to achieve “muscle memory.”

Rule of 5s: Fighter pilots achieve “ace” status after five successful dogfights. Parachutists receive their wings after five successful jumps. Experts believe that if five successful reps are attained, one has a 95% chance of success if one encounters an adversary of comparable skill but lacks five successful reps. Consequently, the FAST course maximized simulated reps.

Active shooter kit: Every LEO should pre-pack an active shooter go bag or kit to don within 30 seconds. Minimally pack ammo, water, two tourniquets, blood clotting agent, compress, chest seal and range safety glasses – with retaining strap and anti-fog treated lens.

Read: 6 tips for effective tourniquet training

Safety glasses: See above. You never go to the range without safety glasses, a gunfight is no different. A small splinter from a wood frame could render you ineffective.

Additional equipment: Be creative, but you must be able to don your active shooter kit within 30 seconds and carry it.

Pistols vs. long rifles: Stand-off range is critical! A four-officer quad team armed with pistols is still a mismatch against a lone gunman with a long rifle at the end of a 100–200-yard hallway.

Physiological and psychological effects on performance: As your fear, heart rate and respiration increase, your fine motor skills, sight, hearing, memory, cognitive thinking, bodily functions and performance (especially when sleep-deprived) deteriorate.

Approximating physiological and psychological stressors/stress training: Generally, LEO effort and attitude were superb during FAST training. They endured 12-hour training days featuring working lunches. It was hot and sweaty during summer and frigid during winter. This was part of the mental immersion training. When conducting force-on-force, LEOs wore earplugs (auditory exclusion), tac gloves (loss of fine motor skills), and Airsoft helmets (tunnel vision). In addition to some Oscar-worthy acting by LEOs playing bad guys and victims, lights were selectively turned off, and loud sound effects, screams and tactical noises were played on a sound system, or all sound was shut off. Finally, LEOs were at times required to engage each other from a distance of 3- 7 yards, while on full automatic fire, in total darkness while room-clearing, 

Combating physiological and psychological stressors: Here are five key tools to combat stressors: 1) Knowledge is power; 2) Training reps; 3) Confidence; 4) Stress inoculation (force-on-force reps); 5) Tactical breathing – manual override to relax your heartbeat and respiration back to normal, acceptable levels

Watch: Improving police decision-making under stress

Training artificialities: It is important to acknowledge training artificialities. Good guys lost the surprise factor because the bad guys (LEOs playing bad guys) knew they were coming in each scenario; a lack of civilian role players; and fear management and the “fog of battle” was significantly reduced as the scenarios were training. The course featured airsoft, not real steel, so the fear factor was not as intense as a real event.

Bad habits from Simunitions, UTM or Airsoft: Sims and UTM are expensive. Many courses limit rounds fired. Airsoft allowed many rounds to be fired but combat reloads were not conducted. Further, LEOs routinely hid behind ½ inch plywood barriers knowing that airsoft, Sims and UTM couldn't penetrate. Therefore, they developed bad reps by camping out behind modern-day construction that will not stop rounds.

Zero defects mentality and ego: We all know at least one Type A, tactical know-it-all. They waste precious training time and rationalize that their method is best and possesses no cons. In fact, there is no perfect tactic. Every tactic, technique, or methodology has a pro and a con. In the FAST course, participants were told they WOULD make mistakes (a FAST disclaimer). If perfect, why train? No one knew everything, including the instructor (another FAST disclaimer). During the FAST course, the pressure was off to be perfect. The environment facilitated LEOs to be humble, quiet professionals who learned from each other’s mistakes.

Plus 1 rule: If the intel says one gunman, assume there’s two and so on until secured.

Size does matter: In a gunfight, size matters. The bigger the weapon, the greater the advantage.

Will to win: “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the fight in the dog.” Being an LEO is honorable. Winning a gunfight doesn’t have to be. Protecting the public and going home safely is the goal. Cheat to win.

Read: A 10-step survival checklist for LEOs

Boots-to-bad guy ratio: Strive to outnumber bad guys. Avoid one-to-one gunfights. This is not supposed to be a fair fight!

Boots-to-room ratio: This will be bad. Clearing a high school, office or mall is physically and mentally exhausting.

3 elements of the room-clearing triangle: Consider speed, surprise and violence of action. Without some measure of surprise, no matter how fast or violent, you will probably incur casualties.

Read: Understanding suspect movement patterns while clearing a building

Cover versus concealment: Cover is behind your engine block (small arms), concealment is behind your cruiser door. Anything larger than small arms, your cruiser becomes temporary concealment.

Read: Cover and time: Limitations and hazards

Closing thoughts

Unarguably, a police tactical team is optimal for a tactical or active shooter incident. But it’s simply not feasible to stage a SWAT team in every school, office building and shopping mall in America 24/7. The burden of immediate response falls upon the patrol officer. These LEOs must receive effective tactical training to face emerging criminal or terrorist activity so that when de-escalation fails, they are properly prepared to fight and survive.

NEXT: How to buy firearms training equipment


About the authors

​Major Rich Kuong, USMCR (ret), possesses over 30 years of experience in private and corporate security, US Marine Corps, first responder training, line and command post planning/operations, crisis response, emergency management, corporate management and law enforcement. He has developed and administered cutting-edge active shooter and counter-terrorism tactical training for first responders, military and private security personnel. Major Kuong has also consulted or provided training for municipal and city government, corporations, hospitals and educational institutions. Since 2004, he has regularly collaborated with, co-authored reports and worked on several projects with Colonel Rick "Skinny" Herrington, USMC (ret). Maj Kuong holds an MBA from Pennsylvania State University and is the principal of Kilo 1 Applications Group, LLC. Contact him at rkuong@k1ag.com.

Colonel Richard L. Herrington, USMCR (ret) served in the United States Marine Corps for 30 years. He enlisted and rose to the rank of corporal before being commissioned. Much of his military career was in aviation, flying helicopters, attack jets and fighter aircraft in support of Marines and specialized units. He commanded a Marine Corps fighter squadron, a Marine Corps Aircraft Group and was an outspoken advocate of the application of controlled violence in support of national security. Richard spent two tours of duty in the Pentagon as an aviation training specialist, operational planner, command and control specialist and acquisition professional. After retiring from the Marine Corps as a colonel, Richard worked as a commercial airline pilot flying B-737 aircraft and as the vice president for a large credit union. He subsequently became an operations manager for a Fortune 500 company where Richard’s extensive risk mitigation knowledge was used to ensure the safety of employees he took to extreme risk locations; he was responsible and accountable for risk mitigation actions while providing on-site specialized support to forward-deployed U.S. military forces.

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