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Active shooter scenario: How cops can gain entry during a lockdown

Responding officers need to know ahead of time the specifics about lockdown, such as access control systems and barricading procedures

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An active shooter incident can be indoors, outdoors or a combination of those settings - they are location neutral.


By Brian Ruck and Heather R. Cotter

Active shooter events have no jurisdictional boundaries. They are location neutral. An event can be indoors, outdoors or a combination of those settings. When an active shooter event occurs indoors and the facility is locked-down, whether it’s the act of the assailant as seen at Virginia Tech or the act of the facility personnel, police officers and first responders may have difficulty gaining entry.

During the recent and tragic hostage incident at the James T. Vaughn Correction Center, the police had to use a backhoe to breach a building on the prison grounds. Last year during the Orlando Pulse attack, there were multiple attempts to gain entry. First, an explosive breach attempt was made, but did not succeed, so the responding officers changed their strategy and used an armored vehicle to gain entry. This second attempt was successful. In 2015, police officers had to gain entry during an active shooter event at a Planned Parenthood. Ultimately, SWAT had to use an armored vehicle to gain entry and stop the shooting. Each of these facilities had different levels of security and the ability for responding officers to gain access to stop the killing while keeping innocents safe takes a significant amount of tactical strategy.

Gaining entry during lockdown

Whether responding officers are well-informed about the emergency response plan the facility is implementing during an active shooter event or not, they will have to be equipped to gain entry during lockdown. When an architect designs a facility, escape plans are considered from a fire perspective, and little consideration is given to facility lockdown. Windows may or may not open. Doors may have access control systems. The scenarios are endless because every facility is built, designed, secured and occupied differently.

3 ingress challenges for active shooter response

Here are three ingress challenges or scenarios responding officers will face when gaining entry to an active shooter inside a locked, secured or barricaded government or commercial facility.

Scenario 1: Facility with access control systems

Gaining entry into a facility with access control is a very real possibility in the National Capital Region or any locality with a large number of government facilities. This scenario requires coordination and preplanning between all involved stakeholders to include facility management, security, police and fire and rescue personnel.

Ideally, each facility should have a locked box in a public access area with master proxy cards and keys. This box should be locked with a cypher or keypad style system and the combination needs to be available to first responders as they arrive at the scene.

Depending on agency resources and computer aided dispatch availability, when units are dispatched to the affected site either the other or dispatcher should be notified via a message of the access box and combination. This system, unlike policies requiring officers to meet with security units or go to a security office to retrieve keys, will save time and ensure any officer responding will have access quickly.

Another consideration, especially in the National Capital Region, is how our agencies will deal with sensitive compartmented information facilities, also known as SCIFs. There are federal guidelines for SCIFs depending on the type of classified information that is maintained within it, in other words, SCIF security measure vary across the board. Fairfax County Police Department has discussed multiple options to assist first responders with gaining access to include the lock box mentioned above.

For SCIFs in your jurisdiction another option, depending on the security infrastructure, is to work with agencies in your jurisdiction to develop the ability to unlock all secured doors from a central location. The drawback to this is it will only work on doors secured with electronic locks.

Keep in mind, access controlled buildings are not simply limited to government facilities. If you have a hospital in your area of operation, you will encounter some level of access control. There are also a growing number of private businesses employing security control systems. The mandate for first responders is to identify and coordinate response with all involved stakeholders.

Scenario 2: Assailant locked or chained doors

Soon after the Virginia Tech shooting police departments nationwide started seriously considering how to gain entry during an active shooter incident when the suspect has locked or chained the doors to prevent access. As a result of the Virginia Tech shooting, Fairfax County Police Department researched and purchased patrol breach packs for each station.

Our patrol breach packs give officers the ability to breach most residential and commercial grade doors as well as chains and cables. Ideally, supervisors carry these packs during their shift to ensure availability on the street.

The second part of this is obviously training. Fairfax County Police Department trains all recruits how to use the breach pack during a 40-hour Patrol Ready class at the end of the academy. This additional training, in conjunction with our active shooter program, aims to give officers of all skill levels the ability to work through an obstacle and gain entry.

Scenario 3: Barricaded entry

Pennsylvania State Troopers at the West Nickel Mines School shooting experienced this nightmare scenario in October 2006. The hard truth is, once a suspect has been given ample time to barricade himself and victims into a location, rescue efforts become exponentially harder. Officers need to have the training and mindset to make rapid decisions during this type of scenario. They need to start asking themselves questions immediately.

  • How can I gain access to this location?
  • What are alternate entry points?
  • Can I engage the threat from exterior windows if available?
  • Can vehicles be used create an alternate entry point?

This scenario can be avoided if responding officers, supervisors and commanders understand the threat, deploy the appropriate level of force in a timely manner and exercise moral courage when making these decisions.

Emergency response plan awareness

It is becoming increasingly important for law enforcement to have a comprehensive understanding and quick access to security protocols and emergency response plans at commercial and government facilities within their jurisdiction. Having information about the procedures an organization will take during an active shooter event will help inform SWAT, responding officers and other first responders about the actions the innocents are taking to stay safe. If your police department does not know what emergency response plans the local retailer, restaurant, hotel, movie theater, place of worship or school has in place, then it’s time to start asking and documenting so officers can be prepared to respond when that call for service is received and dispatched.

By understanding commercial and government emergency response plans to an active shooter event and by giving telecommunicators, SWAT and others within your department access to this information, responding officers will have a sense of what to expect when they arrive on scene. Of course, all of this is assuming that the emergency response plan is being applied during the event. The bottom line though, is the responding officers will know ahead of time the specifics about lockdown, such as access control systems and barricading procedures.

About the Author
Lieutenant Brian Ruck has served with the Fairfax County (Virginia) Police Department for 18 years. This includes fourteen years of experience as a SWAT operator, firearms instructor and tactics trainer. Lieutenant Ruck has been the lead trainer for the department’s active shooter programs since 2005 to include the nationally recognized Paramilitary Attack Counter Offensive Plan (PACOP) model. He was also responsible for coordinating the joint police / fire Rescue Task Force response training in 2015. He is currently the Police Liaison Commander to the county Department of Public Safety Communications center. Lieutenant Ruck also
operates a consulting company specializing in workplace violence awareness.
Heather R. Cotter has been working with public safety professionals for 20 years and understands the resource challenges and constraints agencies face. Heather is a Captain in the United States Army Reserve and holds two master’s degrees from Arizona State University and a bachelor’s degree from Indiana University. Contact her at