How massacres are refining training techniques

Each unique tragedy contains lessons that can improve response to the next one

Rarely are there definitive revelations that arise when examining what went right or wrong in the aftermath of a tragedy. Infrequently is there an “a-ha!” moment about some foolproof trick we had somehow missed before. But each shooting and each attack provides minute details into how officers responded and how gunmen acted, and every small factor can bring us one step closer to a safer response. Because there will be a next time.

In December 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Criminal Investigation Division’s San Francisco office gathered to discuss use of force issues and training techniques.

National Use of Force Coordinator and Special Agent Martin Schwartz stood before his colleagues with the state attorney’s report from the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, and discussed what training tools EPA personnel could take away from the incidents.

“The school officials and police at Sandy Hook had trained for this,” Schwartz said. “Their training is the reason that there were as many survivors as there were.”

Get Medical Combat Training
Schwartz stressed how important consistent active shooter drills are and how crucial it is that medical combat training is a part of that.

“Traditionally, responding law enforcement was concerned about the tactical situation and accomplishing the mission, whether it was active shooter, warrant service, or whatever. We’ve learned a lot from the military and more specifically the immediate combat casualty care the military has employed in areas like Iraq and Afghanistan.”

There are times officers need to administer aid on themselves even when the active shooter is a threat, and times that ending the threat is the main priority and self-aid has no choice but to wait.

“Remember we’re not training EMTs or even first aid instructors. We’re training police officers to take care of themselves, their partner, etc. Part of this training is recommending [first aid] equipment to carry.”

First aid packs and tourniquets have gained popularity with departments and officers drastically following some of the most recent domestic attacks. First responders credited tourniquets with saving lives at the Boston Marathon finish line after two bombs exploded, killing three and wounding hundreds more.

Treat Emotional Wounds
Not one of officers who entered Sandy Hook Elementary fired a shot after they entered. The gunman had taken his own life before they entered the building.

When it came out that one Newtown officer’s job was in danger because he still hadn’t returned to work, having suffered from PTSD, the reaction from the police community was divided. Some sympathized, while others argued, “He shouldn’t be a cop if he can’t handle it.”

Treatments for PTSD and similar psychological disorders are both abundant and varying, from counselors to therapy dogs and horses.

Prepare for Sensory Overload
One of the biggest challenges for a responding officer in an active-shooter scenario is to fully understand the threat on a large scale when it’s real and happening in the moment. It doesn’t matter how often or how hard you train when your thought process pauses as a result of sensory overload. Your thinking, reacting, and even speech can suddenly feel as if it’s all in slow motion.

One of the lessons learned from this common phenomenon is to have a “gatekeeper” in place who is responsible for communicating orders.

When police entered Sandy Hook Elementary, they immediately searched for the threat. Once they realized the shooter was down and not a threat, the next step was to check for secondary threats and clear all other areas of the school. A third-party gatekeeper can keep officers on track when their mission suddenly changes from an active shooter response to a task to clear the area.

Mark Your Trail
Reinforce the importance of marking your trail. When you picture most office buildings and schools, you imagine hallways with lots of doors. If you have the mindset to drop something outside a door before you go through it, it’s now an identifier that you can use to alert other responding officers so that they know quickly which door you’ve entered.

Always Think ‘Where?
Police are constantly told during firearms training that they don’t want their fingers on the trigger until they have an intended target. Sounds easy enough. But in high-stress environments we aren’t processing information the way we would otherwise. So if you always have a spot on your firearm that you place your finger when it’s not on the trigger, you’re training your muscle and your brain to work together so that muscle memory can kick in during those high-stress moments. This prompts you to think, I know my finger is off the trigger because I know where my finger is.

If you’re dealing with sensory overload during a high-stress situation, it can be difficult to tell yourself to check your surroundings if you’re hyper-focused on the dead gunman in front of you, for example.

“One of the tools is to force myself to look away from that thing that I’m hyper-focused on,” said Schwartz. “Well, if I just say to look away from that, look where? It’s like the finger on the trigger: where? By scanning to the sides and to the rear I’m forcing to brain to disconnect from that thing I’m hyper-focused on, so that I can actually see the condition of my firearm, or if there are additional threats. Likewise, we never look back at the holster, and the reason is simple: The holster is where it’s always been and it’s not going to hurt me, so I don’t need to look at it. I can’t say the same for anything else around me at that time.”

Inform and Train Your Community
The non-law enforcement community is far less comfortable with taking realistic approaches to active shooter training. The “It can’t happen here” mentality is common, and it’s hard to break. But the more we know about each active shooter incident, the more we can prepare to prevent or fight the threat.

Active shooters like James Holmes and Adam Lanza are methodical. Like a video game, the goal is to “score more points” than the gunman before you.

Experts believe Lanza was working to surpass Anders Breivik, who gunned down 69 people at a camp in Norway, but Lanza gave up the fight when he heard police closing in.

Active shooters have a history of following the same phases:

• Fantasy — Talking about and imagining killing
• Planning — documenting a killing and gathering information
• Preparation — Gathering the necessary items, weapons, etc.
• Approach — In a dangerous, ready-to-kill state of mind
• Implementation — Actively shooting

Encourage the schools and offices in your community to set aside time to develop a response plan and train for an active shooter scenario. Enforce the “Run, hide, fight” ideology: If you can run and escape through a natural exit, do it. If you can’t, barricade the doors and hide. If all else fails, engage the threat and do whatever you can to throw off the gunman’s plan.

The staff in the main office of Sandy Hook hid behind their desks when Adam Lanza approached the office. When he couldn’t see them, he left. They walked away physically unscathed eleven minutes later.

No two attacks and no two attackers are the same. The same can be said about the victims, the responding officers, and the circumstances surrounding a tragedy. But there are patterns to be followed and lessons to be learned — and hopefully, massacres to be derailed.

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