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How to design an effective active shooter exercise

Follow these strategies for pre-planning and day-of execution to achieve a successful active shooter drill or violent threat mass casualty exercise

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Emergency personnel carry a volunteer to a triage staging area during a training exercise for an active shooter with simulations at Hopewell Elementary School, Wednesday, May 25, 2016, in West Chester, Ohio.

AP Photo/John Minchillo

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Active shooter and other violent threat mass casualty exercises require a strong multi-discipline exercise design and planning team, a solid exercise plan and buy in from the responding disciplines as critical ingredients for success.

This article will explore best practices and advice to help ensure that the planning team is successful in designing, implementing and executing a worthwhile, productive and enlightening exercise.

While this article is specific to active shooter exercises, the same model is applicable for any large scale multi-discipline tactical response with mass casualties, including vehicular attacks, IEDs, industrial accidents and naturally occurring catastrophes.

Active shooter exercise design team

The exercise design team is critical to a successful exercise. Meaningful relationships will be developed during the planning phase that should translate into ongoing multi-discipline coordination and trust, long after the exercise is over.

The planning team should not be singularly led by law enforcement, fire or EMS personnel. It should be a public safety emergency responder multi-discipline team. Certainly someone needs to lead, and it makes sense in most jurisdictions that law enforcement takes that role.

The planning team should have representatives from law enforcement, fire, EMS and the exercise location (e.g., school, mall, airport, transit agency, etc.). The planning team might have representatives from SWAT and tactical TEMS teams, but the focus of the exercise needs to be on those who are the first responders in a real response. It is the line officers/deputies, engine companies and private ambulance services that will be at the incident dealing with the chaos long before any specialized assets are on scene.

The other party to bring on board at some point is the role player coordinator. Good, appropriate, disciplined crisis actors can make an exercise great.

Keep the scenario scope and size of the exercise real

The genesis of an idea for a scenario can be based on real events, after action reports, threat analysis, gap identification or a community need (e.g., a forward-thinking school administrator proposes hosting an exercise). Take advantage of any enthusiastic ideas and offers of assistance.

The planning team’s job is to create a stressful, but manageable exercise that mirrors actual events, or is germane to the local threat assessment. Your exercise should not be a simunition or paintball shoot out with a bunch of role players, even though you will have eager role players volunteering to be the “bad guys” and have a shootout with the responding law enforcement officers.

Decide early on the scope and size of the exercise. A simple rule of thumb for sizing an exercise is to estimate the number of emergency responders, including command staff that will likely be participating. Let’s just say for example there will be three to four engine companies, a battalion chief, four to six transport ambulances, 12-15 law enforcement officers and three to five command staff (a total of about 35-45 people).

Use that same number for the amount of role players. There should be an appropriate exercise ratio of emergency responders, incident command team and medical responders that must be balanced with the number and criticality of role players, victims, bystanders and opposition force. It would be a low impact exercise if there were dozens of responders and only two or three casualties.

In addition to those numbers, you will need real security, logistics support, check in/credentialing, administrative support, make-up/moulage folks, technical support (radio interoperability), possible tactical dispatchers, a safety/weapons officer, a PIO to work with any real world press, as well as a setup crew and a cleanup crew.

The exercise design team needs to create two timelines; first, the timeline for planning the exercise, determining how often to meet and when to secure the location, participants, logistics, role players, patient profiles and walk-throughs. A timeline for the exercise itself is also needed, including:

  • Prep time
  • Setup
  • Sign in
  • Briefing
  • Safety check
  • Exercise start
  • Controller injects
  • Exercise end.

Another important consideration will be the casualty injury profiles and geographical spread of the casualties. It is important that everyone participating in the exercise gets some action; maybe not all at once, but all responding disciplines need to be involved and have some significant role in the exercise.

Another factor to consider is how much training has already been done by each agency and discipline. If there has been very little training and intra-agency coordination, then the exercise is likely to identify quite a number of gaps. That is not a bad thing; just do not expect a stellar performance from all of the players on game day.

Active shooter exercise day strategy

One successful strategy that has worked for many jurisdictions is to have the morning of the exercise focused on discipline-specific training, with the medical folks focusing on triage, life-saving interventions, extrication and Rescue Task Force (RTF) basics. The law enforcement folks would be working on scene assessment, use of force guidelines, contact teams (going after the threat), room clearing and RTF basics.

Then, later in the morning, both groups do some joint walkthroughs with the RTF concepts practiced, with the law enforcement team escorting, or securing an area and protecting the medical team.

The early afternoon should be set up time for the scenarios and would give the exercise team time to get the moulaged crisis actors in place and make sure all of the proctors, briefers, safety officers, evaluators, etc. are briefed and ready to go.

It is usually best to start out with a relatively simple scenario (i.e., one shooter, a few deceased and a few injured casualties) for the first scenario. The LE contact teams are released into the scene at real time intervals with a few minutes between each group (mirroring a real live timeframe). A contact team enters, finds the shooter and neutralizes the threat. After the scene is relatively secure, the RTF then enters the scene and manages the casualties, and then extricates the casualties to an external casualty collection point (CCP).

From there, while a short debrief is occurring, the set up team re-sets the same scenario. For the second iteration, the roles of the emergency responders will switch. For LE, those that were part of a contact team now become escorts for the RTF. For the EMS/medical folks, those who were part of the RTF become part of the CCP and unified command (UC) element, and those that were part of the CCP/UC rotate to become members of the RTF.

There will need to be a different approach and management if the exercise is a “one and done” scenario versus repeating the same scenario multiple times so that the LE/RTF/UC teams and personnel rotate and move to different roles and responsibilities.

There are also times when the players and participants stay in the same role, but there is an escalation in the complexities of the scenarios in a form of the crawl, walk, run method of increasing the scenario difficulties over time. The planning team will need to make this decision early on.

Evaluating active shooter drill performance

There will need to be a discussion early on as to the philosophy of evaluating the participants and their performance; as there are generally two approaches that are on opposite ends of the spectrum.

One long-standing and traditional form of evaluation is for the evaluators (tactical, medical, command post, etc.) to observe only, not comment, not correct or otherwise interject information, and only give feedback at the end of the exercise during the debrief and add to the After Action Report.

The other approach relies on a guiding/mentoring philosophy and using teachable moments to develop participant agency and individual best practices. Participants in the exercise are typically willing to accept feedback and suggestions during the event from evaluators.

Exercises are training events and the goal is to improve everyone’s capabilities to respond to a horrific event. Even taking a short timeout to educate and offer suggestions to an individual or small group is typically well received by participants. I have found this strategy to be far more effective rather than going through a list of observed faults and highlighting exercise mistakes made during a debrief.

The planning team should also develop consistent medical and tactical evaluator interaction and expectations with the exercise participants. Sometimes, there is a tendency for some participants to verbalize what they would do in real life (e.g., “I would put a chest seal on this victim,” or “I would move the patients to the CCP,” or, “I would search and cuff these folks”). This should be minimized and there should be an expectation that the officers and medical personnel will actually perform certain actions.

For example, medics should not start an IV on patient, but if the simulated injury requires it, they should pull out the training tourniquet and apply it properly (meaning it actually may cause minimal discomfort to the patient) and once the proctor is convinced it is applied correctly, then it can be released for patient comfort. This approach requires that the participants have the training, expectation and the medical training equipment to perform the action.

This expectation also applies for actions and medical care rendered by law enforcement as well. If the officers say they would flex cuff all the students, then make them do so. Make sure to have medical training equipment for LE as well. They may decide in the end that action (e.g., cuffing all of the students) may not always make the most sense. Exercises are designed to test theories and plans, and may expose deficiencies and help modify procedures and practices.

Managing active shooter drill observers

At any training exercise, there are often some people who do not want to be directly involved in the scenario, but will want to be observers only. This can place an additional demand on the safety officers and controllers, depending on the numbers.

Beware of too many evaluators, observers, VIPs, photographers and other non-participants in the middle of the scenario. If there is a gauntlet of vests that the teams are moving through, it will distract them and take away from the realism of the exercise.

The participating teams will also know where the best action is by the number of people observing. Observers might be able to be put behind a window so they can see the action but are clearly marked in out-of-bounds areas. If this is not possible, the use of police tape to cordon off an area works pretty well.

Hopefully these directives on creating a valuable exercise will help you move forward in your jurisdiction to develop and execute a worthwhile event.

Jim Morrissey is a former Tactical Paramedic for the San Francisco FBI SWAT team and the founder of the Tactical Medical Association of California (TMAC). Jim is also the Terrorism Preparedness Coordinator for the Alameda County EMS Agency. Jim has a master’s degree in Homeland Security from the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, CA. Jim’s column is brought to you by Bound Tree Federal, specializing in emergency medical equipment, supplies and pharmaceuticals for federal government organizations.

Contact Jim Morrissey