The recent active shooter events in Buffalo, NY, and Uvalde, TX, have once again driven many departments to question their own ability to effectively respond to an active shooter incident.
As agencies are considering these capabilities, they frequently find themselves at a crossroads between choosing equipment and building a program. Attempting to select the proper equipment, as well as determining a fielding methodology for this equipment and gear, can lead to confusion and frustration. In some cases, this results in agencies losing their momentum and never completing their programs or, worse yet, making the same mistakes as those who have gone before them. In the past three decades, we have worked with numerous agencies in helping them prepare for active shooter response. As a result, we have collected a series of lessons learned and effective strategies employed by those with successful programs. The purpose of this article is to pass along ten of these lessons in hopes that it will assist others in developing an effective program while avoiding the mistakes made by other agencies.
Lesson Learned #1 – Equipment Does Not Equal Capability
When beginning a new program, it is essential to consider what capabilities the agency needs to have in place. While agencies often tend to think in terms of equipment rather than capabilities, this can be a trap, but equipment alone does not provide capability. Capability means not only having the tools and equipment necessary to accomplish an objective, but also having the knowledge and processes in place for effective use. When considering what equipment to purchase, first consider what you will be able to train officers to use and retain their skill. Too often, agencies buy equipment (gas masks are a good example) which they field, but then do not consistently train or maintain. The result of this is often that, when an officer needs the capability, he/she doesn’t have the requisite knowledge to use it or the equipment is in poor working order. Capability is what saves people in an active shooter situation, not equipment. So, step one is to build a sustainable approach which you will be able to maintain.
Lesson Learned #2 – Use a Cadre Approach for Building Technical Skills
The skill set required of the modern police officer is broad and continually growing. When combined with shrinking training budgets, maintaining even basic skills has become an issue. As a result, trying to add specialized new skills for unusual events (e.g., mechanical breaching, ballistic shields, etc.) presents a real challenge. Of course, this is not just a problem for patrol units. Even the world’s most elite counterterrorism units find it challenging to maintain expertise through such a broad set of skills. What elite units do – and what patrol units do not do – is divide up their skill sets among their personnel and train Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) by specialized cadres. Simply put, there is too much for any single person to know. Fortunately, in these situations, it is only necessary that someone on the team have the skills and equipment, not that everyone has them. As a result, even in tier one units, you will find a breaching cadre, a sniper cadre, a climbing cadre, etc. This approach allows them to have insightful knowledge spread widely across the team and ensures that there is always a subject matter expert on hand for any situation. There is no reason this approach cannot be used for active shooter preparedness in patrol units. After all, it is already in use for other areas of expertise like drug recognition, accident investigation, etc.
Lesson Learned #3 – People Do What Is Inspected, Not What Is Expected
For equipment to be effective, it must be present at the event and in good working order. Too often with specialized equipment, it is fielded once and forgotten about by the agency. The result is its eventual loss and the almost immediate loss of capability. When new gear is fielded, everyone initially takes care of this equipment and carries it with them on every shift. But, over time, it gets left in the trunk of the car, then in the locker room and, finally, it gets lost in a closet. The fielding of WMD equipment following 9/11 was a perfect example of this. Agencies were doing regular gas mask fit tests, WMD equipment was being replaced on a timeline, and training was done annually. Twenty years later, almost no one is still conducting these inspections and the WMD equipment is nowhere to be found. If you want your agency to have specific equipment when an event occurs, it must be fielded in a way which requires the equipment to be carried and cared for. To date, the only approach which we have seen work is to randomly inspect equipment and to unexpectedly require the equipment to be at training and qualifications.
Lesson Learned #4 – Field Systems, Not Equipment
Another area where we see mistakes is the way in which agencies field equipment. When fielding multiple pieces of equipment, you need to kit and deliver them as a system rather than as a random collection. Fielding equipment as systems (with organization and storage built in) provides clear guidance on how the equipment should be carried and allows the agency to ensure rapid deployment and ease of inspection. No one carries a PB&J sandwich as a bag of peanut butter, a bag of jelly, a knife, and two slices of bread, yet this is the approach some agencies take with equipment when preparing for active shooters. They issue a plate carrier, two plates, magazine pouches, and a helmet, but do not take the time to assemble the equipment or to put it into a bag or case to facilitate deployment. Something as simple as a proper gear bag, preassembly, and training on deployment makes a big difference. This is especially true for items like plate racks and helmets which will need to be donned quickly. Taking the time to field active shooter sets will deliver capability and help maintain these systems.
Lesson Learned #5 – Whenever Possible, Issue Equipment Individually
The fastest way to ensure that gear is well cared for and available when needed is to issue the equipment individually to everyone on the team. By contrast, equipment that is “team issued” or “assigned to vehicles” has no one person accountable for it. As a result, it tends to get lost, fall into disrepair or be left behind. By individually issuing equipment, you create a single point of responsibility which promotes readiness. You also ensure that the equipment properly fits the user and creates an incentive for them to learn about and train with their equipment. This can be counterintuitive for some agencies because it seems like it will cost more. But, any agency which issues police cars to individuals rather than pooling them can tell you that their fleet lasts much longer and is better cared for and the program pays for itself.
Lesson Learned #6 – Make Sure “Team Equipment” Is Forward Deployed
Of course, issuing equipment to individuals is not always possible. For some items, it may not be affordable or practical to individually issue, such as breaching tools or ballistic shields. However, in these instances, it is critical to make sure that the equipment is staged so that it will be available when needed most. Locating equipment in an armory or station locker usually makes it unavailable when required. This may also be true of fielding equipment in supervisors’ cars. While it makes sense at first glance to put the breaching tools in the sergeant’s car, if the sergeant is usually at the station or will be tasked with setting up an offsite command post, then the tools will not be immediately available. Instead, it may make more sense to spread the required team gear through the fleet of officers’ or deputies’ cars and ensure there are multiple sets fielded per shift. This will ensure there is always specialized equipment arriving at the incident in the hands of a forward deployed user.
Lesson Learned #7 – Issue Everyone Active Shooter Kits
Apart from rifles and ammunition, the most important equipment component for an active shooter capability is armor. Because of the increased risk in responding to an active shooter, the goal should be to increase both the coverage area and threat protection of the responding officers’ armor. This means not only providing a ballistic helmet, but also providing a plate carrier with appropriate rifle plates. The best approach will be to issue each officer an Active Shooter Kit which contains their ballistic helmet; a plate carrier; appropriately installed rifle plates (see below); additional loaded magazines for their rifles in a pouch or kangaroo system; a personal Individual First Aid Kit (IFAK) located on the plate carrier; appropriate (and large) ID panels for the plate carrier; and a carrying bag to house the entire system. It is essential that this system be completely assembled and stored in a “ready to deploy” configuration. If there is assembly required in the field, if the system takes longer than a few seconds to deploy, or if the equipment is issued in an ad hoc fashion, it may be left behind when the officer is responding to the event. It is also essential that officers understand and train with this system regularly so that it is second nature to install when their heart rate and adrenaline are maxed out.
Lesson Learned #8 – Keep It Simple and Certified for Rifle Plates
The likelihood of an active shooter utilizing a rifle is high. According to the FBI’s Active Shooter Incidents 20-Year Review, 2000-2019, one third of active shooters use a rifle. Moreover, because these events are usually preplanned (often for months), the likelihood of encountering AP or high penetration ammunition (e.g., M855 Green Tip rounds) is higher than it is for normal tactical operations. As a result, the selection of a plate becomes critical. The options in ballistic plates these days are myriad. There are a wide variety of ballistic materials (HDPE, ceramic, steel, etc.), NIJ compliant and noncompliant options, stand-alone and ICW plates, etc. For most agencies, the best solution for active shooter response is to purchase Level IV, stand-alone, ceramic, NIJ compliant plates from a mainstream domestic manufacturer. The rationale for this is that Level IV plates, although heavier, can stop virtually all common high threat rounds. Because active shooter incidents are short in duration, the added weight of a Level IV plate is less of a concern. Sticking with stand-alone plates rather than plates which work In Conjunction With (ICW) soft armor is important because some responders to an active shooter incident (e.g., narcotics, detectives, etc.) may not be wearing soft armor and, therefore, would not be protected by ICW options. Sticking with domestically made and NIJ compliant options ensures quality. One added benefit to Level IV plates is that they are usually less expensive than Level III options because of the ubiquity of the ceramic used in them.
Lesson Learned #9 – Hemorrhage Control and Field Mass Casualty Bags
The first mission after “stopping the killing” is, of course, “stopping the dying” and the key to that in mass casualty situations is hemorrhage control. There are numerous stories of people being saved in mass casualty events since the national “stop the bleed” campaign and TCCC/TEMS practices began. One of the key lessons is that, for hemorrhage control equipment to be effective, it must be plentiful, easy to access and easy to disperse. For this reason, we are seeing more agencies fielding mass casualty bags which contain numerous separate “throw bags” in them. While exact composition will vary, they all usually contain a tourniquet, rolled or Z-Fold Gauze, a compression bandage, and sometimes a chest seal or hemostatic gauze. Each bag is separately packaged so that it can be thrown or dropped to injured parties quickly, allowing simultaneous treatment of large groups. The throw bags are then packed into a large brightly colored duffel or backpack for ease of carrying. This methodology allows a single tactical medic to manage several patients by instructing them, or bystanders, how to apply tourniquets or gauze. This also allows the medic to focus his/her attention on the most severe cases.
Mass casualty bags should also contain equipment to move victims quickly and safely. A common theme at debriefs from mass shooting events is the difficulty in moving victims. Whether that’s simply moving them off the X or getting them to care, large and heavy people, covered in slippery blood, provide a much greater challenge than expected. As a result, it is important to prepare ahead of time for these challenges and field transportation equipment like disposable litters, Sked® sleds or drag slings in your mass casualty bags. To be effective, it is essential that these kits are available in quantity and forward deployed at the scene. To accomplish this, it is wise to field them in large numbers and into all patrol units; supervisors’ cars; tactical vehicles; and, if possible, fire vehicles.
Lesson Learned #10 – Be Prepared to Breach Doors – a LOT of Doors
Another common theme in after actions from active shooter events is the difficulty posed by locked doors. While breaching is an integral part of tactical work, that is usually not the case for patrol assignments. Yet, to reach victims or a suspect who is behind locked doors, a rescue team must have a robust breaching capability. This capability must include the ability to breach fortified secure doors like those in schools, pharmacies and warehouses. Whether this capability comes from mechanical tools, a Kinetic Breaching Tool (KBT) or from shotgun breaching, this is not a skill which can be acquired on the day of the event. Rather, it requires forward deployed tools and breaching expertise to prevent the rescue team from becoming powerless by a locked door.
Perhaps the most frustrating part of incidents of active shooters is that we seem to keep repeating the same mistakes over and over. It seems that we start from scratch each time and, rather than preparing for the next incident, we just react to the last one. While the strategies discussed herein are far from perfect and may not work for all agencies, they can hopefully form the basis for discussion and planning within your agency. It is only through learning from the mistakes of the past that we will prevent the catastrophes of the future.
Jon Becker is the Founder/CEO of AARDVARK Tactical and the creator of Project7 Armor. He is also the host of the podcast, The Debrief with Jon Becker. Mr. Becker has over 35 years of experience equipping and training tactical units ranging from municipal and county law enforcement agencies to federal, military and international counterterrorism teams. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by visiting thedebrief.live
The Debrief with Jon Becker Podcast
What does it mean to lead an elite team? Is greatness born through tending to the culture of the team or does it stem from how individuals are trained to behave under pressure? What strategies allow law enforcement and tactical unit commanders to remain collected and in control in some of the world’s most dangerous situations? And, what can we learn from them in order to become better leaders ourselves?
These are just some of the questions Jon Becker and his guests are addressing in The Debrief, a newly released podcast which looks at leadership through the eyes of current and retired law enforcement, military and tactical team leaders. From stories and experiences on the job to ruminations on accountability, psychology, history, and American culture, The Debrief’s goal is to make us all better leaders, better thinkers and better people.
The host of The Debrief is Jon Becker. Jon is the founder of AARDVARK Tactical, the creator of PROJECT7 armor, and an attorney admitted for practice in California. After founding Aardvark Tactical as a rock climbing distributor, Jon went on to grow AARDVARK into one of the top manufacturers, integrators and distributors of tactical equipment in the world. Over the past three decades, Jon has had the opportunity to work with many of the top tactical units in the world.
During this time, Jon has cultivated a deep understanding of the skills, self-discipline, knowledge, and motivation required to lead an elite team – and it’s clear that his guests have as well. With an impressive lineup of individuals who have spent their careers putting their lives on the line, The Debrief is not only a podcast about tactical unit commanders, but it is also intended for anyone who is interested in leading like the elite.
In the two part series premier, Jon sits down with the late Charles “Sid” Heal, the special tactics legend, former Marine CWO5 and retired Commander at the LA County Sheriff’s Department, to discuss Sid’s experience, his work on tactical science and some of the most important habits and traits for leaders to cultivate.
With new episodes every other week, The Debrief is bringing together leaders from all spheres to learn from individuals who lead under fire. You can listen to The Debrief with Jon Becker on the Web site, thedebrief.live; on YouTube at https://tinyurl.com/yr89ehc2; on Spotify at https://tinyurl.com/ykrcnske; on Apple® at https://tinyurl.com/mr432un3; or anywhere you get your podcasts.
In Memory of Charles “Sid” Heal
We recently lost a hero to everyone in the tactical community, Charles “Sid” Heal. Sid served his country and his community in the USMC and LASD for almost his entire life. He was truly a Warrior Poet and taught something to everyone he met. Although it is difficult to condense 72 years of greatness into a couple of paragraphs, it is not an exaggeration to say that Sid’s work has affected the lives of everyone working in special tactics.
A retired CWO5 in the United State Marine Corps, Sid served numerous combat deployments including the Vietnam War, the Gulf War and Operation United Shield in Somalia. Sid was also a retired Commander from the LA County Sheriff’s Department where he worked in the Special Enforcement Bureau, the Emergency Operations Bureau, Technology, and a wide variety of other assignments. Sid had two master’s degrees; was a graduate of the FBI National Academy; and was one of the most prolific authors on tactical topics, having authored three books and hundreds of articles. In addition, he had the unique distinction of teaching at all of the United States War Colleges, serving as a section head for the National Tactical Officers Association and serving as the president of the California Association of Tactical Officers.
Most of all, Sid was a teacher and a mentor to two generations of tactical operators all over the world, having personally instructed tens of thousands of students in his career. His work with flashbangs and less-lethal munitions shaped the way both law enforcement and military operators utilize and conceive of these tools. His work in tactical science alongside Col. Tim Anderson and Capt. Richard Odenthal fused the doctrines of military science with modern law enforcement and produced a new way “to think” about tactical situations.
Sid was also a devoted husband to Linda for 52 years, a loving father to five children and a doting grandfather to 16 grandchildren.