Training complete for active shooter situations
Most crimes involve simple motives of opportunity or passion. Incidents may progress, and they can usually become manageable with the typical law enforcement interventions.
Vance County dispatch telecommunicators learned last month that crimes of warfare are very different. Incidents noted as “active shooter” attacks crush the usual crime mold and involve cold calculation to kill, destroy and terrorize until all deployed will, ammo or capability empties out or is stopped by responding force.
Because the situation is a battle instead of a mere danger, the rules for communication and the tactics used by armed responders also change, according to Brian Short, Vance County’s director of emergency operations.
Learning what you are dealing with is rule number one, and the operators at the 911 dispatch centers in Vance County learned that active shooter attacks are happening repeatedly as a constant danger in any community.
Examples usually begin with school attacks, such as Columbine High School (Colo.) in 1999 and Sandy Hook Elementary (Conn.) less than a year ago.
But active shooter incidents also involve places of shopping, entertainment, work and worship.
Short said it is essential for law enforcement and the general public to understand the difference in typical crime dangers and an active shooter attack.
“We have had protocols in place for years in response to armed suspect dangers, a person threatening with a gun incident, but an active shooter incident is very different,” Short said. “For example, for suspect dangers police might surround and secure an area, but in an active shooter incident, officers are trained to go toward the shots being fired.”
Short explained that the battlefield-style deployment response requires a tactical communications team to quickly process information that is immediately useful to locate and stop the shooter attack.
“Things that we do to ensure officer safety on a lot of our in-progress calls, checking on officer status often for instance, could put officers in harm’s way in an active shooter incident,” Short said. “Checking on their status could create sounds that give away their position if we check on them too often during an active shooter incident.”
Callers to 911 should know that their time on the line might be rather brief during an active shooter scenario. Dispatchers are gathering information useful in responding to an unfolding attack.
If a caller has no new information, those manning the 911 phones will end the call and move on to other callers.
“Understand, we are trying to get information in a very dynamic, very fluid situation,” Short said. “We are trying to preserve lives as best we can.”
New information does not have to be only about whereabouts of a shooter, according to telecommunicators who responded to questions about what they got out of the training. New information on where wounded persons are located can be mixed with other tactical information.
Some of the information may be background noises, such as if ongoing gunfire sounds near or far from the caller’s location while on the phone.
“You talk to callers, and at the same time listen to background noises, shots fired, whether near or far,” said Travis Fuller, a telecommunicator who went through the training. “We also learned we need to stay professional. Keeping calm can keep others calm.”
Fuller said the training also included somewhat of a primer on what police officers are probably doing as the situation unfolds.
According to Erin Kutney, the dispatcher teams know better how to organize resources the responders have, and being able to visualize what is happening on the other end of the audio line helps.
“The main thing is to keep everyone as safe as possible and everything moving as smoothly as possible,” Kutney said.
Fannie Kincaid, a 27-year veteran with 911 dispatching, said she gained new knowledge about the evolving threat. She said she learned how to join the investigative effort of finding a shooter’s location.
“For a situation like this, you have to worry about the other people in the area and the neighborhood,” Kincaid said. “Finding the shooter is a big priority.”
Vivian Lassiter said the training focused on the determined destructiveness of an active shooter.
“An active shooter is all about the numbers,” Lassiter said. “We learned that it begins with the first shot, and it will continue until the shooter runs out of victims, ammo or takes their own life, or if they’re compromised by law enforcement officers.”
According to Lassiter, preparation for the worst is always a matter of degrees: the dispatcher teams were somewhat prepared before the training, and are more so now.
“You never, ever will be truly prepared for an active shooter incident, but the training and knowledge that we received has surely given us a step in the right direction to prepare as much as possible,” Lassiter said.
Short said further preparation and coordination of efforts is in the works. A unified Standard Operating Guideline, or SOG, is being developed with local police and sheriff’s deputies. Also, Short is a believer in exercises: practicing how new procedures should be implemented through an acted-out scenario.
“I believe heavily in exercises,” Short said. “We have had them in the past on various threats, and there is another exercise being developed that is in the very early stages of planning.”
Short said a meeting planned for Oct. 30 with Henderson police and the county sheriff’s office leaders is the next step to develop the SOG and to perhaps begin a brainstorming process on planning a future exercise.
According to Short, any exercise will be thoroughly explained to every community leader, governing office and the public, with full details of where, when and how it will take place.
The training was offered by APCO International, which is headquartered in Daytona Beach, Fla., by a trainer who visited in person for sessions conducted on Sept. 24 and 26 at a cost of $2,200. Short said the training was paid for through 911 surcharge funds as an allowable expense, at no cost to county or city governments.
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