Why Active Shooter Plans Fail

by | Security

Media coverage of the horrific slaughter by active shooters (AS) has become a distressingly regular part of our reality.

After each attack, calls abound for more stringent gun control, armed guards in schools, better officer training, renewed efforts to address the country’s mental health epidemic, and other initiatives.

Sadly, one inescapable truth is rarely addressed: the plans of most schools, houses of worship, businesses, and outdoor venues are ill-suited to prevent AS attacks, and their inefficiencies during the attack are likely to elevate rather than minimize casualties.

Here are five (of many) reasons for this gloomy assessment:

  1. Failure to address the full scope of the AS problem. There are four phases of any AS event: Prevention (when the attack might be deterred or interrupted); Response; Mitigation; and Recovery. Most plans (and law enforcement training) only address response. Clearly, the law enforcement response to neutralize the threat is essential, but many tasks must be addressed in other phases. For instance, in the recovery phase, important but rarely practiced tasks include dealing with FOIA requests; VIP visits; the securing, documenting, and return of property left at the scene; site clean-up; mental health counseling; and recruiting new people to replace those who leave the institution.
  2. Over-reliance on law enforcement and security. Law enforcement and security play key response roles (and the other three phases), but other stakeholders have and must play critical roles throughout the event. Consider the prevention phase when institutions seek to deter the attack. Ubiquitous facilities and grounds personnel can support the “see something, say something” strategy if trained on noteworthy cues and how and to whom to report their observations. Similarly, an outreach program on tourniquet application taught by healthcare professionals could save lives during the mitigation phase; and an outreach program empowering institution members on what to do before and during an attack might help deter it, save lives, and facilitate law enforcement’s response.
  3. Failure to integrate stakeholders’ actions and contributions. While the entire community can make significant contributions to crisis resolution, their contributions are rarely defined in policy, practiced, or coordinated in drills and tabletop exercises, generally because of the over-reliance on the law enforcement response mission. Given the average 4–6-minute law enforcement AS response time (after notification) and the “stopwatch of death” (one person is shot every 12-15 seconds), such over-reliance is dangerous. The failure to coordinate all stakeholder responses undermines preparedness plans.
  4. Failure to specify institution-wide goals. Most AS goals involve preventing the attack and limiting its destructiveness should it occur. These goals lack the granularity needed for precise planning in each AS phase. There are other goals, such as protecting the institution’s reputation, responding to liability suits, bolstering institution morale, and recruiting/retaining staff, etc. Further, different actors have different goals and these goals change over the course of the event. For instance, law enforcement priorities move from training and surveillance (prevention), to intelligence acquisition and tactics (response), to coordination (mitigation), to crime scene investigation (recovery). To complicate matters further, some actors’ goals are diametrically opposed, such as police surveillance vs. citizens’ desires for privacy during the prevention phase. During the recovery phase, the public information office’s desire for transparent response to FOIA requests conflicts with legal officials’ goals of silence due to likely liability suits. Such goal disconnects are rarely discovered unless both internal and external service providers conduct tabletop and command post exercises. These exercises rarely occur.
  5. Failure to conduct systematic assessments. No singular solution will solve the AS problem because different venues have dissimilar sizes, goals, resources, and experiences. What is needed, but rarely done, is a comprehensive analysis for each crisis phase that identifies: institution-wide goals and priorities; personnel, procedural, facilities, equipment and communication resources, including which resources affect which goals; and then assesses the mission capabilities of available resources. Such analysis can identify priority corrective actions.

There are other problems in AS plans and capabilities, but until the above deficiencies are addressed, we will not be able to provide our citizens with the protection they expect and reserve.

About the author

Dr. John Weinstein is a retired senior police commander with extensive experience training in active shooter planning and response to law enforcement and civilians. He is the principal investigator with Dusseau Solutions, which provides all-hazards security assessments for schools, businesses, houses of worship, and entertainment venues.

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