Editor’s note: This article was adapted from one originally published in our sister publication, Public Safety Communications (Vol. 76, No. 9). There are learning points important for every communications center—and everyone who might have to deal with an active shooter situation.
“Active shooter calls have a different tone and a different pace,” says Julie Anderson, who was the on-duty supervisor at the time of an active shooter situation in Vail, Colorado. “The phone reports received are not only numerous, they are often received simultaneously. Some begin with the sound of shots being fired, while others begin with screams of panic. Once you have worked an in-progress shooting or heard audio examples from training, there will be no hesitancy recognizing the necessary response measures.”
One of the difficulties of handling an active shooter incident is that feeling of being blind to what’s happening on scene when radio traffic is quiet. I teach dispatch colleagues to give updates as needed but to practice the art of silence and listening. “I knew what the officers were doing even when they weren’t talking to me,” says Bonnie Collard, who also worked Vail’s shooting incident. What they were doing was setting up a perimeter and then attempting to clear the bar once they had a proper team in place for entry. The entry took 29 minutes. Outside the incident, responders were confronted by the chaos of those fleeing the bar and those trying to re-enter for loved ones. Once entry is made, having the control to remain silent on the radio is critical to officer safety during an active shooter incident. Unlike other shooting incidents, during an active shooter scenario, the shooter(s) isn’t given any verbal commands to drop their weapon. The officer’s objective is to shoot to eliminate the threat. A dispatcher calling for a status check during such a confrontation could prove deadly for scene responders. Early warning signs of an active shooter call include:
• An onslaught of calls;
• Open line calls with muffled sounds;
• Shots being fired without a caller speaking;
• Seemingly unrelated explosion or fire calls that begin to form a pattern on the mapping system;
• Suspicious person calls with possible weapon sighting; and
• Fire alarms—the latest strategy is to pull an alarm inside to drive victims outside to a waiting sniper.
A few years ago one of the responders who handled the Omaha, Neb., mall shooting in December 2007 told me that an active shooter incident needs to be dispatched like a lawn mower theft that should have been called in two weeks ago: calm, collected and with as little emotion as possible. As the first calls come in, the entire dispatch team needs to “plant” (i.e., settle or lock in and be ready to go with it)—even if that’s a team of one, such as occurred in October 2008 at the University of Central Arkansas (UCA) in Conway, Ark. At that time, a shooting left two 18-year-old freshmen dead and a third man shot. Criss Walker was the only experienced dispatcher on duty, but tethered to Criss was a trainee experiencing her first dispatch shift. UCA received so many calls within the first hour of the incident that its phone logging system collapsed. UCA has a campus population of 11,000 students and 1,200 employees. Walker found himself fielding all phone calls and dispatching at the same time, which is the case for many agencies. “You processed a call and then went on to the next,” he explained at the time. “It was impossible to stay with calls. You sorted through what you had and kept going. We had an R.A. [resident assistant] doing CPR on one of the victims, and groups of people running.” As he fielded calls and sent help, he watched helplessly as his police lobby filled with screaming, crying and vomiting witnesses looking for refuge and safety.
Once on scene, the responders’ primary consideration is the shooter(s). Medical takes a back seat until the shooter is neutralized. At the beginning of an active shooter call, the police dispatcher must relay information that centers on shooter location, description and weaponry. The number of injured and casualties is information that’s gathered, but once responders are aware that subjects are down and shooting is continuing, there’s no need to update numbers. Active shooter incidents are fast moving.
“In a perfect world it makes great sense to have a secure channel with tactical dispatchers assigned specifically to the officers making entry. The reality is that these types of incidents happen so fast that the mayhem is done often before the first officers arrive,” says Green Bay Lt. Dave Wesley. Wesley, who helps with tactical training for Green Bay officers, says he often quotes a long-term study that shows 47% of active shooter incidents last 15 minutes or less and 27% are five minutes or less.1 What that means for dispatchers is that far more good can be done by focusing attention on gathering and giving out suspect information because the victim harm that is done is already done. Officer and responder safety is the first consideration, says Wesley. Without it, there’s no end to the active shooter situation. Shooters will continue until they:
• Run out of victims;
• Run out of ammunition;
• Kill themselves; or
• Are compromised by officers or civilians.
This means dispatchers must provide regular updates on suspect location and firepower. Medical information beyond initial reports is saved for after the suspect(s) has (have) been stopped. Status checks are made only according to center policy. If there is no policy in place, every 10–15 minutes is a general standard unless a contact team is clearing a building or area. If you are a dispatcher who must also take calls during an active shooter incident, the basic premise is to keep a caller on the phone as long as you’re getting good suspect information. Once that information ceases, you’ll likely have to make the decision to put the call on hold or terminate and move to the next.
After the shooter is down or apprehended, dispatch focus will move to the wounded. It’s at this point in the incident where holding perimeter is critical and maintaining control at staging and triage areas is vital to the safety of responders. The following are all considerations for a police dispatcher working an active shooter call:
• The number of shooters and ongoing location updates;
• Where to send and position responders for containment and safety;
• Secondary issues, such as snipers, bombs, hostage taking;
• Escaping suspect(s);
• Large groups of people moving in and out of the area and the anticipated effects.
• Safety for responders at triage areas because of the amount of emotion in those areas;
• Evacuations or sheltering-in-place and the special needs of each;
• Explosions and fires; and
• The media. Dispatchers will often receive as many calls from the media as they do from the public. One dispatch strategy for small agencies where a dispatcher might serve as the public information officer is to give an update every hour whether there is new information or not in the form of a fax or email to media outlets.
Every agency with which I have ever worked after an active shooter incident has conveyed the importance of self-care for the dispatchers following the event. We’re not very good at commending each other and certainly not ourselves for a job well done, but we’re getting better. Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM), along with Critical Incident Stress Debriefings (CISD), is vital for the health of a team that has just handled an active shooter incident. The dispatcher is part of that first responder team and must be included. CISM allows for the sharing of information about an incident in a safe environment without a critique of what happened. Understanding the need for compassionate camaraderie, more and more agencies are showing support for the actions and emotional health of other dispatchers.
Active shooter incidents are not limited to larger, populated areas. In the current economic climate and unrest, we must be prepared to experience an active shooter incident anywhere, any time. We think of active shooter incidents as those we hear about on the national news but truly, dispatchers may find themselves handling such an incident at any time. All it takes is a disgruntled, armed driver to take off in a chase and then abandon the vehicle and begin firing. That is an active shooter incident, whether someone gets hurt or not. Any time we have someone shooting with unrestricted access to victims, it is an active shooter incident. Be ready, talk to your people and train.
1. U.S. Secret Service; U.S. Department of Education: The Final Report & Findings of the Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States. July 2004. Accessed June 2010: http:// www2.ed.gov/admins/lead/safety/preventingattacksreport.pdf.