The deadliest phase of an active shooter is over in the first four to eight minutes, statistically before the police can arrive and deploy. This means your teachers, employees and staff are the first responders. You’re on your own. An active shooter incident will unfold at lightning speed in terrifying conditions. As every veteran will tell you, you respond the way you’ve been trained. Untrained, you and your people will freeze or panic. Every active shooter response I review is fatally flawed because each one misses essential procedures and training for those first four to eight minutes, and beyond.

No matter how congenial your community, every school is vulnerable to unstable students, desperate parents who’ve lost custody, jealous domestic partners, overstressed teachers, vengeful ex-employees and extremists.

You need an Active Shooter Response, you must train your people in your response, and you need to test your response to make sure it is free of the fatal flaws.

Meet the Police Before You Need Them

Ask your police department to come to your school and brief you on how they will respond to a 911 call for an active shooter. They will explain how they will respond. They may not be this blunt, but their mission will be to find and kill the shooter.

They will not stop to help the wounded, comfort the terrified, or explain to you what’s going on. Their job is to stop the shooting.

Your School is Also an Employer and Workplace

It’s your job to know what you must do to protect your people before the police arrive, and how to recover after they’re gone. As an employer, it is your legal responsibility to comply with federal law that requires employers to plan and train for a multitude of workplace emergencies, including active shooters. The police know nothing about federal standards to which you as an employer will be held. You are the responsible party for having a comprehensive and compliant emergency action plan specific to your school. Your plan must include an Active Shooter Response. You must train all personnel to your entire emergency action plan at least once a year.

Flaw #1: Inadequate Procedures for the First Four to Eight Minutes

Your Active Shooter Response must address the following:

  • What to do when you see, or someone reports, a suspicious person on your premises.
  • Who calls 911? What do you say and do including staying on the line with the dispatcher? The dispatcher will send police, ambulances and fire trucks, and ask the caller for their location in your facility, the number of shooters, where the shooter is, a description of the shooter, how many people are on your premises, and more.
  • How to alert all faculty, staff and employees to the threat. Warning: Never pull the fire alarm — it can send people directly into the shooter’s path!
  • How your people respond to protect students and themselves. This is the Run-Hide-Fight protocol. This alone includes many if-then decisions.
  • Training faculty, staff and employees in their response so they don’t squander time thinking; they immediately respond.

Flaw # 2: Inadequate Procedures for When Police Arrive

The police need you to provide vital information so they can deploy immediately. You need procedures for:

  • Updating the incident commander while on the run on the number of shooters, the shooter’s description and location, where your people are, the number of injured, and more.
  • Taking police orders and instantly relaying those orders to faculty, staff, employees and, when appropriate, students.
  • Identifying for police who is friend and foe.
  • How to command and control the rest of your campus as circumstances unfold, including the onslaught of reporters and parents.

Flaw # 3: Inadequate Procedures for When the Police Return Your School to You

Your school becomes a crime scene, and all or part of it will be under the control of law enforcement for days. When the yellow tape is removed, you enter the prolonged recovery phase.

This phase can endure for years, and even be the demise of your school. The disaster recovery section in your Active Shooter Response needs procedures for:

  • Literally cleaning up the mess inside and outside of your premises
  • Addressing the psychological mess that’s unraveling your faculty, staff, employees, students, parents and you.
  • Rebuilding your school’s reputation.

Flaw # 4: You Haven’t Tested Your Plan

Your Active Shooter Response needs to be tested with a tabletop exercise — a conference room simulation of an active shooter incident. Participants invited to the table should include your top people, personnel assigned to emergency response, and your police department. Choose a qualified, independent facilitator who has studied your Active Shooter Response and your school layout to lead the tabletop exercise. The facilitator will reveal a suspicious person is on the premises, then inject more and more information, all the while asking participants what they’ll do as the incident plays out.

A tabletop exercise quickly begins to feel like the real thing. It not only tests your Active Shooter Response, it tests you and your key people in making rapid, informed decisions in chaotic circumstances.

A well-run tabletop exercise will allow you to:

  • Immerse all participants in a conference room simulation of an active shooter as the incident unfolds. They will confront making dozens of rapid-fire decisions—including those with deadly consequences.
  • Help your people grasp all that you must do before the police are able to arrive.
  • Understand the role of the police and what they will need from you.
  • Affirm the parts of your response that are solid.
  • Uncover elements of your response that have holes.
  • Update your Active Shooter Response and re-train your people.

Engaging your key people in a tabletop exercise is like airline pilots spending time in the simulator. They test their responses to failed engines, severe weather, emergency landings and other catastrophes so they instinctively know how to respond when they encounter the actual emergency. It’s not enough to have an Active Shooter Response, and it’s not enough to train your people. You must test it, identify any gaps and re-train.

Yes, it Can Happen to You

School shootings occur on average every 31.6 days, and are contagious according to research released in July 2015. “On average, one school shooting inspires other school shootings,” said Sherry Towers, a research professor of mathematical and computational modeling at Arizona State University. She published her and her colleagues’ findings in the July 2, 2015 edition of “PLOS ONE.” She states in their paper, “Contagion in Mass Killings and School Shootings,” that school shootings are contagious for an average of 13 days.

It Comes Down to Leadership

Good leaders protect their people. Address the fatal flaws in your Active Shooter Response then test your response with a tabletop exercise. You’ll be prepared to save lives and protect your school.

Bo Mitchell served as police commissioner of Wilton, Connecticut for 16 years, and then founded 911 Consulting in 2001. The firm creates emergency plans, conducts training and drills, and creates and runs tabletop exercises for campus and corporate clients across the country. He holds 16 certifications in homeland security, organizational safety and emergency management. For more information, visit 911Consulting.net.

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