My Top Five Nightmares, (Part One) By Lt. Steve Turcott

October 23, 2012

Initial Management Steps for an Active Shooter or MCI/Suspect at Large

 If it's not your worst nightmare, surely it's in your top five. Whether it's an active shooter, or a shooter who's at large with trauma in his (or her) wake, responding to one of these is, to most of us, a challenge we'd be happy to avoid. Most of us in public safety are ready to discuss the issues associated with these evil acts. How does a person get to the point where they commit these atrocities? Does the use of firearms mean there are too many of them out there, or would these incidents be stopped earlier if there were more firearms around? How do victims begin to put their lives together? What can be done to stop this? Why do these things happen? There are many questions, like these, that need to be answered, but when responders are sent to an incident like this, their burden isn't to answer the questions listed above, but to address "how do we take this tragedy, stop its progression, and start putting things back together?"

The good news is that there are basic steps that, when taken, effectively bring control to chaos, even chaos of this magnitude. We agree that the general definition of success (aka "incident objectives") includes a timely conclusion to the crime spree, placing limitations on the extent of the assaults, and preventing injuries to responders. When we assess a response to the shooting of police officers or an active shooter incident, we typically meet these objectives, but could there be room for improvement? Could key information be obtained and provided sooner to responders? Were the right notifications made as early as they could be? 20 minutes into the incident, what percentage of responders knew their assignment vs. doing their best to independently decide on a course of action? Were resources effectively balanced according to needs (geographically and functionally)? How many functions were being conducted on each radio channel or talkgroup? On how many talkgroups or channels was a given function being handled? With gratitude and respect for those among of us who have responded to one of these high risk, dynamic, rapidly developing complex incidents, let's look at some best practices that might make an acceptable response a superior one.

We've more than once heard that "this incident was developing too quickly and was too complicated for ICS". However, we subscribe to the idea that "the Incident Command System works well every time it's correctly used" and we believe that the application of some ICS best practices improves our response and helps us accommodate the dynamic complexity of these challenging incidents. So how is ICS applied when things are moving rapidly and there's high risk to responders and the public?

When we were in junior high band, we played music slowly until we got it right, then we increased the tempo until we were a full speed and playing perfectly. Let's borrow that approach and apply it to public safety applications. If we were the chief, or otherwise the top person, in a very small public safety organization of, say, five personnel, wouldn't we feel relatively confident in our ability to manage our agency? How many people could be added to the organization before we begin to think about adding an additional manager or supervisor? If we see our organization tripling in size, what kind of span of control would be comfortable? Obviously, we'd want some supervision at some point, and eventually, some middle management.

The same principle applies to a rapidly developing incident. As soon as we recognize that our incident will require more than a typical "initial action" response, we need to order (that's ICS for "request") additional tactical responders (police officers, fire resources, ambulances, tow trucks, etc.). That's obvious to all of us. But to maximize the safety of the responders and citizens, as well as our operational effectiveness, we also need enough "overhead" (some ICS folks use that term for "incident managers").

It's simple, but not always easy. If there's a lot of complicated stuff going on, we need people to stay out of the tactics and oversee that complicated stuff. It's the principle that's simple, but making it happen is often not so easy. The natural tendency for public safety personnel is to rush to the problem and solve it, but we've learned in hazardous materials response (among others kinds of problem) to take the strategic approach. A prompt response of sufficient supervision and command personnel to active or at-large shooters needs to be a normal practice.

Most public safety personnel recognize that a lot of help is needed at these incidents. It's probably fair to say that law enforcement personnel commonly "self-dispatch" to these kinds of problems. While it's desirable to have all the help we need, we do have the ability to be better organized and more effective than merely doing an "all hands on deck" response. A flood of self-dispatched officers lends itself to having more personnel than needed at some locations and insufficient personnel elsewhere. It tends to result in individuals doing their best to decide where they're needed. Officers are in this position because of the lack of incident information and the lack leadership. We offer a series of incremental steps that can improve on this:

  1. Before your next "all hands" response, determine absolute minimum staffing, the number of officers needed to handle the second big crisis instead of going to the first one. Establish a process to identify who manages this so it doesn't depend on the incident commander to remember it. If everyone really is needed at the shooting, someone will need to invite off-duty personnel or the neighbors to be ready for new calls. Another option: sometimes there are enough personnel assigned to the big one to establish a squad (or team or crew) that can beavailable for new calls and secondary needs at the incident.
  2. Officers not yet given a specific assignment ought to be in the Staging Area. Pick a parking lot, have responders go there, and have someone (a sergeant?) be your Staging Area Manager. Tell the Staging Area Manager how many officers are needed and where.
  3. To make supervision easier and span of control better, send officers out of staging to their assignments in crews, squads, or teams (or whatever you like to call them). Each squad should have a squad leader. Tell the leader what needs to be accomplished. Let them take care of it. It's easier for an Operations Section Chief to give work assignments to five different squad leaders than for that person to supervise 25 individual officers directly.
  4. Your agency could predesignate the size and configuration of response squads and have that standard as a normal practice. A squad size of five to seven is a good place to start for most developing incidents.
  5. To improve on the predesignation of response squads, the practice can be moved from an agency practice to a regional multiagency plan. Most "all hands" incidents require a response from all available agencies. We might as well plan to work together even within our patrol officer squads. 

These steps, many which need to be accomplished before the big incident, will help set an effective trajectory by ensuring that officers are available for another priority incident and by organizing responders into teams that will ensure manageable span of control. In our next installment, we'll look at the initial on-scene assessment and providing useful information to our teammates who are responding.

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