Mass Shooting Incident Symposium – Key Points to Consider

The DeForest (WI) Police Department made me a special non-law enforcement guest of the Mass Shooting Incident Symposium held at the Schauer Performing Arts Center in Hartford, Wisconsin on March 4, 2013. This exemplary event, designed for law enforcement, entailed brilliant studies of four mass shootings with attention to efficient incident and post-incident responses.


 Major Kevin L. Foust, Deputy Chief of Police, Virginia Tech Police Department

Mass shooting at Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007

Captain Don E. Verett, University of Texas Police Department

Mass shooting at the University of Texas in September, 2010

Police Chief Inspector Egil Kulseth, Norway National Police Service

Mass shooting by Anders Breivik on July 22, 2011

 Police Chief John Edwards, Oak Creek Police Department

Mass shooting at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, WI, on August 5, 2012

Summary of Significant Points by David Perrodin

a) When was the best time to plant a tree? 20 years ago. Tomorrow’s response to an active shooter begins with today’s training.

b) Anticipate a large number of responders to an active shooter incident. The August 5, 2012 Sikh Temple shooting in Oak Creek, Wisconsin included 70 dispatched offers from a multi-agency response call. Yet, 400 officers eventually arrived on the scene – many were self-dispatched.
c) Expect multiple agencies to interface at the scene with varying degrees of cooperation. For example, some fire department and EMS staff might not enter a scene that they perceive to not be “secure” – even though law enforcement is present. This is the reason we are seeing a move toward tactical emergency medical service (TEMS) teams. When multiple potential sites are involved, or with large buildings with multiple rooms, it can take hours to conduct a sweep of the facility to deem there are not additional attackers.
d) Some regional emergency response agencies have joint command agreements – meaning, for example, a high-ranking member of the police, fire department and EMS will work together on decision-making and information debriefing to the communications liaison.

e) Clocks in responding emergency vehicles and dispatch might not be synchronized. This was the problem with attempting to establish a sequence of events in the 09-28-2010 shooting / suicide of Colton Tooley at the University of Texas (Austin, TX). In the Sikh Temple (Oak Creek, WI) shooting, persons within the temple were calling relatives in India and then those relatives were calling back to Oak Creek area emergency call centers to report the incident. This resulted in a time lag of up to 20 minutes for the information to go from persons in the temple to relatives in India and finally back to Oak Creek. In addition, reports strongly suggested that a second shooter was holding hostages in the basement of the temple – which was later determined to be an inaccurate deduction as the basement was found to be empty.

f) Students in Virginia Tech’s Norris Hall (Blacksburg, VA) appeared to not initially try to attack or subdue attacker Seung-Hui Cho once he was inside the first classroom. Subsequently, persons in adjacent classrooms attempted to barricade classroom doors. Should we be instructing staff and students to “fight with any means available” if in a situation where an active shooter has breached their classroom?

g) Make sure that you stage media offsite and also well away from the families of victims. Check media credentials. At the Sikh Temple (Oak Creek, WI) shooting, a non-credentialed person was able to infiltrate the media ranks and actually asked questions of the communications liaison. This person was removed by law enforcement. Inform the media that you will provide them with hourly updates and have a set location for those updates. Without regular official updates, the media will be more prone to seek out anyone who will talk with them. Provide concise time-stamped written releases of what is said during the updates if possible (read from a prepared statement). This will help keep consistent factual information into the mainstream media. Post these releases to a communication board that will contain all press releases – make available online when possible, also.
h) Only state known information. Otherwise state, “It is too early to tell” and “We are still processing information coming in from the scene” State that you want to release accurate and verified information to the media.
i) Expect the media to be present, and persistent, for days, if not weeks.

j) Anticipate mis-information and imposters. There were several reports that Sandy Hook Elementary School (Newtown, CT) shooter Adam Lanza’s mother worked at the elementary school. Those reports were false. Following the Sikh Temple (Oak Creek, WI), an older man bought clothing similar to the items worn by Sikh members and was able to enter a memorial ceremony before being identified by other Sikh members and subsequently removed by law enforcement.

  • At the University of Texas (Austin, TX) shooting, reports of the shooter description varied from someone wearing a ski mask to someone wearing a turban

k) Reports of intruders at multiple locations will cause sweeps / evacuations of multiple locations. Don’t assume that incoming reports will solely remain centered on a single location.

l) Both persons in a building and law enforcement will have difficulty triangulating the location of intra-structure gunfire. In addition, do not over-estimate the ability of laypersons to distinguish the sound of gunfire and recognize the gun-specific odor of spent powder. The scent of spent gun powder was prevalent in Norris Hall (Virginia Tech) at the onset of the attack, but was dismissed by faculty and students as an odor most likely secondary to some type of lab experiment.

a. Train staff and students on what to expect during an active shooter situation such as the sound of gunfire and sulfur odor. In addition, educate about flee, shelter or fight. It is important to make persons aware that active shooter situations typically last 9-15 minutes and often conclude prior to police confronting the shooter(s).

b. Staff should be trained on how to interface with incoming responders. The responders’ first objective is to locate and neutralize the shooter. Anyone in the building will be considered a potential risk and will be directed to exit with hands above their head by police. It is critical for persons to realize that law enforcement has no way to separate the “good people” from the “bad people” in a dynamic active shooter situation.

i. Training could be done via video or simulation. It is counter-intuitive for persons to have to think that they might need to barricade doorways or fight an attacker if in a breached no-exit situation.

m) An attacker could stage a casualty as a deceased shooter.
n) An attacker could change his or her appearance to blend in with exiters. This was the reason all exiters at Columbine High School (Littleton, CO) were directed to leave the school with their hands in the air.

o) The involved institution should rapidly communicate known information across the institution and to the public to promote the safety of persons in the area – especially when that institution has an expansive physical footprint such as a university campus. People should be directed to avoid the area of the incident. Provide information to persons by:

a. Twitter
b. Facebook
c. Text messages
d. Email
e. Software that allows the ability to overtake television screens and computer monitors
f. External notification systems such as public address systems or programmable signage

p) The first-day message conveyed by leadership is crucial to providing stability to the situation. The mayor should convey that the community is strong, his / her office will support the persons handling the situation, and that the community has resolve and will mend. The police incident commander, and/or school leader (if school shooting) will communicate that the schools are safe and that they will not open again until they are deemed safe.

q) Plan to meet with staff who were involved, directly or ancillary, with the incident within 24-48 hours to allow them an opportunity to talk, express their well-being and indicate their needs. This is NOT a debriefing session. Do not present about the incident – this is a time to focus on people.
r) Four or five days post incident, meet with involved staff who have likely put in countless hours and have slept little and inform them that they will be angry, easily upset and that they will become edgy and confrontation with others. This is a normal post-even prolonged stress fatigue reaction. Acknowledging this with them will help them recognize when they are producing, or receiving, these behaviors and allow them to better govern their reactions.

s) Mobile command posts, often SUVs or converted RV’s, are quickly overwhelmed in large-scale / profile incidents. In addition, there tends to be multiple command posts as each responding agency has its own command vehicle. There were more than a half-dozen mobile command vehicles present for the Sikh Temple (Oak Creek, WI) shooting. The approach to mobile command centers is changing as the preferred method is to now take over a proximal building and then house all commanders within that central location. A building will have more space, restrooms, and be much more efficient to coordinate and share information across agencies. The mobile command units can then be used, if needed, for field operations.