Active Incident Training: Preparing for the Future Threat

Preparation must go beyond incident response, tactics and the focus on active shooters.
Published: March 13, 2021

History is an ambivalent teacher. On one hand, as Spanish essayist George Santayana opined, “Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.” On the other hand, we have the scornful proverb from Frederic Smoler that generals fail because they prepare to fight the last war.

In the world of active incident response, we have certainly learned from history as we observed and dealt with new threats, starting with the Texas Tower at the University of Texas at Austin, and moving through Columbine, Virginia Tech, Mumbai, India, Sandy Hook and Orlando, Fla.

We abandoned the strategy of setting up a perimeter and waiting for SWAT to make entry; we moved from large entry teams to two and even a single-officer response; we’ve modified our tactics (e.g., larger and slower diamond to a faster Y/T tactical formation) to interdict the “stopwatch of death” sooner; we’ve developed new strategies, such as the rescue task force, and protected corridors to stop the bleeding sooner; and we’ve presented broader response options than sheltering in place (i.e., run and fight) to potential victims.

These innovations are, or course, positive in their entirety and have undoubtedly saved many lives. Immediate entry and fast-moving tactics like bounding overwatch and fire and movement now constitute the majority, if not the totality, of most law enforcement active shooter training.

——Article Continues Below——

Get the latest industry news and research delivered directly to your inbox.

Add to this at the school and hospital levels the ubiquity of cameras, locks and access control systems, security systems, mass notification systems, guards, incident reporting, training and student discipline procedures, and many conclude their institution is well-balanced and well-prepared to confront the unthinkable.

However, according to Awareity, these capabilities and preparations neither prevented catastrophes at Fort Hood, Texas; Virginia Tech; the Washington Navy Yard; San Bernardino, Calif.; and Columbine nor spared many of the schools from large lawsuits and/or significant losses in enrollment.

We have failed as a community in three places:

1. We have focused largely on the active shooter threat while we see the emergence of other dangerous threats.

2. We have focused on police and security response tactics to the exclusion of many other required capabilities that must be simultaneously and seamlessly executed in an active incident.

3. We have mainly addressed response, which only constitutes a fraction of the totality of the opportunities to prevent an incident and steps to mitigate its impacts and recover from its effects.

Be Aware of These New Threats

A recent FBI study concluded active shooter incidents have increased over the last five years, both in terms of their frequency and lethality. Paris, Brussels and Orlando, Fla., demonstrate that active shooter incidents are still a real and deadly threat, and we know that schools, particularly undefended ones, are particularly attractive targets to terrorists.

While we cannot afford to stop teaching Run, Hide, Fight and other shooter response options to keep our citizens safe, or the armed police tactics mentioned above to neutralize the threat as quickly as possible, the active shooter constitutes the last (albeit still dangerous) war but not necessarily the next.

Here are just 10 new/emerging threats we need to plan against. There are many others:

1. Increasing connectivity and collaboration between international terror groups.

2. Attacks using vehicles, advocated by al-Qaida, as we saw in Nice, France.

3. Attacks using drones. If we can deliver pizzas with drones, we can certainly deliver bomblets as well as chemical and biological agents. (Some schools are teaching classes on how to operate drones, causing one to wonder about how prospective enrollees are screened.)

4. Weaponized hazardous materials (radioactive materials, sulfuric acid, etc.) from laboratories or destroying them in place to contaminate a building or portion of the campus.

5. Manufactured guns and knives that contain no metal and can avoid metal detectors.

6. More sophisticated potential combatants. As we saw in Mumbai, the assailants had received advanced tactical training. Unlike the shooters of 10 or 15 years ago, when “tactical” meant dressing in black and wearing a ball cap backwards, interactive video games give their players the opportunity to use and master small unit tactics such as fire and movement.

7. Availability of attack planning information on the Internet. Whether it’s plans to build a pressure cooker bomb or cook up ricin (one of the most deadly toxins known) or find college building plans, this information is widely available on the Internet and allows a higher level of attack planning than we’ve encountered to date.

8. Cyber-attacks against security systems, such as defeating electronic locks to allow access by shooters.

9. Distributed attacks. The Mumbai attackers targeted hotels, religious centers, transportation hubs and random targets. Most active shooter training exercises are run against a single threat, but how well are we prepared to respond with our limited personnel to simultaneous attacks at an athletic event, a campus daycare center, a dorm and a busy classroom building? Small campus police or security forces would be quickly overwhelmed, and the communications and logistical requirements for coordinating a multi-agency response would be extremely challenging, even if the affected agencies had practiced together on a regular basis.

10. And what is the threat not yet anticipated? The first application of a new technology or a new tactic, such as crashing an aircraft into the World Trade Center, is likely to catch us unaware if we are not attempting to think outside the box.

Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series