Public Safety & Homeland Security

School Shooting Preparedness Requires Complex Training

Adequate planning, training and exercises can provide public safety and emergency management professionals with a strong foundation to react appropriately to or avoid critical incidents when lives are in danger.

by David Farris and Drew Tracy / July 5, 2013

Just as previous school shootings shocked our national conscience and resulted in changes to public safety initiatives, law enforcement tactics and intervention programs, the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut refocused our collective attention to prevent and reduce victims of gun violence in our school systems.

The age of the Sandy Hook victims may be the catalyst necessary to open the debate on mental health notifications, gun control and access to databases to query individuals who may be a threat to themselves or others. But a successful physical response to active shooters is dependent on effective planning and well coordinated exercises.

Colleges and universities are fine tuning emergency plans, re-examining preventative measures, coordinating with local law enforcement and improving response strategies to active shooter scenarios, which at the time of the writing of this article were occurring nearly twice a week. If preventive measures are not successful, a well coordinated response is the only viable alternative. Educational institutions must acknowledge that without strong support from local law enforcement, fire and rescue, and emergency medical services, institutions will not have enough resources to handle an active shooter scenario effectively.

Adequate planning, training and exercises can provide public safety and emergency management professionals with a strong foundation to react appropriately to or avoid critical incidents when lives are in danger. To be prepared we must invest in response scenario-based training.


Regional Collaboration


Depending on the configuration and capacities of an institution’s local jurisdictions and on-campus resources, it may be necessary to coordinate with multiple agencies to ensure that all parties are familiar with campus plans and one another’s emergency response procedures. During two recent response-based training scenarios at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., six public safety, four law enforcement and two fire and rescue agencies participated because of the university’s affiliation with the state, county and city. In an actual emergency there is a potential that all six agencies will be called on to respond simultaneously. Orchestrating a response this complex requires advanced planning to coordinate the command structure, communications and control.

In a short duration incident, university police will take the lead with the assistance of Fairfax City Police. If a situation evolves into a protracted incident or hostage/barricade incident, command and control will be elevated with Fairfax County Police Department taking the lead supported by the university and Fairfax City Police, the county Sheriff’s Office and possibly State Police. County and city fire and rescue units provide rescue task force support.

To ensure that all parties were able to participate in our exercises, the head of each agency was contacted in advance by the university chief of police; dates for two exercises were established to ensure that agencies had the opportunity for more than one shift to participate; discussions were held to agree on the general concept of operations; and agency plans were reviewed in advance to identify inconsistencies and outdated information.


Elements of Success


Some organizations elect to conduct training at a remote location to minimize disruptions to campus operations. While the fundamentals of active shooter response scenario-based training are portable, familiarity with campus features is not. Orientation to an institution’s facilities is a key element in a decisive and quick response. For this reason it is recommended that training be conducted on campus and at a location that is deemed to be most vulnerable by the organization’s threat and risk assessment program.

The ideal venue for a full-scale active shooter exercise will possess features that are representative of the dominate characteristics of the campus — classrooms, open public areas, multiple entrances, stairwells and administrative spaces. High-profile facilities such as sports arenas and public locations that are more likely to attract individuals capable of committing violence are ideal exercise venues. Student centers, public venues and mixed-use buildings typically possess multiple features and can be partitioned prior to an exercise to emphasize a particular environment.

Selecting a venue requires collaboration with various administrative functions, consideration of the campus’s academic calendar, and consultation with the venue’s occupants. Because exercises can be disruptive to routine activities, a committee of key stakeholders should be convened to coordinate exercise logistics. Functions that should be represented on the planning team are parking, public relations, campus operations, facilities management, provost office, events management and IT.

We found that functional and full-scale exercises are best executed when preceded by an educational seminar immediately prior to the exercise that provides an overview of the logistics, tactics and objectives of the exercise. The benefits of this format are that it orients participants to the exercise and addresses the minutia that can stymie an exercise. For example, providing a brief overview of rescue task force tactics, communications and the theoretical sequence of events, allows participants to focus on the execution of procedures without the distraction of uncertainty and artificialities of the exercise. In some cases, a pre-exercise briefing may not be appropriate if the objective of the exercise is to reveal gaps across the entire spectrum of an agency’s response competency.

The second essential element of successful exercises is complexity. A multiagency response provides opportunities to exercise command and control, test interoperability of communications systems, practice incident command system operations, and strengthen relationships with local response agencies. In addition to simulating the response structure, it is also critical to re-create the environment of an emergency. Using volunteers as victims, conducting real-time radio, phone and email communications using established protocols, and providing additional audio visual stimuli such as firing blanks and staging exercise spaces to reflect chaos or damage enhances the exercise reality and experience. These elements prepare responders for circumstances that they may not be exposed to in training. For example, the sound of a firearm being discharged in a building is much different or more difficult to detect than shots fired outdoors.

Another recommendation is to conduct two exercises within a 30-day period. The advantages of this approach are: planning two exercises simultaneously uses the planning team’s time more efficiently; staggering the day of the week and time will allow multiple shifts to participate in the exercises; and the corrective actions identified in the after-action report from the first exercise can be implemented and tested during the second exercise.

Prior to conducting an exercise, it is essential to ensure that students, employees and visitors are aware of the exercise to avoid false alarms and emergency calls. Use the campus emergency notification system(s) to notify the community. This procedure ensures a broad distribution of the announcement, and it serves as a test of the emergency notification system. By notifying the community of the exercise, the community becomes aware of the institution’s efforts to improve emergency preparedness and subsequently peaks interest in emergency management issues, which in our experience prompted requests for information on how to respond to on-campus violence.

It’s also important to engage the media. Unfortunately the media is too often portrayed as an impediment to emergency response operations, but the media can be a tremendous asset during all phases of emergency management if engaged and managed properly. It is essential to understand the importance of assigning competent public information officers and defining their roles to ensure a consistent message if the media is involved. Media coverage of exercises can build confidence within the campus community by revealing the institution’s commitment to preparedness and safety. Evidence of preparedness efforts can act as a deterrent to those with intentions to commit violence, and it promotes the institution in a positive light. These intangible benefits can lead to increased support for university emergency preparedness initiatives and future opportunities to engage executive leadership and the campus community in programs designed to prevent or respond to on campus violence.

While the focus of full-scale exercises is preparing and training first responders, a tangential benefit that is equally important is stimulating the campus community to act. Because full-scale exercises absorb university resources, potentially involve the media and are highly visible, these events bring increased attention to the types of scenarios that may befall an institution and prompt the community to consider its actions when a crisis occur. Exercises should be leveraged to encourage the campus community to review active shooter guidance, participate in training programs, review office plans and discuss response procedures with students, co-workers and family.

Active shooter response scenario-based training can serve as a solid foundation for a multiphase training program. Well publicized full-scale exercises attract the attention of executive leadership. Following our recent exercises, we were able to coordinate a series of trainings and exercises with executive leadership to familiarize them with emergency response procedures and their role in emergencies.


Lessons Learned


The single most important lesson that we learned is to meet periodically with local public safety and emergency management counterparts to coordinate response tactics. Each agency has unique response protocols and philosophies. To be successful, colleges and universities must work toward a plan that is crafted by and exercised by all first responders. To be successful, higher education institutions should:

  • expand participation in the exercise planning team to mitigate potential conflicts;
  • reduce dispatch time by streamlining reporting to improve response time;
  • establish and practice a command structure that will be used to manage incidents in advance to improve performance;
  • utilize unified command/Incident Command System protocols and practice under all circumstances with an emphasis on rapid integration to ensure effective communication;
  • ensure interoperable communications and establish protocols to coordinate a multiagency response;
  • assign and deploy responding personnel to specific duties immediately upon arrival based on prior training and exercises; and
  • develop, train, exercise and evolve a plan that is accepted by all first responders.

The design of an exercise should reflect the unique attributes of the campus and region, the personalities of your regional emergency response agencies, and be consistent with your organization’s position in the spectrum of emergency preparedness development. Prior to this experience, George Mason University Police trained on active shooter scenarios off campus, which provided a less visible and lower stress environment to educate and develop emergency response tactics. With the increased frequency and attention to campus violence and active shooters, the necessity to conduct exercises can’t be questioned. However, a poorly executed exercise can do more harm than good.

David Farris is the director of emergency management and fire safety at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. Drew Tracy, chief of police for George Mason University, has more than 30 years of law enforcement experience.