Mass Shooting Responses Addressed at Firehouse World

With alarming frequency, responders are becoming more involved with mass shootings and, unfortunately, are becoming targets themselves. Attendees of Firehouse World in San Diego learned how to handle those kinds of incidents and how to best protect themselves.

In a presentation ripped from the headlines, Russell Fowler, Battalion Chief/HazMat Team Coordinator for California Fire Fighters Joint Apprenticeship Committee (CFFJAC) taught a class titled “Response to Mass Shooting Incidents/Emerging Threats.” In it, he covered topics as current as the Newtown, Conn. , school shooting and the shooting of firefighters in Webster, N.Y., on Christmas Eve.

“If you don’t have a policy for how to handle hostile situations, you need to develop one and practice it frequently,” said Fowler to a classroom packed with fire service professionals and responders, eager to learn how to take care of themselves and protect the public they serve. “We have to be prepared to give everything we have when we are called upon. The public expects nothing less.”

Fowler said there’s little doubt in his mind that there will be other mass shootings and emerging threats in the future, it’s just a matter of where.

“And don’t think it can’t happen where you are,” Fowler said, pointing to the recent headline stories. “Do you think the firefighters in Webster expected to get shot at when they responded? They were going to a house fire.” The same is true for the volunteers in Newtown, located near the school where the horrific and tragic shootings took place at Sandy Hook Elementary School. “They were right next door and they engaged immediately.”

Many fire departments in the nation have policies of staging and not engaging in rescue attempts until given the official all clear by high ranking law enforcement officials. Fowler said, however, there might be some opportunities for firefighters and emergency medical service providers to make a significant difference in saving lives if they’re willing to enter the warm zone, and more importantly, if they’re allowed.

Fowler said when the Columbine High School shooting happened in Colorado on April 20, 1999, many people died because EMS and firefighters were not allowed into the school for more than three hours while responders waited for a SWAT team to make sure the building was safe.

“People literally died in the school waiting for help,” Fowler said.

In an attempt to get responders thinking about different response policies, Fowler suggested first responders work with law enforcement officials to allow firefighters to rescue people from the “warm zone” after officers have already swept an area or have the shooter pinned down.

“I just want to plant some seeds to have people thinking differently because mass shootings are happening at a rapid pace,” Fowler said. “…Some of you are probably going to think that I am really putting firefighters in harm’s way, but I am just trying to have people think outside the box and keep an open mind.”

Fowler said rescue teams entering shooting scenes with armed law enforcement escorts could potentially save lives. A team of five law enforcement officers and four or five firefighters/EMS providers can make a tremendous difference with “scoop-and-go” rescue attempts, extracting wounded, but surviving victims from the scene for treatment in the “cold zone” perhaps as much as a quarter mile from the scene. It would also be ideal if firefighters were also given some ballistic protection too, he said.

“We just want to get people out of there and to help as quickly as possible,” Fowler said. “If you have people who are injured, but can walk, have them help you get people out.”

Firefighters and EMS providers naturally want to mobilize and help and departments should be fully aware that any policy that requires staging is probably going to be violated if there’s any chance people can be saved.

“We’re the guys who run into burning buildings,” Fowler said of firefighters' natural inclination to rush into dangerous situations.

The only way Fowler said his approach to rescuing victims in mass shooting situations will work is if firefighters and law enforcement officers work together and train extensively with the rescue procedures. And, above all else, they have to trust each other.

Fowler said trust and communication between firefighter/EMS providers is critically important in times of mass shootings. Pointing to last year’s shooting at the movie theater in Aurora, Colo., Fowler said firefighters refused to enter the building even after police said it was safe as an example of a communication breakdown.

He said police officers transported victims in their own vehicles for treatment after firefighters refused to enter the scene.

“The [Aurora] firefighters dodged a bullet on that one because the media never picked up on it,” Fowler said.

Necessarily, law enforcement officers have to be focused on “neutralizing” the threat by verifying the shooter has been killed or taken into custody and that any secondary threats or shooters have been resolved as well, Fowler said. Officers cannot focus on victim treatment or care as their objective is to minimize victim count.

That might take time, a span that firefighters and EMS responders can use to establish triage areas and mobilize resources based on reports they have been given.

Triage areas need to be secured by law enforcement officers and isolated from any other snipers or threats, as well as family who might be responding and the media as well.

In this day of instant communication with cell phones, texting and a host of other methods, the minute anything happens, it is news and everyone is converging on the scene, Fowler said. And responders need to be prepared for that onslaught.

Responders also need to be prepared for secondary threats like improvised explosive devices, second shooters, snipers and a host of other threats.

And, Fowler said that, unfortunately, firefighters might become the next target for any type of terrorist, domestic or international.

“We are continuing to see instances where we are the targets,” Fowler said. “We don’t have guns. We don’t have vests. And we are considered to be the good guys. We’re America’s heroes. … Someone is thinking; ‘let’s take out some of the good ones -- that will really have an effect.’”

From Al-Queda, to religious extremists, hate groups, to domestic terrorist and eco-terrorists, the threats are real and growing and Fowler said responders need to be prepared for all kinds of attacks on the population, whether they are shootings or arson fires, or biological and chemical attacks.

To help firefighters meet the challenges, CFFJAC has posted a variety of training on line, including an active shooter training video at www.cffjac.org.

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