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How to Respond to an Active Shooter

Responding to an active shooter was a situation once reserved for tactical police rushing to the scene of a school shooting. Today, such events are not necessarily limited to schools; they have become frequent in office buildings, factories and just about any other workplace. They also occur at places of worship and public venues like malls, sporting and musical events.

The reasons for these tragedies are as diverse and arbitrary as the various shooters' motivations. Some are disgruntled employees or students who feel wronged or picked on. Some shooters commit these acts because of a mental illness, a personal philosophy of hate or the desire to perform acts of domestic terrorism.

While no one can predict when or where the next active shooter incident may occur, there are proactive behaviors that both police departments and citizens can take that can save lives.

The Police Response

The 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School was not the first school shooting, but it became the tipping point in how police would respond to these kinds of incidents. The conventional thinking at that time was to handle the scene as they would a hostage situation: set up a perimeter, contain the event and await a tactical unit's arrival to make the entry. In the Columbine shooting, the shooters engaged with officers and exchanged gunfire twice outside the building. However, the officers' decision not to immediately enter the school would be widely studied and bring about fundamental changes in future police responses.

For the first time, police departments changed their tactics and training for responding to active school shooters. Unlike hostage situations, time was no longer on the officers' side; instead, time was the enemy. The Columbine shooters were motivated to cause maximum damage as quickly as possible, and most did not expect to leave or survive the incident. As a result, many changes have been made to how police respond to active shooters.

The QUAD Team

Early post-Columbine police training was called QUAD, which stands for Quick Action Deployment. Initially, a QUAD team consisted of the first four to five officers arriving at the scene. Officers from different departments respond to these types of calls, so QUAD team members don't have to be from the same department.

At least one officer on the team has to have a rifle or shotgun, and all officers should be wearing bulletproof vests. Once assembled, a team radios in, stating that they're ready to enter the building. Only one QUAD team enters while other responding units establish a perimeter, assist exiting students and set up meeting locations where family members can wait for their children.

Upon entering, a QUAD team forms a diamond pattern with a point (or lead) person, two side guards and a rearguard, similar to a military combat formation. The rear guard travels backward, covering the team from a rear attack. This kind of approach was considered radical at the time — speeding toward gunfire with weapons drawn, ready for an immediate gun battle. Police work had taken on a combat mindset, and the mentality was to immediately stop the shooter no matter what.

One of the most significant changes in tactics was the pace of the team. Instead of slow, deliberate movement, the pace is much quicker. It's a very fast walk — almost a jog. The goal is to travel as quickly as possible in the direction of gunfire, stop the shooter and save lives.

The next concept was the most difficult to teach to officers who always learned that they had a duty to stop and aid the injured. The new rule is not to stop for any reason, including to provide aid to a fallen civilian or officer. Teams are taught to step over the wounded and focus on the single purpose of getting to and engaging the shooter as quickly as possible to save lives.

The use of the QUAD model has sped up the process of stopping active shooters. However, even with the QUAD team concept, time remained the officers' enemy. How long should officers wait for that fourth member to arrive before going in as a QUAD team? Armed police aggression can at least distract the shooter and redirect their attack toward approaching officers as opposed to civilians.

Police tactics have been adapted from school shootings to active shooters in multiple and diverse locations, including workplaces, houses of worship and various public gathering venues.

New Concepts for a Quicker Response

First, consider this question: can a team have only two or three members and still be effective? The answer is yes. While firepower and manpower are reduced, the response speed is increased by waiting for fewer officers to arrive. So if the first two officers on the scene can enter, find and engage the shooter, why not a solo officer response?

This concept is gaining traction in law enforcement agencies. The solo officer response means that when the first officer arrives on the scene, they announce to dispatch the location where they are entering and move without hesitation toward the sound of gunfire. Unlike the QUAD approach, multiple solo officer responders can enter from different parts of a structure. These solo officers can cover a greater area and approach the threat from several different directions, perhaps pinning the shooter down.

The main problem with this tactic, though, is the threat of friendly fire. Training must address officers shooting only at what they can identify. Simply knowing that multiple solo officers are responding in the same building can reduce friendly fire issues.

During an active shooter event, the goal must always be to stop the killing as quickly as possible. Until the threat is stopped, injured officers and civilians cannot receive life-saving medical treatment. The bottom line is that seconds saved means lives saved.

The solo officer tactic, however, is more dangerous to an individual officer, as they are giving up both superior manpower and superior firepower. Officers must instead rely on excellent training, tactics and surprise to win the battle and take the shooter down. The solo officer response may be the next generation in police tactics for stopping active shooters.

The Citizen Response

If a citizen is at work, in school or walking around the local mall, what should they do if they're confronted by an active shooter? Through the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the federal government provides recommendations for a citizen response to an active shooter.

Prior Planning

The first step is to have a plan in advance of an incident. Much of this is a mindset. Citizens should get into the habit of looking at their surroundings at work or school and take note of the nearest exits. Consider an escape path or a location where concealment is possible. If someone observes something that looks suspicious, they need to know who to notify and when to say something. Citizens should program their cell phones to receive local emergency news alerts. These alerts may prevent people from walking into an ongoing active shooter event.

During an Incident

There are three core actions to take during a shooting depending on the individual's location, surroundings, and proximity to the shooter: run, hide or fight.


If escape is possible, then run away from the shooter, getting as far away as fast as possible. Assist others if you can, leaving all of your packages or possessions behind. Warn others of the danger, preventing them from entering the area. After escaping the area, call 911 and report the incident. The most important information to provide to law enforcement is the incident location, the number of shooters, a physical description of them and a description of the weapons observed.


If escape is not possible, it may be necessary to hide in a concealed location. Stay out of the shooter's view and remain quiet. Indiscriminate active shooters will shoot at what is closest to them and what they can see.

If you're in an office or classroom, close and lock or barricade the door. Turn off the lights and close the blinds. If possible, hide separately, not bunched into groups. Attempt to communicate with law enforcement, but only by silently texting. While hiding, remaining quiet is essential, so silence your cell phone. Persons in hiding should stay hidden and silent until located or given an all-clear signal by the police. The hiding place you choose should ideally provide some protection against randomly fired bullets. Wood or metal furniture or full filing cabinets provide some protection.


Fighting should only be a last resort when running or hiding are not options, and the shooter's attack is imminent. Any sharp object, such as car keys or a pen, can be used as an offensive weapon. Commit to the fight as aggressively as possible. An attack may be coordinated with several other people, using improvised weapons (such as fire extinguishers) and heavy or sharp items to stop the shooter.

Be mentally prepared to inflict severe or lethal injury to a shooter. The head, neck and facial areas (and specifically the eyes) are targets likely to cause debilitating and disorienting injury, allowing the victims to survive and escape.

Exiting During or After the Incident

While exiting the building, citizens should place their hands up and keep their hands empty. They should understand that law enforcement's constant concern is that a school or workplace shooter will exit with others, acting like a victim. Be aware that police may have weapons drawn and may loudly give commands, including asking the victims to lie on the ground while they are checked for weapons.

If first responders have not arrived in sufficient numbers, help the wounded if possible. Stop or slow the bleeding by placing direct pressure on the victim's wounds.

The Final Step

Whether physically injured or not, each victim should seek professional help and counseling with their family to deal with and eventually move past this traumatic event. The social stigma around this kind of treatment is quickly fading, and no one should feel ashamed to seek it out, especially those involved in an active shooter event.

Addressing the Threat

Senseless acts of violence have become much too common, but positive actions are now being taken to confront these kinds of threats. Many schools are going through a target hardening process, installing solid core classroom doors that can be secured against entry. Building access is limited using remote key card access systems.

Police and private security forces are deployed at schools, office buildings and places of worship to defeat active shooter threats or deter them altogether. The ultimate response to an active shooter will come when they can be stopped before they ever occur. Until that day, we must all do our best to train, prepare and survive an active shooter.

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