The Civilian Response to an Active Shooter

Essay, 2018

11 Pages, Grade: N/A

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Active shooters have regrettably become a normal occurrence during the last several years in the United States and throughout the world. There are countless incidents recorded in which one or several gunmen enter a public arena and open fire. By looking at past events, there is a chance that a plan can be developed for the future. It is evident that planning is critical due to its position in the emergency management process. However, the completion of just one of the four phases will not lead to success. Organizations and communities must strive for an adequate representation in each phase in order to be successful in the aftermath of an active shooter event. The most vulnerable group during an active shooter is the civilian population. By understanding their role in these events, there may be a chance to avoid mass casualty events.

An active shooter is someone that is “actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area (Active Shooter: Planning and Response, 2017, pg. 9). The “active shooter” is still a relatively new style of attack and is extremely hard to depict as one threat. An active shooter assault is extremely dynamic and subject to a variety of changes. Even as plans are developed and enacted by a suspect, they are subjected to changes as they arrive. Any actions of an active shooter, outside of killing as many people as possible, are completely unpredictable. No two active shooters have the same plan or same reasons for their assault. This phenomenon can make planning for the attacks difficult (Active Shooter: Planning and Response, 2017). Several organizations like the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the International Association of Emergency Medical Services Chiefs, have developed programs that can facilitate an adequate response by potential victims in an active shooter situation. By looking at examples of active shooter situations and gauging the response, we may be able to show how critical planning can be.

The Columbine High School shooting was an active shooter event that occurred on April 20, 1999 in Columbine, CO. On that day, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold set a fire bomb off using a timer at a location several miles south of Columbine High School. Their objective was to draw as many first responders to this scene and away from the school as they could. The duo then parked on separate sides of the school and rigged their vehicles to explode. They proceeded by meticulously setting up several explosives throughout the cafeteria and went outside to their ambush position. The cafeteria explosives failed to detonate which led the duo to enter the building (Columbine Shooting). As Harris and Klebold approached the building they met their first two victims at 11:19 and fired, instantly killing one (Columbine High School Shooting, 1999). The duo continued walking through the school throwing homemade explosives and openly firing on several kids as they fled. Patti Nielson, an art teacher, heard the assault and after retreating to the library, she made the first phone call to emergency personnel. Deputy Neil Gardner was the armed school resource officer that made the first law enforcement response. As Deputy Gardner exited his patrol vehicle , Harris immediately opened fire on his position. Deputy Gardner fired several rounds from his service pistol and Harris stepped back into the school. Harris and Klebold continued their rampage through the school as more deputies responded. Harris and Klebold wreaked havoc on their way to the school library and reloaded their weapons when they arrived. Upon entering the library, Harris and Klebold began their massacre that lasted a lifelong six minutes. The duo killed ten of the fifty six library hostages and wounded twelve. There were several incidents noted in which both Harris and Klebold made eye contact with students locked in rooms, but made no attempts to harm them. After leaving the library at approximately 11:36, the duo returned at approximately 12:02 to find it empty of surviving students. Harris and Klebold committed suicide at 12:08 in the library and were found laying next to each other (Columbine High School Shooting, 1999).

The law enforcement response to the Columbine High School shooting met the current standards considering an attack with hostages. By 12:00 SWAT teams arrived on scene and were stationed outside of the school. These teams did not enter the school until 13:00, but moved classroom to classroom upon entry. Those left in the library were not located until 15:30. The school was finally deemed secure at 17:30 as the last of the explosives were secured (Columbine High School Shooting, 1999). This standard has changed and law enforcement has adopted a response specifically tailored to an active shooter event.

It is always easy after an event occurs, to sit back and show the several signs that an attack was imminent. Fore example, in 1997 the website that was create by Eric Harris began to show his anger with society. The website was first discovered when Klebold disclosed it to Brook's Brown in an attempt to warn him of the impending threat. After being arrested in 1998 the duo began to film themselves, boasting of the weapons that they have collected throughout time. Their collective journals and videos discussed their plan of escape and methods for ensuring the most casualties possible (Columbine High School Shooting, 1999).

Another active shooter incident occurred on April 16, 2007 at Virginia Tech University. The shooter, Seung-Hui Cho, was a permanent United States resident that move from South Korea at age three. Cho and a hard life through grade school and was diagnosed with severe anxiety in high school (Virginia Tech, 2007). This diagnosis was not disclosed to the college due to existing privacy laws. In 2005, Cho was accused of stalking two females and after being evaluated, he was labeled mentally ill. Cho's attach came in two wave and in two different locations. During the first attack, Cho entered the residents hall at approximately 07:15 and met his first two victims. Cho opened fired and fatally wounding two females. Cho then returned to his room and changed clothes, removed his hard drive, and gathered his equipment for his next attack. Cho loaded a backpack with chains, locks, a hammer, a knife, his two handguns and approximately 400 rounds of ammunition. Approximately two hours after the first attack, Cho arrived at his new location and chained all of the entrances closed. Cho left notes that stated that tampering with the locked doors would cause them to explode. One of the notes was found before the shooting started and taken to administration in the building. The bomb threat was never called in before the shooting started. Cho's assault last approximately twelve minutes, in which he made entry into several rooms before they were barricaded. Cho indiscriminately fired upon students and teachers before taking his own life. The death toll in the two attack was over thirty teachers and students. As stated previously, law enforcement tactic for active shooter response changed after Columbine. This is evident here because law enforcement responded within three minutes but were blocked by the previously barricaded entrances. The locks were eventually shot and entry was made (Virginia Tech Shooting).

The last of the active shooter event examples occurred at the Pulse Night Club on June 11, 2016 in Orlando, Florida. The sole shooter, Omar Mateen entered the club and began his assault at approximately 02:02. Mateen fired several rounds and then stepped further into the club and made the incident a hostage scenario. The uniformed officers radioed for assistance and was quickly met with hundreds of first responders. Mateen continued his rampage and fired several rounds into bathrooms and across the night club. Patrons began to hide anywhere they could and are even resorted to hiding under dead bodies. Mateen made several calls to 9-1-1 and repeatedly stated that this attack was provoked by the presence of United States military personnel in Iraq and Syria. Mateen was reported stating that his attack would end when the United States withdrew from the area. Mateen made several references to his loyalty to ISIL and even referenced the Boston Marathon Bombers as his friends. Responding officers made entry into the building and began evacuating anyone that could escape (Cambria, Castor, Gorban, Meade, Straub, Waltemeyer, Zeunik, 2017). By 02:35, law enforcement evacuated everyone except the hostages in the bathroom with Mateen. Negotiations began and by 04:29, Mateen advised that he was going to strap explosives to hostages and blow up the building. At 05:07, SWAT officers attempted to breach the building via explosion and failed. An armored vehicle was then brought and entry was made. At 05:14, Mateen engaged in a firefight with law enforcement and was struck at least eight times and killed (Couvertier, 2016). Mateen was able to kill fifty people and injure approximately fifty eight others during the assault.

There were several alarming incident that occurred that could have shown a possible threat was imminent. Omar Mateen trained to be a correctional officer but was terminated during his probationary period for a joke related to bringing a weapon to a school. Mateen attempted and failed to be a Florida Highway Patrolman in 2011 and failed to gain entry to the police academy in 2015. According to classmates, Mateen threatened to killed them at a cookout where his hamburger touched a piece of pork. Mateen's first wife reported that he was extremely disturbed, was physically abusive, and addicted heavily to steroids (Cambria, Castor, Gorban, Meade, Straub, Waltemeyer, Zeunik, 2017).

Due to the level of complexity in each attack and the dynamic nature they follow, stopping them once they start can be difficult. There are however several steps that can be implemented in an attempt to prevent the attack from occurring and steps that ensure that a adequate response has been developed in the event they do occur. There are several types of pre-event behavior that can be linked with a potential attack. Leakage and last resort warning behavior can both be considered potential red flags. Leakage warning behavior is when a potential threat notifies others of their intent to do harm. Last resort warning behavior is when a potential threat makes it known that they feel that violence is the only solution to their problem. There are several aspects of an emergency response plan that should be developed prior to an event. An emergency response plan should cover several thing to include: the appropriate method to report the incident, evacuation policies and procedures, lockdown procedures, and the layout and response routes of emergency personnel. Each level of the emergency operation plan can become extremely complex in just a short amount of time. For example, the development of evacuation routes is imperative but so is the development of alternative routes should the main evacuation route become compromised (Active Shooter: Planning and Response, 2017). After a plan has been implemented, the next step is to ensure that everyone knows it and that exercises follow. During a stressful or anxious moment, people are going to resort back to the lowest level of training that they have. By implementing mock scenarios and expecting your personnel to respond, an organization is setting itself up for a successful response. The development of an emergency operation plan is meaningless if no one knows how to respond (Active Shooter: Planning and Response, 2017).

The next step in a civilian's response to an active shooter situation has been broken down into several different techniques. There is the ALICE method, the 4 A's Method, the Avoid – Deny – Defend Method, and lastly the Run – Hide – Fight Method. Both the Run – Hide – Fight and Avoid – Deny – Defend methods are self explanatory. Run when it is feasible and vacate the area. If running is not a safe option, then hiding in a secure location may be. Lastly there is fight. This stage is where individuals fight as their lives and other around them depend on it (Planning and Response to an Active Shooter, 2015). Avoid is when an individual is actively aware of their surrounding and do not allow themselves to be vulnerable locations and situations. Deny is the process of locking shooters out and denying them access to potential victims. Lastly, defend is similar to the fight phase. An individual must defend theirs lives and the lives of other around them. The 4 A's Method includes: Accept, Assess, Act, and Alert. Accept that an emergency is unfolding and move past it. Assess the next step whether it is to run, hide, or fight. Act on the decided next step and alert law enforcement as soon as safely possible. The ALICE Method includes: Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, and Evacuate (Active Shooter: Planning and Response, 2017).

Civilians on scene can be one of the best tools for responding officers because they often times are the best source of information. As civilians respond to an active shooter situation and report the information, they should make attempts to give as much accurate information as possible. Several questions that should be asked are: How many suspects are there? Where is the suspect at? What is the suspect wearing? What kind of weapons are involved? How many people are injured? Are there hostages? This information could prove critical in a successful response by law enforcement. It could prove to be the direct cause of saving more lives (Active Shooter: Planning and Response, 2017).

In each of these previous events, it is clear that active shooter events will constantly evolve. The Columbine High School shooting was a tragic event that molded the response of law enforcement today. They understand now how crucial each second is and that a quick response must take place. Student within that school showed massive resilience and implemented a run – hide – fight mentality before it was ever developed. The Virginia Tech shooting showed how perpetrators have evolved. It is evident through the fact that Cho locked the doors that he knew that help was on the way and that his time was limited. The Virginia Tech students also showed undeniable resilience during their fight to barricade doors and their attempts to fight their attacker. The Pulse Night Club shooting shows that law enforcement has adapted and is taking the fight to these shooters in order to save more lives. If Mateen was allowed to stay in the building unaddressed, the death tolled could have easily been doubled. Each of these events and those that follow them will continue to show that communities have to ability to fight off these attacks. Communities have the ability to save others and survive. By taking these steps and furthering research, civilians will have a fundamental knowledge of how to respond.


Active shooter: Planning and response. (January 24, 2017). International Association of Emergency Medical Services Chiefs.

Cambria, J., Castor, J., Gorban, B., Meade, B., Straub, F., Waltemeyer, D., Zeunik, J., (2017). Rescue, response, and resilience: A critical incident review of the Orlando public safety r esponse to the attack on the Pulse nightclub. Community Oriented Policing Service. US. Department of Justice. Retrieved from w0857-pub.pdf

Columbine High School Shooting. (April 21, 1999). Federal Bureau of Investigation Records Vault. Retrieved from %20/Columbine%20High%20School%20Part%201%20of%204/view

Columbine Shooting. (n.d). Retrieved from school-shootings

Couvertier, Dave. (June 20, 2016). Investigative update regarding pulse nightclub shooting. FBI Records Vault. Retrieved from %20Nightclub%20Shooting%20Part%2001%20of%2001/view

Planning and response to an active shooter: An interagency security committee policy and best practices guide. (2015). Interagency Security Committee.

Virginia Tech. (April 17, 2007). Federal Bureau of Investigation Records Vault. Retrieved from %2001%20of %2001/view

Virginia Tech Shooting. (n.d.). Retrieved from history/massacre-at-virginia-tech-leaves-32-dead

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The Civilian Response to an Active Shooter
Homeland Security Emergency Management
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ISBN (Book)
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510 KB
civilian, response, active, shooter
Quote paper
Sheldon Lowe (Author), 2018, The Civilian Response to an Active Shooter, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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