By James W. Kiesling/Gulf Coast Emergency Response Academy
Within the emergency response community the difficulty involved with responding to active shooter incidents has recently become the subject of much speculation; and rightfully so. In the past year alone, a school shooting in Ohio on March 1 leaving 3 dead; the July 20 theater shooting in Colorado (the Batman shooting) left 12 dead; a shooting on August 5 in a Sikh Temple in Milwaukee killed six worshippers; the December shootings one in an Oregon mall and a second in a Connecticut elementary school, killing two and 26 people, respectively; and a shooting on Christmas Eve, in which emergency responders were specifically targeted, left two firefighters dead and two wounded. This is not a comprehensive list but just some examples of the incidents that occurred in 2012.
In examining these incidents from the perspective of an emergency responder, several items initially stand out. The first is that these attacks have occurred in the US from the east coast to the west coast as well as from the northern border to the southern border. The second is that these incidents have taken place in a wide variety of occupancies including: theatres, restaurants, schools, malls, dwellings, houses of worship and places of business. These two items mean that no place is immune to this type of attack. Any industrial facility can be the target of this type of attack whether it is perpetrated by a disgruntled employee or by someone with a perceived grievance against the company. These attacks can even be directed specifically at responding members of the fire brigade, as in the recent Christmas Eve attack.
The Fire Department of New York has responded to several active shooter incidents over the years but has never addressed the specific problems involved with these incidents. One of the better examples of an active shooter incident that the FDNY responded to, known as the Freddy’s Market Attack, took place in Harlem on Dec. 8, 1995. The shooter, Abugunde Mulocko, a reputed member of the Black Liberation Army, entered Freddy’s Fashion Mart, began shooting and proceeded to set the building on fire. When the FDNY arrived on scene, they found the street barricaded by police and the building containing the shooter occupied and fully involved in fire. The firefighters crawled with a hose line to the front of the building while police fired into it. Firefighters entered the store, flanked by police officers with ballistic shields. The officers stayed with the firefighters on the hose line as long as they could until forced back by heat and smoke. The firefighters continued on, putting out the fire and eventually finding the shooter dead.
This type of incident is hazardous for all concerned, requiring exceptional coordination between those involved. Despite this, the FDNY had never taken a heightened interest in active shooter incidents until the 2008 attack in Mumbai. While the integration of fire into the active shooter incident described above seems to have been considered an anomaly, the incident in Mumbai was not. Not only was Mumbai a well planned and deliberate terrorist act, it was also successful. The FDNY (being a fire department) heavily differentiates between the usual active shooter incident and those that fall into the Mumbai category due to the introduction of fire as a weapon as well as explosives and an elevated level of teamwork exhibited by the perpetrators. This differentiation should also be considered by any emergency responders who may have to respond to such an incident. The attackers, by conducting an armed assault which integrates fire as a weapon, force responders to operate in environments that they are not readily equipped to handle. As in the case of the above narrative, the fire company was not adequately protected from gunfire, and the police eventually had to leave the building due to the heat and smoke.
All facilities should recognize the possibility of an active shooter incident and address this issue to at least some level. The perpetrators can range from terrorists and the mentally ill to disgruntled employees, and the attacks can occur anywhere. The appropriate level of training for your facility may just be to the awareness level. I just finished reviewing a video by Emergency Film Group entitled “Active Shooter: Rapid Response” and found it to be a good overview of the topic for those looking for a starting point to their training and those requiring awareness level of training. Above an awareness level, the next level of preparation could be to let local law enforcement and others who would respond to this type of incident utilize your facility for training. This has the benefits of familiarizing plant personnel with their operations, promoting good will and, should the worst occur, allowing responders to be better prepared. Finally, members of an industrial team can plan to integrate their response with that of law enforcement. This can be accomplished by such acts as providing medical care to those in areas deemed safe or applying water to a fire from a safe area utilizing the length of the hose stream to advantage.
When deciding on whether or not to address this type of incident in your training to what level, consider several factors. No facility is immune to being targeted by a disgruntled employee or the mentally ill. Does the facility represent something that would make it more of a target? In these types of attacks, waiting for a SWAT team is not an option as the attackers generally plan on continuing the attack until they are dead. This means that any emergency response that is going to be successful must be implemented immediately.
Training for these incidents can be difficult as the response can involve so many disciplines and organizations, such as law enforcement, fire, medical and facility personnel. In recognition of the difficulty of coordinating the many different aspects of these responses, India has gone so far as to develop fire commandos in response to the Mumbai attacks. In order for this type of operation to be conducted with maximum probability of success, training must be conducted between those organizations that will be involved in the response as well as those that are the targets of the attack.
James Kiesling is a Captain with the Fire Department, City of New York’s Special Operations Command. He holds a bachelor of arts in fire and emergency services from John Jay College of Criminal Justice and an associate degree in occupational studies in fire protection technology from Corning Community College.