IN DECEMBER 13, 2012, LOCAL FIREFIGHTERS were among the first to arrive at Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Connecticut, in response to a shooter in the school. As police entered the building to hunt down the gunman, firefighters helped set up a triage unit at the site to treat the injured. But no injured came. “A few times during the incident I actually [was] hoping that this area [would be] filled with injured people,” one firefighter told CNN. “But fairly early on we realized that wasn’t going to be the case.” People either got out uninjured, or they died in the school. When it was over, 20 children and six adults at the school were dead.
Ten days later, in upstate New York, a 911 dispatcher received a call from an unidentified man who claimed he was under fire. “We are being shot at,” he told the dispatcher, according to NBC News. “Multiple firemen down. Multiple firemen are shot. I am shot. I think he is using an assault rifle.”
Chiefs endorse document on active shooters
At its September 2013 meeting at NFPA headquarters, the Urban Fire Forum endorsed a position paper on active shooters and mass casualty terrorist events. The UFF Position Statement: Active Shooter and Mass Casualty Terrorist Events begins with this statement: "The emerging threat of terrorism and asymmetric warfare, specifically small unit 'active shooter' and improvised explosive device (IED) attacks, is a concern for the fire service. An attack by radicals armed with weapons in public areas, such as schools, shopping malls, churches or any other locations where people congregate is a real threat to a sense of security and daily lives."
Download the position paper as well as free resources, courtesy of Chief Jim Schwartz of Arlington County, VA, to help a community prepare for an active shooter or mass casualty terrorist event.
The Urban Fire Forum brings together the fire chiefs who are responsible for protecting some of the largest urban centers in the world.
The caller was a member of the volunteer fire department in West Webster, New York, near Rochester. Firefighters were responding to a pre-dawn residential blaze in the nearby town of Webster when they were met with gunfire—a man had purposely set his vehicle and home on fire to lure firefighters and other emergency responders to the scene, where he ambushed them. Two firefighters were killed and two more were wounded in the shooting spree. News outlets quickly made the connection that the Webster gunman used the same model of military-style, semi-automatic rifle that the Newtown shooter had used.
The events of last December illustrate how local fire departments need to work with police, as well as with emergency medical services, in responding to events that include a shooter—whether the threat is known, as in Newtown, or unknown, as in the ambush in Webster. Both types are of great concern to fire and police agencies nationwide, and efforts are underway to address issues related to shooter events.
In April, more than 40 leaders from the fire service, law enforcement, emergency medical services, and government agencies met at the Alexandria, Virginia, headquarters of the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP) to discuss ways to better integrate, coordinate, and improve responses to mass-casualty shootings. The event, “Responding to Mass Casualty Shootings—Strengthening Fire/Law Enforcement/EMS Partnerships,” was sponsored by the IACP and the International Association of Fire Chiefs, in cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security and the Federal Bureau of Investigation, along with the International Association of Fire Fighters, the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs Association (a membership section of NFPA), and the Fraternal Order of Police.
Participants at the Virginia event identified a handful of critical themes as cornerstones of a unified approach that all parties could support. Those themes include raising awareness of the differences in response protocols within the first responder community; integrating planning and training efforts, as well as practical exercises, across disciplines; using the National Incident Management System/Incident Command System (NIMS/ICS) as the platform for all state and local incident response efforts; increasing communication interoperability to ensure an integrated response; understanding the value of aggressively responding to active shooter incidents; and making sure all first responders have the best equipment available.
Based on the proceedings of the Virginia meeting, there is a real and present threat that must be addressed, and an obvious need for all organizations involved to work together when confronted by an armed individual who has either already killed and injured people or is threatening to do so. Stakeholder organizations, along with other key law enforcement groups, have committed to work together at all levels to accomplish the established objectives, which above all else seek to ensure the safety of all responders at these dangerous and unpredictable events.
Shootings, Schools, and the Codes
How NFPA can provide guidance for a multi-threat approach to safety in educational occupancies
By Robert Solomon
The possibility of a gunman entering a school, while remote, is nonetheless a key safety concern for parents, teachers, school administrators, and students, especially following the shootings last year in Newtown, Connecticut. A range of efforts to address this concern is underway in school districts throughout the country. Even though well-meaning attempts to put forth guidance on this subject have been devised at the local level, there is no indication that anyone is looking at the big picture — which is where NFPA may have an important role to play.
The big picture in this case is making sure that steps taken to address shooters are part of a multi-threat approach to safety in educational occupancies. NFPA is looking at how it can best address this emerging topic as one of a number of possible hazards, in addition to fire, that may require different strategies and protocols to ensure the safety of students and faculty.
A recurring idea for addressing shooting incidents, for example, focuses on lockdown procedures, which include installing locks on classroom doors, deferring or delaying an evacuation should the fire alarm system be activated, or both. Such actions imply a defend-in-place concept — one usually reserved for detention, heath care, and most high-rise occupancies when planning for a fire event — and they can run counter to the requirements in NFPA 1, Fire Code, and NFPA 101®, Life Safety Code®, that address educational occupancies. These codes address requirements for free and unfettered egress from classrooms, corridors, and other areas to a safe point outside of the building when the building fire alarm system is activated.
As a result of these objectives, the codes do not address the additional physical or procedural aspects that need to be considered for lockdown scenarios. School building infrastructure and system features are not addressed, such as the additional construction features — including more fire resistive construction elements, smoke barriers, and more — that may be necessary for achieving a defend-in-place environment. The codes also do not address who can be locked down, and where, such as in a room, section, floor, or an entire building; what type of locking is permissible, such as manual, automatic, or remote; how spaces get locked down and unlocked when the threat has passed; when, if ever, occupants are relocated to the outside before the threat passes; who makes the decision to go into lockdown mode; the procedures for notifying parents or guardians of the students, and for reconnecting students and parents; the operational concerns of first responders, including police, fire, or emergency medical services; and so on.
The presence of a shooter isn’t the only event when the best course of action may be to stay inside, however. That’s why it’s important to create guidelines that address a variety of non-fire emergencies, such as bomb threats, weather events, or seismic occurrences, along with the appropriate action to take, including defending in place, relocation, or evacuation. A holistic plan that addresses multiple hazards and threats will get decision makers to consider those “what ifs” and can help them prepare for an array of unlikely, but possible, scenarios. It will also put those individuals together in the same room, so that the point of view of fire, security, and other code-related experts can be shared with school administrators, parents, and first responders.
It’s impossible to say what an amended code might look like or how its provisions would specifically address these kinds of multiple hazards — it’s very early in the process, and so far our activity has mostly consisted of organizing conversations among stakeholders to help us determine what our role might be. At NFPA, we are fortunate to have the ability to address these issues through our codes and standards process, our public education resources, and our fire service connections. It is equally important that we reach out to law enforcement, and that we make sure a robust plan for keeping students safe from fire as well as other dangers is consolidated in one place. As more of these events occur, the more they suggest that this is a problem that many of us will need to consider for some time to come.
Robert Solomon is division manager for building and life safety codes at NFPA.
The case for unified command
Many questions need to be answered in advance of an active shooter incident — the incident scene is not the place to develop standard operating procedures (SOPs) to deal with a shooter.
One of the first questions to be answered is, “Who is in command?” Some would argue that an incident of this type is primarily a police matter, and that the incident commander should be a member of the responding police agency. Others would argue that emergency medical treatment is the top priority, and that incident command should be determined accordingly. In some cases, the perpetrator’s actions, or police actions, may result in a structure fire or hazardous materials incident, which might prompt some to argue for fire service command.
While we generally advocate a single command structure, the reality of many of these events makes a strong case for a unified command consisting of police, fire, and emergency medical services. NFPA 1561, Emergency Services Incident Management System, includes information on unified command and the need to have such a plan in place, but it does not address specifics for a unified command in the event of a mass-casualty shooting. SOPs, however, need to describe the use of a unified command during an active shooter incident and address who is in primary command at various stages during the incident.
For example, while the shooter or other threats are active, police should have primary command. Once the shooter is captured or otherwise neutralized, then fire and emergency medical services should assume primary command for continued victim assessment, treatment, transport, and fire control as needed, with the understanding that all responders are functioning in a crime scene. It should also be recognized that there are situations where a shooter is not yet apparent, as in the New York incident, and these ambush scenarios are now part of almost every fire service discussion on the topic. The prevailing idea here is that the fire service should “expect the unexpected,” and firefighters should have procedures in place to help them manage these situations should they encounter a shooter.
Of course, SOPs are of little value unless they are written, disseminated, and fully understood. SOPs and training are extremely important, not only in establishing and continuing command, but also at the tactical and task level. Upon arrival at an active scene, for instance, fire department staging areas should be established far enough away from the scene to provide safety during equipment assembly and engagement, considering both distance and cover provided by structures between responders and the active police operation.
In addition, many fire and police agencies are working together to establish definitions and protocols for hot, warm, and cold zones at active shooter events, similar to those at hazardous materials or fire incidents. By establishing these areas, all responding personnel would be familiar with the terminology and could orient to the scene more quickly. Just as with a hazardous materials incident, the hot zone would be a “do not enter” area for firefighters and emergency medical services, including EMTs and paramedics.
This is the active police activity zone where police officers are searching for and/or confronting the shooter.
The warm zone is the area where properly trained firefighters, EMTs, and paramedics may respond to deliver rapid life-saving care to victims under the cover of assigned police officers. This is a concept that has come to be known as a “rescue task force” (RTF) and is the second wave of response into the incident scene necessary for immediate life-saving care for shooting victims. Fire departments developing RTF protocols should train all firefighters, EMTs, and paramedics in tactical emergency casualty care and in the use of tourniquets and combat dressings.
Since firefighters, EMTs, and paramedics working in the warm zone could possibly encounter an armed assailant, they should be provided with ballistic protective equipment such as helmets, vests, and other types of protective clothing. Few firefighters and emergency medical personnel are familiar with this equipment, but for departments establishing protocols or SOPs for shooting events, appropriate protective equipment is imperative. Staging and other safe areas would be labeled as cold zones.
The communications imperative + next steps
As it is with any incident, communication is critically important. Terminology commonly used by police may not be understood by fire and medical personnel, and vice versa, which is why all parties must use the same vernacular and why training for a common terminology is essential.
Use of the ICS, for example, would eliminate 10-codes, the communication codes that were widely used by fire and police departments—except that the codes often meant different things depending on which agency was using them. Those inconsistencies undermined the central idea of interoperable communications, which is that all responding agencies speak the same language.
Part of the joint training of fire and police personnel should also address setting up interoperable communications networks to make certain police, fire, and other on-scene agencies can communicate via handheld radios.
Finally, there is a critical need to use the National Incident Management System at an active shooter event. NIMS is a Department of Homeland Security system designed to enable federal, state, and local governments, as well as private-sector and nongovernmental organizations, to effectively and efficiently prepare for, prevent, respond to, and recover from domestic incidents, regardless of their cause, size, or complexity, including acts of catastrophic terrorism. Adopted by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, NIMS uses the ICS organizational terminology and structure, which is why the acronyms ICS and NIMS are often used interchangeably when referring to organizational structure and terminology. NIMS is essential to ensure effective command and communications at the incident scene. The scene would be chaotic if individual organizations used their own terminology, as unlikely as that might be today. The use of NIMS continues to be a key talking point in fire and law enforcement planning, because it has long been used in the fire service but is relatively new in law enforcement.
In September, fire service strategies, tactics, and tasks for mass-casualty shootings will be discussed at the Urban Fire Forum (UFF), an annual meeting hosted by NFPA that brings together the chiefs of some of the world’s largest fire departments to address a range of urban fire issues. Draft guidelines for shooting events will be presented to the group, and if they are endorsed by the UFF they would be issued so that fire departments around the country could begin developing SOPs and training programs for safely dealing with shooter events. The guidelines would be made available through the Metropolitan Fire Chiefs member section page at nfpa.org, as well as on the websites of other stakeholder organizations, including IAFC, IAFF, USFA, and others.
The November/December issue of NFPA Journal will include a follow-up on the September meeting of the UFF and the status of the proposed guidelines.
Russ Sanders is executive secretary of the Metro Fire Chiefs Association and former chief of the Louisville Fire Department. Ben Klaene is the former safety/training chief for the Cincinnati Fire Department.