Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on September 4, 2018.

The New Normal

With active shooter incidents on the rise across the country, colleges and universities employ new strategies to help campuses prepare


Audio: Listen to this article as read by the author.

In early August, a small sedan rammed into a group of students on the leafy campus of Missouri State University in Springfield. The driver exited the vehicle brandishing a semi-automatic rifle and opened fire. Within minutes, personnel from campus rescue agencies and the surrounding area swarmed the scene.

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While police worked to neutralize the shooter threat, firefighters accompanied by police ran onto the scene to apply critical first aid, then rushed the victims to emergency medical technicians waiting in a staging area. Victims were loaded into ambulances and transported to two local hospitals, which had been alerted of the attack and were ready to receive the injured.

The attack didn’t make the news because it was staged—a training exercise with a volunteer assailant and victim actors. But for responders, the drill was still deadly serious. With the United States beset by violent and fatal shooting attacks, coordinated exercises like these between campus security and local agencies, designed to plan and rehearse for mass violence incidents, are now viewed as essential components to emergency planning on college campuses.

“Universities have always had to prepare for many different threats, some more central than others, and active shooting preparedness is definitely becoming one of those central issues,” said David Hall, Springfield’s former fire chief who is now the university emergency manager at Missouri State. “It used to be that there might be training on active shooter if someone at the university was interested in the topic and requested it. Now you see universities being much more proactive and looking at active shooter preparedness as a core part of training.”

Since the 2007 campus shooting at Virginia Tech that killed 32 students and faculty, security measures and preparation for attacks on campuses across the nation have ramped up significantly. Many schools have hired emergency managers, implemented new technologies, and have invested in sophisticated mass communication systems. In May, NFPA released NFPA 3000™ (PS), Active Shooter/Hostile Event Response (ASHER) Program, which schools are starting to look to for guidance. Many universities have also increased training and cooperation with local agencies, and have undertaken more aggressive outreach campaigns to train students, faculty, and staff about how to respond in the event of a shooting or act of terror on campus. At some schools, incoming freshman are now being taught at orientation what to do if a person opens fire in a residence hall—information presented alongside how to register for classes and the hours of the dining hall.

In a sign of the times, the University of Maryland’s Office of Emergency Management now has a webpage for students and staff devoted to explaining what to expect during a potential active shooter attack. Although responding agencies may be “wearing external bulletproof vests, Kevlar helmets, and other tactical equipment” and “may be armed with rifles, shotguns, or handguns, and might also be using pepper spray or tear gas to control the situation,” students are instructed to “remain calm, do as the officers tell you, and do not be afraid of them,” the site says. “Put down any bags or packages you may be carrying and keep your hands visible at all times; if you know where the shooter is, tell the officers. The first officers to arrive will not stop to aid injured people; rescue teams composed of other officers and emergency medical personnel will follow the first officers into secured areas to treat and remove injured persons.”

Maryland University student is attended to in a stretcher by emergency personnel during an active shooter training exercise.

Missouri State student is carried out on a makeshift stretcher during an active shooter training exercise

READINESS Active shooter training exercises such as those held recently at the University of Maryland (top) and Missouri State University can help limit the damage caused by hostile events. Photographs: Top: University of Maryland; Bottom: David Hall

Such information is in high demand, said Alan Sactor, fire marshal at the University of Maryland and assistant director for the university’s Office of Emergency Management. “Active shooter is the topic we get the most inquiries about from the university community and administration, and I think that’s the way it is in most colleges and universities,” he told NFPA Journal.

It’s also the threat—more so than fires, hurricanes, earthquakes, and crowd control at sporting events—that causes him the most sleepless nights. “Even though there is so much planning in place, it’s that unknown human element that is so hard to control,” he said. “In my job, the concerns are whether we got people prepared, and how well we handle an event.”

The era of the active shooter

You can pinpoint the exact day when universities across the U.S. began scrambling to address active shooter threats: April 16, 2007. That morning, a mentally ill student at Virginia Tech opened fire with two semi-automatic pistols on the Blacksburg, Virginia, campus, killing 32 people and injuring 17 more in what was at the time the deadliest mass shooting committed by a lone gunman in U.S. history. The shootings took place in two buildings, two hours apart, beginning about 7:15 a.m. and ending when the shooter killed himself just before 10 a.m. Students were first informed of the first attack via email at 9:26 a.m., two hours after it occurred.

Since then, active shooter events in the U.S. have become more frequent and, in general, more severe. According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, between 2000 and 2017 there were 250 active shooter incidents in the U.S., defined as one or more individuals actively engaged in killing or trying to kill people in a populated area. Fifty of those incidents, or 20 percent, have occurred in just the last two years, resulting in 221 deaths and 772 wounded. There were 15 active shooter attacks on college campuses between 2000 and 2017, according to the FBI.

Gun Violence on Campus stats

After Virginia Tech, colleges and universities began investing more heavily in security and training to bolster campus security, said Sactor, who has worked in emergency management at Maryland for more than three decades. Citing Virginia Tech’s delay in alerting students, many universities, including Maryland, first took a hard look at their own emergency notification systems, Sactor said, and invested in new text and computer alerting systems. Security cameras on campuses also became more prevalent, and universities began implementing more sophisticated key card systems to further limit access to buildings and more accurately track the movement of people. More time and resources were also poured into training staff and developing comprehensive active shooter response plans.

Still, campus shootings continued. According to a study by Collegiate Times, there have been 172 shooting incidents on college campuses (defined as one or more people shot by a firearm), since the Virginia Tech shooting in April 2007. In total, 122 people have been killed and 198 people injured by gunfire on college campuses over that timeframe, the publication found.

Numerous factors make protecting campuses and planning for an incident extremely challenging. For one, campuses are like small cities with numerous buildings, occupancies, and public spaces designed to be open and welcoming. Unlike a city, all of the infrastructure is owned and controlled by a single entity—imagine if the city of St. Louis had to oversee and manage the security and emergency planning for every apartment building, hospital, office building, stadium, concert hall, restaurant, and research lab within its city limits.

On top of that, the populations on campuses are diverse, skew young, and are on the move, typically in and out of various buildings, and traveling to and from campus several times per day. Not only is locking down a campus “virtually impossible” in an emergency, according to Hall, the emergency management director at Missouri State, but training and educating faculty and students to make the right choices in an active shooter situation can be a major challenge. “It’s easy for me to tell you what to do in the event of a fire—it’s get out,” Hall said. “But I can’t tell you for sure what do in the event of an active shooter because it depends. If you can get away, you want to do that; if not, you may need to hide and barricade yourself. It is much harder to teach, because it really depends.”

Balancing security with an attractive and welcoming campus environment is also a significant challenge. “One of the questions we always get is, ‘Where can I find a safe space during an active shooter event?’” Sactor added. “Well, the last two large buildings that just opened here are all glass—glass inside and glass outside. Colleges obviously want beautiful buildings. It’s a tough balance.”

NFPA 3000 & higher education

Universities and private organizations are working on many fronts to address these challenges with advancements in technology, planning, and education. NFPA 3000, a standard aimed at helping communities, organizations, and agencies craft plans to respond and recover from active shooter incidents, lays out a comprehensive set of guidelines covering all aspects of preparedness, from competencies responders should have to handle these events to facility preparedness, resource management, communication, family notification services, and more.

College emergency managers have been among the most engaged and vocal constituencies, both during the creation of the standard and since its release, said John Montes, the NFPA staff liaison who has helped guide NFPA 3000’s development. Despite it being only a few months old, several schools, including Missouri State, Virginia Tech, and Harvard, have begun incorporating parts of the document into their planning. One of the pillars of the NFPA 3000 ASHER program is a “whole community” approach; in short, the need for all agencies in a community to plan, train, and cooperate extensively together before an event, and a need for the general public to be more alert and aware of what to do when an incident takes place. Because of the insular and self-contained nature of some colleges, the integration of local fire and law enforcement into planning might not be as strong as it should be, Montes said.

Students and other members of the campus community gather for a vigil at Virginia Tech University

DAWN OF AN ERA Students and other members of the campus community gather for a vigil at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Virginia, after 32 people were killed in a campus shooting in 2007. Photograph: Getty Images

“An active shooter incident on a campus will require resources that are outside of a university’s capacity 100 percent of the time,” he said. “It behooves them to focus a large amount of planning on interacting with the surrounding community about how to respond to these incidents. I think campuses are using NFPA 3000 as an opportunity to engage in areas where they weren’t previously. The hope is to see more planning, more dialog, and more interagency cooperation.”

To that point, in previous years, Missouri State had only conducted active shooter exercises with local police. The drill in August was the first time that firefighters, EMS, and hospitals also participated to simulate a coordinated response. It was also the first time local agencies tested the newer tactic of allowing firefighters to enter an active hostile incident alongside law enforcement to get to critically injured victims faster. In the past, fire and EMS had to wait for police to give the all clear before they could enter. “These types of exercises are exactly what NFPA 3000 says we need to be doing, and to a large extent we were testing many of the response components identified in 3000,” said Hall, who served on the NFPA 3000 technical committee. “It went very, very well.”

The value of increased cooperation works both ways, Montes said. One of the most critical aspects of incident recovery is setting up family assistance areas, where family members can assemble to get information, mental health assistance, and other services. “College campuses have great facilities in good central locations. They are secure and can handle a lot of people, so they are perfect emergency family assistance locations” in the event of a mass violence incident in a community, Montes said. “So as much as communities can help their campuses, it can work the other way, too.”

Because the standard is so new, most jurisdictions and universities are still familiarizing themselves with the information in NFPA 3000 and how it might be useful, Montes said. Federal law has long mandated that colleges and university have emergency plans, and the vast majority, if not all, do have some kind of active shooter training and planning document already in place. Where 3000 can have immediate value for campus managers is as a cross-reference, to identify gaps or oversights that may exist in the school’s current plan, Hall said.

“Most universities will look at this and see a wealth of good stuff that they can take away and apply to their operations to make them better,” he said. “One real strength that I personally see in this document is the recovery phase information. Our focus in emergency services tends to be on getting the shooting and bleeding stopped, and we have less of an understanding of the short- and long-term recovery. That is a gap for many communities and higher ed institutions that is not as well thought out.” 

A technological strategy

In addition to guidance from NFPA 3000, many new technologies have emerged to combat campus violence. Security equipment and services sales to the education sector rose to $2.7 billion in 2017, up from $2.5 billion in 2015, according to HIS Markit, a data and analysis firm. Universities now employ a range of technologies, from cameras that automatically capture the license plate numbers of all vehicles coming and going from campus to state-of-the-art gunshot detection systems. At the University of Maryland, sensors strategically placed around campus can detect a gunshot, triangulate its precise location, and within a minute send an alert to campus security and local law enforcement with a map of where the incident occurred.

“In the next five years, I think you will see even more new technology and new systems emerging,” Hall said. “The implications for school security will be huge.”

For instance, he thinks ballistic film on entrance doors will become more widely used—preventing potential attackers from gaining entry by shooting through the glass—and so will remotely activated locks. “From a practical standpoint, if you have an active shooter situation, how do you get exterior doors locked in 100 different buildings, each with three entrance points?” Hall said. Newer alarm systems, which enable emergency managers to speak directly to building occupants and provide different messages to different buildings, are also beginning to gain popularity.

In Loving memory poster hangs on a fence near Umpqua Community College where nine people were killed in a campus shooting

THE DAMAGE DONE Nine people were killed in a campus shooting at Umpqua Community College near Roseburg, Oregon, in 2015. Photograph: AP Wide World

Because of the expansive and diverse nature of a college campus, emergency notifications have always been a challenge. Most universities do their best to communicate emergency messages to students and staff through a range of means, including text, automated phone calls, emails, and social media. “The challenge is you need to be able to give actionable info,” Hall said. “But how do you give information about what to do in very few words when you’re sending out the same text to a person in a car off campus and to someone in a building where an incident is occurring?”

Hall dreams of a world where technologies such as geo-fencing will allow him to send specific messages to all people within an invisible boundary: one message for a person in this residence hall, a different text message to people in another, both tailored to the location-specific threats in each.

The components to better address active shooter threats—the standards, procedures, technology, building designs, and societal training—are beginning to come faster as society adjusts and attacks become more commonplace, Hall said. It’s sometimes easy to forget how relatively new these events are, and like any emerging threat, it takes time to learn how best to combat it.

“We have been trained since we were little kids in elementary school about what do in the event of fire. We have developed good systems for notifying people and protecting buildings,” he said. “With active shooters, we have not gotten there yet as a society.”

JESSE ROMAN is associate editor of NFPA Journal. Top Photograph: DAVID HALL/MISSOURI STATE UNIVERSITY