Author(s): Jesse Roman. Published on September 1, 2019.

The First 12 Minutes
According to one emergency manager, most training for how to react in a hostile event is misguided and designed to fail. He thinks he might have a better way.

During the lecture portion of a training that Tom Polera leads on active shooter preparation, one slide in particular usually hits his attendees with added weight. It shows a collage of faces, many of them baby-faced teens—and all of them mass murderers.

“Look at these kids,” Polera tells his rapt audiences. “Some of them look like they could be related to you. One might look like the kid who lives down the street. These are what killers look like.”

Polera, the fire marshal and emergency manager in Falls Church, Virginia, knows this lesson firsthand. His own daughter went to high school with one of the faces on the screen; in addition, two of her classmates at the school were later killed in the Virginia Tech shootings. The message is unmistakable. “The people in your audience need to understand that there isn’t a bubble surrounding their community,” Polera told me during a recent interview. “You have to make this real for them.”

The ever-present threat of intentional violence in schools, places of worship, and other community spaces compelled Polera to create “The First 12 Minutes,” a program he launched last year to train citizens on how to survive mass shooting attacks. The curriculum emphasizes self-reliance, including creating barricades to seal off a room, applying tourniquets and dressing gunshot wounds, and confronting and disarming an assailant. Polera has taught the three-hour course about 30 times to nearly 1,000 teachers, religious leaders, and citizens throughout Falls Church, a city of about 15,000.

The rationale behind the approach is simple, Polera says: the vast majority of mass shootings are over in minutes, before first responders even arrive on scene. Research has shown that, when the shooting starts, the actions that citizens take—or don’t take—greatly affect how many people die in these incidents, a fact that plays out time and again in the examples that Polera goes through with his trainees.

“It's really a public education program no different from the ones we've done for years in the fire service,” says Polera, who came to Falls Church in 2012 after a 30-year career at the Arlington County (Virginia) Fire Department. “Emergency services have always adjusted what we do to meet the needs of the community. From 2000 to today, we're looking at an average of about one active shooter event every 19 days. From that perspective, this is a significant community need. You can't say it's not going to happen here.”

While Polera’s program remains a local effort for now, it has gained attention from the United States Department of Justice and from municipalities across the country trying to better prepare citizens for increasing levels of gun violence and other hostile acts. Polera has talked about “The First 12 Minutes” at professional conferences across the nation, including the NFPA Conference & Expo in San Antonio in June. He calls the program “one of the most rewarding things I’ve done in my almost-40-year career.”

NFPA Journal spoke with Polera about how “The First 12 Minutes” was created, why more emphasis needs to be put on training citizens for active shooter response, and how it fits into the new NFPA 3000™ (PS), Standard for an Active Shooter/Hostile Event Response (ASHER) Program. 


Listen to Polera's presentation at the 2019 NFPA Conference in San Antonio.

Read the NFPA Journal feature "Writing History" on the creation of NFPA 3000.

What were your impressions of NFPA 3000 when it came out last year, and how does your program integrate with the guidance in the standard?

Honestly, when I first heard about NFPA 3000, I was skeptical. But when I went through it, I found it is very inclusive for everything we are facing, and a really good roadmap for active shooter preparation. Our program fits nicely into the public education and information chapters of NFPA 3000. As I go around giving presentations about our program, kind of like what I did in San Antonio at the NFPA conference, I have really been pushing NFPA 3000, too.

What was the genesis of “The First 12 Minutes” program? What led you to believe that the public needed more hands-on training in this area?

When the Emanuel church shooting happened in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015 [where nine people were killed], our churches here started asking us for training on how to protect themselves. I looked around the country for examples of citizen training programs and saw that most communities were just telling citizens, “if you want training on active shootings, go watch this video and you'll be good to go.” Most municipal websites pointed people to a video created in Houston called “Run, Hide, Fight,” which we think is great, but I realized we had to do more. In the fire service we've learned that you can't just watch a video, you've got to see what the concepts are, understand why you're doing those concepts and then actually practice it. I thought that our community needed some kind of hands-on approach. Then I witnessed a lockdown drill at our high school, and I became even more convinced that we had a real need for more attention in this area.

What was it about the drill that made you feel that way?

I saw kids trained in the traditional lockdown methods—turning off the lights, locking the door, hiding in the far corner, making them sit on the floor until the event is over. There's no preparation about what happens if the shooter comes into the classroom. There’s no talk of what their response is going to be. For years that’s pretty much what we’ve been telling people to do—just hope that the shooter doesn't enter. And because kids have been trained that way, we're now seeing some people in the workforce do it this way in their business environment. All we're doing is clustering people together and creating target-rich environments that don't challenge the killer. It only makes it easier for them.

What is the better alternative?

It all starts with good situational awareness, and knowing where you are in relation to the shooter. Getting out of the building is always the first choice. If you are unable to get out, then you need to have a plan to avoid the attacker, which could include barricading the door. This is followed by planning for what may happen next, which may include confronting the shooter. We've seen evidence that if you do something proactive, it can make a difference. In April, a student named Riley Howell rushed and tackled a gunman at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. The same month, Oscar Stewart, an Army veteran, confronted and stopped a shooter at a synagogue in San Diego. In May, a football coach named Keanon Lowe tackled a gunman at a Portland, Oregon, high school before he shot anyone. Howell died, but all of these individuals made a difference. They saved lives by being proactive in their response. The key here is not to continue doing what we've been doing.

How did you come up with the specific period of 12 minutes?

Most of these events are usually over in less than 12 minutes. Sandy Hook was five minutes. Then think about what is considered a good response time. It's going to take one or two minutes for someone to identify that it’s shooting they’re hearing and make a call. Then dispatch puts the call out to emergency responders—that's another two to three minutes. Then you get law enforcement arrival, which could be up to eight minutes. Once they're on the scene, they have to identify where the shooting is and get there. Twelve minutes is actually a very good response time, but in rural areas it could be much more than that. The speed of violence is much faster. Usually by the time police, fire, and EMS arrive, it’s unfortunately a recovery operation at that point, not a rescue operation. So life-saving elements need to be deployed to the citizens who are going to be there in the moments the shooting is happening.

What does the actual training look like?

The first part is a lecture that usually lasts about an hour. We go over active shooter data, current FBI statistics, and we show the current trends on these shootings and where they're occurring. We also talk about the response time and the speed of violence and the probability based on those that people might be injured or killed.

Then we break the attendees into three groups for breakout sessions that last about a half hour each. In one, we talk about how to barricade a door if you have to and what that looks like. In another, we talk about bleeding control and focus on tourniquets and non-occlusive dressings. In the third, we show them the traditional approach to lockdowns where you go hide in the corner and what would happen if a shooter did come into the room. And then we do it again using the more active approach that we’re teaching.

How do you recreate the active shooter scenario? What happens in the room?

We have a fake shooter come into the room shooting these little Nerf foam pellets while the group is huddled in the corner of the room. Afterward, we ask questions to attendees about their response, what they did, and how they felt. Most say the same things: “I didn't do anything. I just sat here and I had no power, no control. I was just a sitting duck.” These are their words. We ask what they did to make it difficult for the shooter, and they all say the same thing: “I did nothing.” Then we teach them the more proactive methods and run the exercise again.

What methods do you teach and what does the second exercise look like?

We teach them how to swarm a shooter, how to distract the shooter by throwing objects at them, and how you get them down. Before the shooter comes in the second time, we’re working with them saying, “OK, there's a shooter on the other side. What are you going to do if they come in here? What is your plan? You guys need to talk to each other and kind of figure something out.” And that's where they start thinking. That's where the changes occur, and that's when they get the aha moment because they just saw what they did previously and it was a complete failure. When they do it the second time, they realize, “Wow, I guess we can really do something by attacking a shooter.” You see the empowerment kick in and you see confidence build when they actually do it and they're working as a team.

The First 12 Minutes program has taught hundreds of teachers and citizens in Falls Church how to distract and rush a shooter, and prevent them from entering classrooms. Photograph: Tom Polera

Does the proactive approach usually lead to a better outcome for the victims?

After we go through the second exercise using these proactive techniques, we take inventory of how many people were hit with a foam ball. Typically, it might be one or two people in a room of about 15, and often they are hit in the leg or the arm where it would probably be a nonfatal wound. I'm not saying that there wouldn’t be any fatalities or casualties in that scenario, but their chances of survival go up greatly versus just sitting there doing nothing.

You teach attendees to barricade the doors to keep the shooter out. That topic has been controversial among fire protection advocates in general because it could present an egress problem. As the fire marshal, what would you say to that?

I know my counterparts and I sometimes disagree on the barricading piece of it, and I know that NFPA is very sensitive to this area as well. People say that we don't want people to barricade doors or use certain locking mechanisms because now we have an exit problem. I get that and I totally understand it. We want to follow fire codes, but at the same time if there's a shooter on the other side of that wall with an AK-47, what's your reaction going to be?

We have to have a conversation about this because we haven't lost anyone in a fire in a school since 1958—but kids are increasingly getting killed in school shootings. I’ve had conversations with counterparts, who I might call code purists or code puritans, who say that we can’t do anything with door barricading—the notion just gets written off quickly. In my opinion, that doesn't really make a whole lot of sense and it doesn't solve the problem. We need to continue that discussion.

Has traveling to schools and holding these trainings led you to any other insights about the shooter problem? Has anything surprised you?

The biggest surprise to me has been how little consideration seems to be given to active shooters when we are designing and building modern schools and other buildings. It's not considered in the building codes, so it's rarely considered by architects. In some cases, shooter mitigation might be in conflict with environmental design features, such as the amount of glass that's being used. This is something that I hear all the time from people in my trainings. I've actually visited a school where all the classroom walls are constructed completely of glass. When you consider the concepts of cover and concealment in an active shooter situation, there are very few positive choices available when you’re being viewed through glass. Much more work is needed to incorporate mitigation efforts in building construction relating to active shooter protection.

Nearly 1,000 Falls Church citizens have been through this training, including all of the public high school and middle school teachers. Are there plans to put students through the program as well?

When I received the blessing from the school board to do this program, they actually said that they only see this program really working if we train students, too. I was thrilled to hear that because students should be trained. I think it should be part of the high school and middle school curriculum at some point, whether it be in physical education, health education, or whatever. But we haven't done that yet. That's a big lift and I'm not sure exactly how we get to that point. It's a manpower issue.

I could see how teaching kids—or anyone—to confront a shooter might be controversial. Have you encountered any pushback from teachers or the school district?

I had to go to my school board twice to get approval for this program. I think the first time was just to paint the picture, and the second time was to repaint the picture because I think the first time they didn't really want to accept this as an issue. But the second time the point was really driven home. The reality is there are so many things out there that could kill a program like ours. I'm confident to say we've never had an injury, we’ve never had a bad review, and we've never had anyone say, “I wish we hadn't done this.” It's always been positive. Part of the success, I believe, is that you have to be cognizant of who you are training—they are not responders, and it can be a scary class. When I start the lecture, I can see people’s reactions when we talk about these shooting events. There is sadness. We recently gave the training to our preschool teachers, which was really difficult because we're trying to teach caregivers what to do with their three- and five-year-olds and how to protect them if someone comes in to try and kill them. We’re very cognizant of that.

It's depressing that this type of program needs to exist at all.

You raise a good point. A lot of times I will say in a class that we have to prepare because this is the new normal. So many people don't want to accept that. It is sad that we're having this discussion, and I think so many communities don’t want to. As a result, they're not doing anything about it. But the discussion is critical to making it better.

As you talk with other emergency managers, do you find that more communities are starting to put more of an emphasis on training citizens rather than putting all the emphasis on emergency response?

You would hope so. The real problem is, who's taking ownership to train the public? When you have the disciplines of fire, EMS, and law enforcement, even if they teach the community the best practices, in many cases they're still operating within their individual silos. But if we could get them to work together, that's where we're going to see a difference. I'm not sure if we're there yet. 

Editor's note: NFPA does not specifically endorse this or any other occupant training program for incidents involving targeted violence. The information and opinions expressed here are solely those of the interviewee and are published by NFPA Journal to help facilitate discussion and to promote the free flow of ideas on this important topic.

JESSE ROMAN is associate editor of NFPA Journal. Top photograph: Getty Images