April 20, 1999 – some of you reading this may not have been born yet, others still small children, the rest of us remember this day as the day of the Columbine High School shooting in Littleton, Colorado. This incident was a catalyst for new response training by law enforcement as well as for those involved in similar incidents. By December 2000, training was being developed to address the school’s response during the shooting, a response that was to issue an alert and hide. This was a standard reactive approach at the time. The founder of the ALICE training, Greg Crane, was a law enforcement officer in Dallas/Ft. Worth and his wife was an elementary school principal. Together they discussed how to make changes in how people respond to an active assailant and believed there could be a better way.
Based on strategies from school shootings, Greg and a fellow law officer created a new set of proactive ways to respond to these horrific incidents. They developed a method called: Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, and Evacuate – commonly referred to as the ALICE program. According to a study completed by the Washington Post and released on April 18, 2022, there have been 300,000 students exposed to a school-related active assailant since 1999. The report states at least 163 children, educators, and other people have been killed during the attacks and another 360 have been injured. These are the physical injuries; this does not account for the remaining 300,000 students who experienced the emotional terror and traumatization of being in a school during a shooting.
While the ALICE program is still going strong, other agencies, organizations, and the Federal Government have developed programs with a similar focus – to Run, Hide, Fight. The goal of the programs is to be prepared, but not paranoid. I was fortunate enough to attend a training at our local church, developed and presented by the local law enforcement agency. The training lasted three hours, some of the fastest moving three hours I have spent in a while. The basic human responses were discussed, fight, flight, freeze, and fawn (to comply with the threat).
These responses mirror responses in our animal kingdom. I often experienced the fight or flight response while running and encountering a herd of elk. The elk would look at me coming toward them, empty their bladder and bowels and take flight away from me. I always found it amusing because an elk’s average weight is between 700 and 1100 pounds so the fact that they felt I was a threat was laughable. They clearly could have fought and won! Their exit always left me a clear path away from them to run through, covered of course with their droppings.
The class went over the options available in an active assailant situation:
- Do Nothing
- Get out of an unsafe environment
- Fight for your life
- Provide First Aid for self (first) and others.
Theodore Roosevelt was quoted as saying, “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing”. President Roosevelt’s words ring true in my head.
Doing nothing is the perception the public had of law enforcement as they surrounded Columbine High School during the 1999 attack. Law enforcement responded the way they were trained, they established a perimeter and waited for advanced teams to make entry. They were not doing nothing, but the shooting inside continued making the public and victims feel like nothing was occurring. Harris and Klebold put 99 bombs in the parking lot as well as bombs at every exit. Their goal was not only to kill students and staff, but first responders as well. Now, as these classes teach, responders do not wait, the very first person on scene is trained to make entry with a goal to eliminate the threat(s).
Law enforcement’s objectives are:
- End the Threat
- Render Aid
- Evacuate people safely
- Investigate the incident
The class taught the students that although law enforcement may come in right away (the average response time is 4 minutes), rendering aid is not their primary focus and they may step over people in their quest to end the threat. Responders are taught that even while their goal is to end the threat, if the suspect is not armed, do not shoot him/her. Being part of an active assailant and having law not respond to a suspect with deadly force may be frustrating, even angering some people, but their training is clear.
The class educated the students on escaping with the forethought of making sure it was safe to do so. Safely exiting schools with duffle bags at the door as an example would not be a safe exit. Had the bombs detonated at Columbine, the death toll would have been much higher than 13 (15 counting Harris and Klebold). Being aware of your surroundings, knowing at all times where exits are, and being prepared was highlighted throughout the class. Students were also told if they were running away, to run in a zigzag pattern, it is harder to hit someone running that way as opposed to a straight line.
Although this training was in a church environment, the instructors stressed that for all responses, leaving your belongings behind was important. Gathering up purses, computers, AND phones was not important because each item was replaceable, life isn’t. Students are told if they are able to exit, go to a safe location but do not leave the area, especially in a car. Multiple people leaving in vehicles can cause a traffic back-up, making it a simple task for a gunman to go from grid-locked car-to-car.
Hide. Most of us have played hide-n-seek at least once in our lives. We still play it with our children, only our hiding is a lot more sophisticated because they are older. Locking the doors, closing window shades, barricading the door, and staying silent and out of sight are the keys to hiding during an active assailant attack. Staying hidden until someone with a key opens the door is paramount for your safety.
During the aftermath of the shooting at Oxford High School in Michigan, a group of students were hiding in a classroom when they heard a knock at the door, “Police, everything is okay you can come out”. One student answered with no, I don’t feel comfortable doing that. The officer responded with, “Bro, it’s okay…” The funny thing behind that story is that it really was an officer, however when the students heard him say “Bro” they could be heard talking (it was all caught on a mobile phone), “He said Bro… he can’t be a real cop” and they did not let him in. Eventually a key was obtained and entry was made, the students were safely escorted out of the school.
The last thing the class covered was take back and fight back. Take back control of the situation by using distraction techniques or even swarming the assailant. Think outside the box for what could be used as a weapon. Fire extinguisher, chairs, scissors (not the best choice because of the proximity you would need to the assailant). There are many usable objects when you look outside the box!
All of this training made me ponder for a moment, the number of times the agency I worked for let a family member in to see their daughter/son/spouse in the dispatch center. We don’t always know what’s occurring in the private lives of our PSAP personnel, what if a domestic situation is occurring and we inadvertently bring the situation into the center? Does your staff let family members in because they know them, before checking with the employee? Check your policies, do they have safeguards and procedures in place for letting family members into your secured and locked facility? If not – perhaps it’s time for one more sheet of paper in that manual!