Disaster Discourse: The Hagerty Blog

Understanding the Two Core Objectives in Active Threat Response: Stop the Killing and Save Lives

We must always be ready to acknowledge that our current protocols and systems must be evaluated, re-evaluated, and adapted to ensure that they are effective to the two paramount objectives of the immediate tactical response to an active threat: stopping the killing and delaying death long enough that victims can receive the trauma care needed to survive.

The Real World as Our Teacher

Columbine High School, April 20, 1999: a teacher, Dave Sanders, encounters a school shooter, and while seeking safety, he is shot twice. Another teacher and two students administer first aid for three hours. Dave Sanders was tragically the lone teacher killed in the mass shooting to die, bleeding to death hours before police arrived in the classroom. He was among the 13 lives lost.

Fast-forward nearly two decades, the concepts utilized to respond to active threats have evolved. Law enforcement protocols have adopted rapid deployment tactics. Where once patrol officers would wait for specialized teams (e.g. SWAT) to arrive, patrol officers are now trained to make entry and neutralize the aggressor as soon as possible, most likely meaning a single patrol officer will initially engage the threat.

Stoneman Douglas High School, Parkland, Florida, February 14, 2018: 17 people lost their lives, and 17 injured victims were taken to two nearby trauma centers. At Parkland, 911 was notified of the mass shooting only 15 seconds after it began. The shooting lasted for just seven minutes before the aggressor evacuated the high school with fleeing students. Law enforcement entered the building within eleven minutes of being dispatched. All care provided to victims inside Building 1200 at Stoneman Douglas was rendered by tactical medics and law enforcement. No Rescue Task Force (RTF) teams entered the building.

Uniting Forces through Common Response Priorities

I have interviewed first responders across the country. Through these conversations, I have learned that while the human body is resilient, after sustaining multiple gunshot wounds, such as wounds to major arteries that provide blood from the heart around the body and chest wounds, and without immediate medical care, the human body can easily succumb to death. There is a critical window of time to render the care needed for victims of active threat events. That window of time is within 15 minutes.

While neutralizing the aggressor is the priority for first responders, an equally important objective is to render lifesaving care to victims. The RTF concept of operations (ConOps) was developed so firefighters and Emergency Medical Services (EMS), under the force protection of law enforcement, can enter warm zones (areas deemed safe enough for firefighters/EMS to enter) and begin administering medical aid to victims. Best practices strive for teams to enter the warm zone and begin rendering care within 15 minutes of shooting.

From Shots Fired to Trauma Care: The Timeline for Treating Victims of an Active Threat Incident. Timeline developed from concept of Ventura County Fire Department.

Between the time the active threat aggressor is neutralized and the time RTFs can enter the warm zone of operations, law enforcement need to be equipped and prepared to provide casualty care to victims.  The active threat at Stoneman Douglas illustrated that RTFs may not be able to deploy to a warm zone.  Tactical medics and law enforcement personnel used tourniquets and chest seals inside Building 12, tools we have learned can save lives from our experiences in warzones. While rare commodities (law enforcement officers may or may not be carrying tourniquets and chest seals on them), these tools and training have proven to save lives.

Key Lessons Learned

While there will be many lessons identified in the response to Stoneman Douglas in the investigations and subsequent after-action reporting, there are three steps that stakeholders from across the community can do to enhance their tactical preparedness for the next active threat event:

First, public safety agencies should adopt the RTF ConOps.  The RTF concept’s core purpose is a meaningful tool to save lives. The strength of the concept also goes beyond the immediate use of providing medical aid to victims in warm zones. The system also binds the response for police and firefighters/EMS into a unified effort. This unified effort takes place not only in the RTF teams but also at the unified incident command post, where commanders of both law enforcement and fire work together to solve the challenges of the response. These concepts of unified response can be effective in the spectrum of active threat events, ranging from a lone perpetrator mass shooting, or vehicular attack to a complex, coordinated terrorist attack (CCTA). Public safety agencies should look to adopt the RTF concept and assess how the it is exercised if it is already adopted.  Incorporating training and exercise scenarios that test the operations of RTF concepts, with simple innovative exercise design techniques, can mitigate drilling fatigue and enhance the ability for public safety personnel to respond more effectively using this concept.

Second, law enforcement must be trained and equipped to be public safety’s immediate caregivers to active threat victims. There is a gap between the time it takes for RTF teams to begin rendering aid to victims and the time it takes for a victim of an active threat to bleed out from a gunshot wound. While law enforcement’s first and foremost objective must be to stop the killing, they must also be trained to provide tactical emergency casualty care to victims of an active threat. We’ve seen from previous active threat events that hundreds to even thousands of law enforcement personnel will arrive on scene and enter the hot zone of operations in an active threat. This means that law enforcement personnel should be equipped with tools like tourniquets and chest seals and have the knowledge to apply them in a challenging environment.

Finally, stakeholders representing the whole community must consider the dissemination of You are the Help programming. Just as there are training opportunities provided across the community for nontraditional medical responses to emergency incidents, including basic CPR, communities should build awareness and training for the average citizen to be able to provide response to victims. The United States (US) Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS’s) You are the Help initiative’s opening sentences emphasize just this: “Life-threatening emergencies can happen fast and emergency responders aren’t always nearby. You may be able to save a life by taking simple actions immediately. You Are the Help Until Help Arrives.” Incorporating training opportunities for individuals across stakeholder groups focused on five essential actions (move away from danger, position to support breathing, stop the bleed, maintain body warmth, and comfort) is a simple and life-saving technique that can be utilized for a number of scenarios, including active threat events.


David Schuld is the Lead for the Active Threat Portfolio at Hagerty Consulting, where he manages a group of subject matter experts to help support the development of plans, training, and exercises related to active threats such as active shooters, vehicular attacks, and complex coordinated terrorist attacks. Prior to joining Hagerty, David was the British Government’s Crisis Management Advisor for the United States, leading emergency preparedness cooperation and coordination from the British Embassy in Washington, D.C. For more information about how Hagerty can help your organization, visit our active threat event preparedness page here.