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How to Minimize Harm in Active Shooter Responses

It’s no secret that active shooter incidents are becoming increasingly common in the United States. The Federal Bureau of Investigation found that there had been a 100 percent increase in such incidents between 2016 and 2020, doubling from 20 incidents to 40.

Adding to the danger, active shooter situations unfold rapidly and pose a high risk of injury or killing. Plus, these incidents cost organizations billions of dollars annually while dramatically affecting the productivity and morale of employees.

Well-considered procedures and strategies are essential to help mitigate the risks from active shooters. Some of the most effective active shooter response strategies pertain to Run. Hide. Fight. training, physical security measures, and environmental design discouraging criminal behavior. But identifying the best technique amid chaos can be tough, with indecision possibly incapacitating stakeholders and putting employees’ lives in imminent danger.  

There’s an urgent need to develop a universal set of actions to help organizational stakeholders make better decisions regarding active shooter incidents. Acting quickly and decisively can be the difference between life and death.

After a thorough analysis of four case studies, the author found that a multidimensional strategy—one that combines the strengths of different response strategies—is best for minimizing harm in active shooter incidents. This type of strategy could prevent nearly 50 percent of casualties in an active assailant incident while significantly enhancing an organization security program’s effectiveness.

A Gap Analysis of One-Dimensional Strategies

While a wealth of research supports the success of one-dimensional strategies for responding to active shooter incidents, this approach isn’t entirely effective for preventing these events and minimizing loss. Additionally, most existing studies focus solely on incidents in specific locations, such as healthcare facilities, places of worship, and schools.

This limited perspective reduces the likelihood of identifying a comprehensive range of strategies that may prove helpful in these events.

Let’s assess each major active shooter response strategy in detail:

Run. Hide. Fight. The three-step training model was quick to garner recognition as of the most effective active shooter response strategies.

However, it fails to address the “freeze” response that prevents people from deciding the best course of action during an emergency. This can happen with trained individuals as well. In addition, the Run. Hide. Fight. approach is based on linear thinking. With conditions changing by the second in active shooting scenarios, victims can’t afford to evaluate their actions in a sequence.

Finally, this approach is critiqued for pushing people to act as heroes and commit to fighting the shooter. Training to attack an armed opponent takes years to master. Some believe that by including a “fight” option, you are placing people in a no-win situation where they will not survive. Conversely, some believe it reinforces a victim mindset. The criticism is that having run and hide as two options could foster people’s nonaggressive mindsets, leaving them unprepared to fight.

Physical security measures. Early warning systems, security cameras, and armed security guards significantly improve the effectiveness of an active shooter response. But organizations often face challenges when implementing these security measures in particular locations, including schools and hospitals. Besides, such security measures require large investments, which not all organizations can afford.

Additionally, some staff members in settings with ample security measures don’t use them or bypass them because of the lack of training or operation failures. This was the case at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, where security failed to lock a gate that later allowed the shooter unrestricted access to the campus. Additionally, there was an operational failure of the locking mechanism at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, which again allowed the shooter unrestricted access to the school.

Environmental design. Incorporating design elements like glazed glass windows and ballistic barriers is a helpful strategy for discouraging criminal behavior and keeping active shooters at bay. Relying on this approach alone doesn’t prevent active shooter incidents or reduce casualties, though. The high cost also acts as a barrier, leaving organizations with poor design features that fail to deter active shooters.

So, what’s next? Look into multidimensional active shooter responses.


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The Need for a Multidimensional Active Shooter Response

The complexity and high-risk scale of active shooter situations warrant a multidimensional response that can be applied across locations universally. 

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Gene Petrino is cofounder of Survival Response LLC. He is a decorated law enforcement officer, former SWAT commander, and educator. For nearly 30 years, he has gained in-depth expertise in tactical command, security threat analysis, and active shooter instruction.