Hyper Vigilance

Hyper Vigilance

What is hyper vigilance? Is it a good thing or a bad thing? Should you have or should you avoid it? So many questions, so little time. Let’s jump in.

Hyper vigilance is a biological response to stress that causes your senses to go on high alert for danger. Your body goes on super alert status because it senses there is danger in the area. The hormones trigger biological changes that increase the acuity of your senses.

Stated another way, hyper vigilance can help your eyes see things that they might not have otherwise seen if you were not under stress. Likewise, hyper vigilance can help your ears hear things that they might not have otherwise heard if you were not under stress. And, for the sake of avoiding the annoyance of being repetitive, suffice it to say that all your senses are equally hyper aroused and on high alert. The stress of an emergency scene leads your brain to think there is danger in the area which makes your thinking (and in some cases your actions) primal.

Primal Goal #1: Survive!

The goal of the body and brain in a stress-induced, hyper aroused state is simple, Survive! What is out there that can kill you? Can you kill it? Can you outrun it? Those are the questions your brain is grappling with and your alert senses will help it make that determination. The human body is well-suited (based on genetic adaptation) to deal with these short-term stressors.

It was that kind of stress your cave-dwelling ancestors dealt with every day. Eat or be eaten. It was a pretty simple existence out there on the Serengeti. There were no worries about 401k plans, bad economies, looming mortgage payments or kids not doing well in school. The stresses of your daily lives are very different and in many ways – far more chronic and for more cumulative. On the upside, you don’t have to worry about a T-rex eating your kids when they leave the house.

So, we’ve established it. Hyper vigilance is a good thing! Well, don’t pop the Champagne corks yet. We’re not done.

The downside of hyper vigilance

Your brain is a wonderment of science, that is for certain. It can do things that no computer can duplicate. But it does have some limitations. One of those limitations is how much information it can take in, process, comprehend and recall at any one time. The question of just how much information that is intrigued the research community and in 1956 a cognitive psychologist at Princeton University named George Miller provided the shocking answer.

 

Seven! The average person can hold about seven pieces of unrelated information in their working (short term) memory, give or take two (for those slightly above and slightly below average performers). Miller’s studies have been robustly confirmed in numerous studies since. Coincidentally, it was the results of Miller’s research that led to the original seven-digit telephone numbering system in the United States.

This is where hyper vigilance can turn ugly in a hurry. Because your senses are hyper aroused, they are taking in more information about your surroundings. If your surroundings are simple and basic (like fighting a saber-toothed tiger in the jungle of the East Savannah (as your cave-dwelling ancestors did), then you didn’t have to worry about your brain getting overwhelmed with information.

But, put that brain on an emergency scene with dozens, maybe even hundreds of pieces of data coming at you and you are on the fast-track for overload. Some of the data is in writing, some audible, most is visual and nearly all of it is changing rapidly. It is easy to get overwhelmed in a hurry.

Drew Moldenhauer’s Advice

The solution to this problem was uncovered during the research conducted by cognitive psychologist Gary Klein, also known for his discovery of the Recognition-Primed Decision Making Process. Klein’s research involved trying to understand the decision making processes used by public safety commanders. One of the questions to be answered was: How do you make sense of it all? How do you process and comprehend so many clues and cues?

The answer was a stunner and entirely unexpected. The expert-level public safety commanders said they don’t try to process and comprehend all the information. In fact, there is just a small number of critical pieces of information essential for making a good decision. Commanders noted if they tried to comprehend it all, it would be impossible.

So, what should be on the short list for critical information to capture and process? Obviously, the answer would vary for each type of emergency you deal with.

The take-away lesson is:  Stress causes hyper vigilance which increases your acuity. In a complex, fast-paced environment, that can accelerate cognitive overload. Less information, so long as it’s the right information, is your best ally. There are a couple more caveats about the information. The more complex the information, the more likely you are to be overwhelmed. The more detailed the information is, the more likely you are to be confused. And the more unfamiliar the information is, the more time you will need because you have to learn what the information means.

 

Action Items

  1. Pick a type of emergency and detail the 7 (or less) critical pieces of information you think are essential to making a good decision.
  2. What tricks and secrets do you have for managing information in complex environments?
  3. Describe a situation where you realized, maybe even after the fact, that your senses were hyper vigilant and you heard or saw things that you might not have otherwise seen or heard.

 

Written by:

Drew W. Moldenhauer, M.S, has 15 years of Law Enforcement experience with two police organizations in Minnesota. Some of the titles he has held in his tenure are Active Shooter Instructor, Use of Force Instructor, Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Instructor and Field Training Officer. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Police Science and Leadership at Bemidji State University and is a full-time licensed police officer that works part-time with the City of Osseo Police Department. He holds a Master’s Degree of Science in Public Safety Executive Leadership from St. Cloud State University. He is a Certified Master Instructor for Situational Awareness Matters and has a passion for training his clients on this very important subject.

Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, CSP is widely considered a trusted authority on human factors, situational awareness and the high-risk decision making processes used in high-stress, high consequence work environments. He served 33 years on the front lines as a firefighter, EMT-Paramedic, company officer, training officer, fire chief and emergency incident commander.  His doctoral research included the study of cognitive neuroscience to understand how human factors flaw situational awareness and impact high-risk decision making.  He is the founder and CEO for Situational Awareness Matters, a teaching and consulting organization located in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  He can be reached at [email protected].

Complacency Kills Police Officers

Complacency Kills Police Officers

Curiosity killed the cat, but it’s not curiosity that is killing police officers, it’s complacency contributing to flawed situational awareness. What does it mean to be complacent? I could offer you the Webster’s dictionary definition, instead, I’d like to offer you a definition based on my observations of those who suffer from the affliction.

Complacent

To believe that bad things only happen to other people; To fall into a comfortable rut of apathy – laziness; To have enjoyed success for so long as to believe all actions will result in successful outcomes; To rely on knowledge and skills that have grown stale for lack of practice and renewal; To develop a sense of indifference – to lack concern for – one’s safety and well-being. Let’s break this down now by expounding on each component of the definition.

In Law Enforcement, we are very prone to becoming complacent on the job.  As a matter of fact, most police officers die in the middle of their career.  According to Kevin Gilmartin, author of Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement, most police officers die feloniously on duty between year 10-15 of their career.  Complacency is a big contributing factor to this.

Some of the ways I have shown my complacency on the job have to deal with traffic stops and alarm calls.  I remember making traffic stop after traffic stop and using good tactics and nothing ever bad happened.  Until one time when I let my guard down and used poor tactics.  I stopped an individual and causally walked up to the car thinking to myself this is just another routine traffic stop, when he opened his driver’s door, hopped out and started screaming “just kill me.”  Thankfully, he did not have a weapon on him and I was able to deescalate the situation, but he definitely caught me by surprise and had the tactical advantage on me from my being complacent.

I can also remember going to a lot of alarm calls in my career.  99% of the time the alarm calls were false alarms, were set off by the cleaners, or animals inside of a home tripped the alarm.  However, one time I was called to an audible burglar alarm covering glass break.  I arrived thinking this would be just another false alarm.  To my surprise it wasn’t, it was the real deal.  Someone had done a smash and grab at one of our local gas stations and took the cash register.  Here again I did a poor approach to the building and was being very complacent which could have got me killed.

Believing Bad Things Only Happen to Other People

This is often rooted in a mindset of judgment. While watching a video or reading about a casualty incident, the complacent police officer becomes a judge. The mindset is not one of trying to understand the root cause of what happened and to extract the lessons behind the lessons.  Instead, the complacent police officer wants to ridicule and offer judgment upon the misfortunes of others. One who is judging, cannot learn. This causes the lessons to be missed and perpetuates the belief that bad things only happen to other people.

Falling into a Comfortable Rut of Apathy – Laziness

The energy required to develop and maintain competency is immense. It requires both a cognitive and physical effort to develop the knowledge and skills essential for top performance. Any deviation from being exceptionally prepared will result in a consequence, right? Hardly, in fact, the vast majority of cases with large deviations from top performance have no consequence.

That is both a blessing and a curse. If such deviations always resulted in casualties, the results would be catastrophic. For that, we are blessed. Yet it is the same lack of consequence that promotes apathy. The proof that one needs not work as hard, rests in the successful outcomes achieved despite a reduction in knowledge and skill development/maintenance.

Relying on Knowledge and Skills That Have Grown Stale for Lack of Practice and Renewal

For skill and knowledge to be retained and useful, they must be practiced over and over again… and then over and over AGAIN… rinse and repeat. The process of learning and relearning skills is never ending. The pathways that access knowledge in our brains are strengthened through repetition. Just because something was learned in school 10 years ago does not mean the skillset is still flawless. Every expert in every field practices incessantly to keep their skills sharp. So must police officers!

The complacency within an organization is often a byproduct of the organization’s culture, undisciplined leadership and individual member mindsets. This can change. The journey of one thousand miles begins with a single step. Do something today… take a step toward reducing complacency.

Everyday life

Complacency happens in everyday life all the time.  This can be dangerous when working with power tools or using knives in your kitchen.  Think of the last time you were operating a chain saw.  Did you get complacent as time went on?  How about the last time you were slicing up some food.  Did you cut yourself because you became complacent?  We need to stay focused so we don’t become a victim to complacency.

Discussions

  1. Discuss what ways you combat complacency.
  2. Discuss what training you implement in your department to avoid becoming complacent.
  3. Discuss how you can assist your partners if you notice they’re becoming complacent.

 

Written by:

Drew W. Moldenhauer, M.S, has 15 years of Law Enforcement experience with two police organizations in Minnesota. Some of the titles he has held in his tenure are Active Shooter Instructor, Use of Force Instructor, Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Instructor and Field Training Officer. He is currently a full-time licensed police officer that works part-time with the City of Osseo Police Department. He holds a Master’s Degree of Science in Public Safety Executive Leadership from St. Cloud State University. He is a Certified Master Instructor for Situational Awareness Matters and has a passion for training his clients on this very important subject.

Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, CSP is widely considered a trusted authority on human factors, situational awareness and the high-risk decision making processes used in high-stress, high consequence work environments. He served 33 years on the front lines as a firefighter, EMT-Paramedic, company officer, training officer, fire chief and emergency incident commander.  His doctoral research included the study of cognitive neuroscience to understand how human factors flaw situational awareness and impact high-risk decision making.  He is the founder and CEO for Situational Awareness Matters, a teaching and consulting organization located in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  He can be reached at [email protected].

Active Shooter Part 3: Citizen Response

Active Shooter Part 3: Citizen Response

ACTIVE SHOOTER TRAINING FOR CITIZENS

If you find yourself at work, school, church, etc., when an active shooter event unfolds there are a few things you should know and practice.  First, if you can safely do so, RUN!  Get out of the situation as fast as possible.  You will improve your chances of knowing where to run if, in advance, you are thinking about your way out far before you have to flee (think preplan). Once an event turns hostile, you will have little time to think about your escape route.

If running is not a safe option because the shooter is too close, then hide.  I’m not talking about hiding under a desk. That, in fact, may be your worst option.  Hiding under a desk makes you a sitting duck. Hiding under desks may work in the movies, but it’s a bad plan in real life.  Hiding means actively barricading yourself behind cover. If you cannot find cover, then find a way to conceal yourself.

Think of cover as a barrier that can stop bullets (e.g., the engine block of a car or a brick wall).  Concealment, on the other hand, is something that will conceal (i.e., hide) your body, but bullets can still penetrate through (e.g., drywall or a wood door).  When you hide, barricade and lock the door if possible. Put large heavy objects such as tables, computers, or desks in front of the door so it cannot easily be opened.  Remain quiet and wait there as long as you need to until law enforcement arrives.

Lastly, and only if the first two options won’t work, fight! If you are by yourself, your best option is to hurl any object available to you at the shooter and try to get away to cover or run out of the building. Use any means you can imagine to slow the shooter down. Active shooters are cowards and they won’t be expecting a fight.

OODA LOOP DISRUPTION

One of the things we teach civilians on how to survive an active shooter encounter is to disrupt the shooters OODA loop.  Let me explain. The OODA loop – developed by Air Force Colonel John Boyd – is a four-step decision making/action taking process. Colonel Boyd described it as:

  • Observing;
  • Orienting;
  • Deciding; and,
  • Acting

By disrupting an Active Shooters decision making process (i.e., their OODA loop) we can momentarily cause the shooter to pause their decision making process and this may be all the advantage we need to increase our chance for survival.

For example, during a hockey game if the Forward is on a breakaway and has no Defender or Goalie in their path, they can OBSERVE there is no one to block their shot.  The Forward can then ORIENT their stick in a way to ensure the shot can be made.  The Forward can then DECIDE to shoot the puck into the empty net and ACT on that decision by slapping the puck toward the goal and score!

However, the entire process can be interrupted if there is a Defender facing the attacking Forward.  If after Observing and Orienting, the Forward decides to shoot, the Defender may attempt to slap the puck away from the Forward.  This maneuver may be enough to disrupt the Forward’s decision making process (i.e., their OODA loop) and the Forward would likely avert the shot and start the OODA loop process over again. This can buy you a few precious seconds.

Think of the Flight 93 scenario, trained terrorists hijacked a plane. The passengers bonded together and took out the terrorists. And while all the passengers perished when the plane crashed, their heroic actions likely saved countless lives at the destination the terrorists where intending to strike with the plane.  They accomplished their mission by being brave, having a plan, and disrupting the terrorist’s OODA Loop.  They did a great job improvising weapons (e.g., a beverage cart, hot coffee).

KEY TAKEAWAY

Situational awareness is essential to your survival and may help save your life if you encounter an Active Shooter.  Consider conducting mental rehearsals of Active Shooter scenarios. During a mental rehearsal, you imagine yourself in an Active Shooter situation and think through (in advance) what it would be like.  Imagine using all of your senses. What would you be seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting and smelling? Vividly imagine the situation and how it would play out in as much detail as you can.

Practice “what if” decision making scenarios. For example, you might think: If I were in my office and I heard a gunshot in another part of the building, then I would ________ (fill in the blank).  Rehearse as many “what if” scenarios as you can imagine, building complexity into the scenarios as you gain confidence.

The benefits of mental rehearsals can be two-fold.  First, mental rehearsals can reduce surprises.  Your critical thinking skills can be impacted by the element of surprise.  (Coincidentally, disrupting critical thinking skills is what you’re trying to accomplish when you interrupt the Active Shooter’s OODA loop). When you find yourself in a real-world situation that you’ve mentally rehearsed, you’re far less likely to be surprised.  Rather, you’ll be expecting it to happen and you will have already thought through one (or more) decision options.

The second benefit of mental rehearsals is they can help improve prediction skills.  In active shooter situations, it is important that we are thinking ahead of the current situation – being mindful of not only what is happening right now, but also thinking about what is going to happen next (e.g., what/who might be waiting for me around the next corner?).

When practicing “if-then” scenarios and performing mental rehearsals, think beyond yourself.  Imagine the actions of others who will be present.  To take down an Active Shooter you may need to lead (direct) others on what to do.  For workplace Active Shooter preparation, talk with coworkers about what should be done if an event occurs. The actions of your coworkers could help save lives.  Or, their actions could cost lives.  Don’t assume everyone will know what to do.  That would be a mistake. Have a plan!  Remember, it’s much easier for the body to get through a tough time when the mind has already experienced and planned for it.

EVERYDAY LIFE

When we work with companies, we recommend annual training for all employees and the training cover all forms of potential violent acts at work.  Professional training ensures workers know what to do, but also how to do it.  Be prepared for an act of violence, this involves mental AND physical preparation.

Think about the phenomenal job firefighters have done teaching citizens how to Stop, Drop, and Roll if their clothing catches on fire.  What to do is quite intuitive now, but it took years of repetitive training and having a plan for it to happen.  Repetition improves physical and mental performance under stress. That’s why schools conduct multiple fire drills every year.  As a result of their diligent efforts, it is extremely rare for a student to die from a fire in a school.

We live in a world where, sadly, Active Shooter events are becoming more common. It’s time for companies to develop plans and to take the lead training workers on how to be prepared.

Discussions

  1. Discuss ways a person could disrupt an Active Shooter’s OODA loop.
  2. Discuss what objects in your home or at work could be used as a last-resort weapon to defend yourself against an active shoot.
  3. Review and discuss your family’s plan for an Active Shooter event.
  4. Review and discuss your company’s plan for an Active Shooter event.
  5. Discuss with your coworkers what each of you should (and should not) do during an Active Shooter event.

 

About the Authors

Drew W. Moldenhauer, M.S, has 15 years of Law Enforcement experience with two police organizations in Minnesota. Some of the titles he has held in his tenure are Active Shooter Instructor, Use of Force Instructor, Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Instructor and Field Training Officer. He is currently a full-time licensed police officer that works part-time with the City of Osseo Police Department. He holds a Master’s Degree of Science in Public Safety Executive Leadership from St. Cloud State University. He is a Master Instructor in Situational Awareness and has a passion for training his clients in this very important subject.

Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, CSP is widely considered a trusted authority on human factors, situational awareness and the high-risk decision making processes used in high-stress, high consequence work environments. He served 33 years on the front lines as a firefighter, EMT-Paramedic, company officer, training officer, fire chief and emergency incident commander.  His doctoral research included the study of cognitive neuroscience to understand how human factors flaw situational awareness and impact high-risk decision making.

Active Shooter Part 2: Collaborating with Fire and EMS

Active Shooter Part 2: Collaborating with Fire and EMS

When I was in the police academy and went through Active Shooter training it was designed solely for police officers. There was never a mention of EMS or fire department response and how they could assist in these situations.  It took approximately 8 years into my career until I went to a training that involved the assistance of EMS and firefighters.  It really opened my eyes as to how much value EMS and firefighters can add to these catastrophic events.

In the most recent trainings I have participated in, we have incorporated using EMS and firefighters to assist with rapidly evacuating people that have been injured and it significantly improved our efficiency.   We set up a rescue team where police officers provide protection and guided a group of EMS and fire personnel through a building to get the injured victims out.  Training as a single unit in these rescue teams and working in collaboration with each other has been very beneficial will save more lives.

One of the things I noticed that firefighters do well is they are very good at setting up incident command and being able to communicate well with each other on the radio.  Ever since I have been a police officer I have always been really impressed with how fast firefighters mobilize incident command and run their incidents so efficiently.  As police officers this is something we can definitely learn from our partners in the fire service.  This works well when an Active Shooter event is unfolding, and teams need to be organized before heading to the hot zone.  Firefighters have a lot of experience in incident command and it definitely shows during these collaborative training events.

WORDS OF ADVICE TO SURVIVE AN ACTIVE SHOOTER

Active Shooter events are becoming more and more common throughout the United States.  It’s a good thing to reach out to your fellow agencies to conduct joint training so that everyone is on the same page if one of these events were to ever unfold in your jurisdiction.  It requires coordinating a lot of moving parts and when we train together in a stressful environment we will be better prepared for when real event occurs.

If you’re a firefighter or EMS worker and you find yourself on a routine call that rapidly becomes an active shooter event there are a few things you should know and practice.  First, if you can safely do so, RUN!  Get out of the situation as fast as possible.  You’ll improve your chances of knowing where to run if, in advance, you are thinking about your way out far before you have to flee (think pre-plan). Once the event turns hostile, you will have little time to think about your escape route.

If running is not a safe option because the shooter too close then you should hide.  I’m not talking about hiding under a desk. That, in fact, may be your worst option.  Hiding under a desk makes you a sitting duck. Hiding under desks may work in the movies, but it’s a bad plan in real life.  When I say hide I mean actively barricading behind cover. If you cannot find cover, then find a way to conceal yourself.

Think of cover as a barrier that can stop bullets (e.g., the engine block of a car or a brick wall).  Concealment, on the other hand, is something that will conceal (i.e., hide) your body, but bullets can still penetrate through (e.g., drywall or a wood door).  When you hide, barricade and lock the door if possible. Put large heavy objects such as tables, computers, or desks in front of the door so it cannot easily be opened.  Wait there as long as you need until law enforcement arrives and the officers retrieve you.

Lastly (and only if the first two options don’t work) you will need to fight.  As a firefighter or EMS worker you can improvise weapons (e.g., SCBA, oxygen tanks, fire extinguishers, scissors).  If you are by yourself, your best option is to hurl any object available to you at the shooter and try to get away to cover or run out of the building. Use any means you can imagine to slow down the shooter.

If you are with a group, your best chance of survival is to improvise weapons and throw them all at the shooter all at the same time.  Once you are able to distract or confuse the shooter, try to incapacitate the shooter until law enforcement arrives.  Think of Flight 93, the group of passengers on that plane used improvised weapons (e.g., hot coffee, carts) and subdued a group of armed terrorists.  A group effort is the way to go, it requires training and leadership but will give you the best chances of survival. Keep in mind that acting aggressively toward the shooter is your last resort option.

DOS AND DON’TS OF RESPONDING TO AN ACTIVE SHOOTER

I always knew when I arrived on a house fire or accident scene that this is the fire department’s jurisdiction.  I also knew that when I arrived on a medical scene it belonged to EMS and I was there to provide support.  For my fellow brothers and sisters in fire and EMS I have a question for you:  Does it frustrate you when a police officer parks in front of a working house fire?  How about when a police car blocks your access where someone was having a heart attack and you can’t back your ambulance into the driveway?

I would be lying if said I’ve never done this. It took a few reminders from fire and EMS to help me remember not to do that.  Well the same applies for police officers when it comes to a dynamic shooting scene.  Make sure on an Active Shooter scene you’re parking far enough away to allow law enforcement personnel to be able to access the scene.  Our job is to take out the shooter and establish a safe perimeter as quick as possible.  Blocking our routes with fire trucks and ambulances makes are job more difficult – and dangerous.

Also, do you have a member that loves talking on the radio?  (We have those people in law enforcement too.)  During a rapidly evolving active shooter event, we would all serve each other better if we keep radio traffic to a minimum (i.e., only transmit the most essential information).  Early on, the scene is going to be chaotic and confusing. It is very important for law enforcement to keep lines of communication open and accessible. Non-essential chatter is distracting and can draw an officer’s attention off-task and increase their risk.

KEY TAKEAWAY

Situational awareness is key for survival and saving as many lives as possible in an active shooter situation.  Consider mentally rehearsing active shooter events thinking through, in advance, what your actions would be if you found yourself in that situation. Conducting simulated active shooter training (under stress) and practicing rapid response techniques, can improve a firefighter’s and EMS crew member’s ability to predict what may happen in these events and help you prevent bad outcomes.

Not all law enforcement officers have advanced training on how to handle an active shooter situation. Do not depend, entirely, on the officers to keep you safe. Use situational awareness best practices to improve the safety of your crew. (Here’s a hint: There’s more to situational awareness that paying attention and keeping your head on a swivel.)  Be prepared to take quick action, if necessary.

One final note: According to the FBI, from the years 2000-2018, 98% of active shooter incidents had only one shooter.  Statistically speaking, chances are your event will only be one shoote.  However, there’s always that chance there could be more than one. History also shows that when there are more than one shooter they are, most often, together.  But, as you can imagine, there are no rules for active shooters to follow.  Put yourself in the mindset that anything is possible and anything can happen.

Discussions

  1. Discuss what you would do if an active shooter situation were to evolve unexpectedly during a fire or medical call.
  2. Discuss how you could work more collaboratively with your local police departments to prepare, train and coordinate during active shooter events.
  3. Discuss ways you could build stress into active shooter training to improve realism and to ensure you are prepared for the stress you will experience during an actual event.

Written by:

Drew W. Moldenhauer, M.S, has 15 years of Law Enforcement experience with two police organizations in Minnesota. Some of the titles he has held in his tenure are Active Shooter Instructor, Use of Force Instructor, Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Instructor and Field Training Officer. He is currently a full-time licensed police officer that works part-time with the City of Osseo Police Department. He holds a Master’s Degree of Science in Public Safety Executive Leadership from St. Cloud State University. He is a Master Instructor in Situational Awareness and has a passion for training his clients in this very important subject.

Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, CSP is widely considered a trusted authority on human factors, situational awareness and the high-risk decision making processes used in high-stress, high consequence work environments. He served 33 years on the front lines as a firefighter, EMT-Paramedic, company officer, training officer, fire chief and emergency incident commander.  His doctoral research included the study of cognitive neuroscience to understand how human factors flaw situational awareness and impact high-risk decision making.

Active Shooter

Active Shooter

My students often ask me, “Mr. Moldenhauer, what’s the worst call cops could ever go on?”  My response is always the same, an active shooter call.  I have had my share of terrible calls in my career that will stay with me forever (i.e.  suicides, child deaths, and fatal car accidents just to name a few). However, I don’t feel any of these could ever be as bad as responding to an active shooter call.  

I couldn’t imagine the horror of showing up to a call that someone is actively killing innocent people.  We in law enforcement all took an oath to protect and serve. The trainings I have been to with my fellow brothers and sisters in blue makes me confident that we will do whatever we can to stop these horrible incidents as fast as humanely possible.

We have come a long way in training for these incidents.  I can remember when I first started as a police officer attending active shooter training, we had one goal in mind.  That goal was to take out the shooter as fast as possible.  While at training we would work on tactical and rapid response techniques on how to stop these violent suspects from killing innocent people. 

Taking out the shooter is still our number one priority. However, what do we do with the people that have been shot and are possibly dying?  We didn’t train on how to save these people when I first started. But now we have improved our training and adopted a new philosophy: STOP THE KILLING, STOP PEOPLE FROM DYING, GET THE INJURED TO A MEDICAL FACILITY.  We do this collaboratively with firefighters and EMS.

As police officers we must STOP THE KILLING.  After all, we are the ones with the guns and body armor.  We need to respond quickly. This was tough for us at first because we were taught that we may need to sacrifice our own safety to stop the killing.  When we would attempt to seek cover or use slower, more controlled tactics, our instructors would reprimand us and tell us to keep moving.  

They reminded us that every time we heard a gunshot, we were to presume someone was just killed.  Our instructors told us the priority of life goes as follows: lives of hostages, lives of innocent civilians, our own life, and lastly the killer’s life.  This was tough for us to get used to. Throughout the entire police academy and our careers, we were told officer safety is first priority.  However, in an active shooter incident, all bets are off and we may need to sacrifice our safety to persevere life.  

After the killer has been taken out or contained, we must STOP PEOPLE FROM DYING.  We do this by applying tourniquets on people and triaging severe injuries as quick as possible.  Several trainings I have been in lately have included assistance from firefighters and EMS personnel.  We form teams of firefighters and EMS personnel, protected by police officers, to assist in getting the most severely injured victims out as quick as possible.  

I am happy we have incorporated firefighters and EMS personnel into our training. I commend them for their bravery to enter these violent scenes with us.  Working together has produced some impressive results.  Our final priority is to GET THE INJURED TO A MEDICAL FACILITY.  Once the victims are outside the hazard zone, fire and EMS have the primary responsibility for triaging, treating and transporting. 

Something to keep in mind with training for active shooter incidents with your department is to keep the training as real as possible.  When we train in controlled environments, where we can slowly go through our tactical evolutions, results are near perfect.  However, the minute we introduce stress into the scenarios, police officer behavior changes and it impacts our performance. 

For example, we may introduce stress by arming the shooter and officers with simulated ammunition (i.e., paintballs) and crank up scary music with screaming and gunshots. This changes everything!  Armed with simulated ammunition, I have witnessed police officers, put under stress, shoot other police officers when they round corners, police officers shoot other police officers in the back, officers freeze in doorways and I have witnessed a complete breakdown of communications among teams.

You may recall from my previous article titled “Do We Train to Fail”, I noted practice makes permanent.  When we respond to one of these horrific calls we must be prepared to handle the extreme stress we are going to encounter.  Training that requires officers to perform under highly stressful conditions will improve critical thinking skills and tactical performance.

KEY TAKEAWAY

Situational awareness is key to officer survival and will help us save as many lives as possible when dealing with an active shooter.  Consider conducting mental rehearsals of active shooter scenarios. During a mental rehearsal you would image yourself in an active shooter situation and think through what the environment would be like. Imagine using all of your senses (e.g., what would you be seeing, hearing, feeling, tasting and smelling). Vividly imagine the situation in as much detail as you can.  

Practice “if-then” decision scenarios. For example, you might think: If I was in a hallway and I heard a gunshot on the floor above me, then I would ________ (fill in the blank).  Rehearse as many “if-then” scenarios as you could imagine, building complexity into the scenarios as you gain confidence.  

One of the benefits of mental rehearsals is two-fold.  First, mental rehearsals can reduce surprises.  Our critical thinking skills can be impacted by the element of surprise.  When you find yourself in a real-world situation that you’ve mentally rehearsed, you won’t be surprised.  You’ll be expecting it and you will have already thought through one (or more) decision options.  

The second advantage of mental rehearsals is they will help improve our prediction skills.  In active shooter situations, we have to always be thinking ahead of our current action – being mindful of not only what is happening right now, but also thinking about what is going to happen next (e.g., What’s going happen around the next corner?).

When practicing “if-then” scenarios and performing mental rehearsals, think beyond yourself.  Imagine the actions of other members of your team (e.g., other officers, fire, and EMS personnel who may be with you).  

Discussions

  1. Discuss how active shooter training under stress changes officer behavior.
     
  2. Discuss the benefits and challenges you can anticipate from working collaboratively with your local fire departments and EMS provider.

  3. Share some examples of mental rehearsals you have performed. 

  4. Share some of the specific “if-then” scenarios you have practiced.

 

About the authors:

Drew W. Moldenhauer, M.S, has 15 years of Law Enforcement experience with two police organizations in Minnesota. Some of the titles he has held in his tenure are Active Shooter Instructor, Use of Force Instructor, Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Instructor and Field Training Officer. He is currently a full-time licensed police officer that works part-time with the City of Osseo Police Department. He holds a Master’s Degree of Science in Public Safety Executive Leadership from St. Cloud State University. He is a Master Instructor in Situational Awareness and has a passion for training his clients in this very important subject.

Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, CSP is widely considered a trusted authority on human factors, situational awareness and the high-risk decision making processes used in high-stress, high consequence work environments. He served 33 years on the front lines as a firefighter, EMT-Paramedic, company officer, training officer, fire chief and emergency incident commander.  His doctoral research included the study of cognitive neuroscience to understand how human factors flaw situational awareness and impact high-risk decision making.