By Ed Lopez, Public AffairsNovember 20, 2009
FORT MONMOUTH, N.J. -- The specter of a gunman shooting innocent people and the attendant horrors of multiple victims can sometimes seem too disturbing to contemplate, something best thought of as road signs in the rear-view mirror with names like Columbine High School and Virginia Tech.
Along with those names, symbols of mass killings, Fort Hood also evokes painful thoughts and emotions as the Army mourns the victims of a shooting rampage at the Texas post Nov. 5 that claimed 13 dead and dozens injured before the gunman was shot by post police.
An added sting for the Army community is that the suspect is one of their own, a major who served as a psychiatrist, a job closely associated with healing and an oath to "first, do no harm."
"What I have found personally is that most of the public, wherever they work or go to school, truly believes that it will never happen where they are," said Capt. Keith Sandull, patrol division commander with the Fort Monmouth Police Department.
"Nobody wants to walk around with those thoughts in their heads," he added. "The truth is that it can happen anywhere."
Sandull initiated and managed specialized training for all police officers at Fort Monmouth called "active shooter response." An "active shooter" is someone "actively" shooting people, as in the Fort Hood tragedy.
"We don't have a SWAT team on post here," said Police Chief Adam S. Weinstein. "We have an agreement with the FBI if we ever needed one, but we felt that we needed a quick reaction team in case of an active shooter situation."
The shooting deaths of 12 students and one teacher in 1999 at Columbine High School in a suburb of Denver, Colo., served as a turning point for law enforcement on how to respond to a shooter. At the time, the procedure was for police to surround a building and wait for special police teams to arrive and enter a building.
That approach is no longer an option.
"The premise behind an active shooter is that the longer you take to neutralize the target, the more death and destruction will occur," Sandull said.
"Unfortunately, like most places, we don't have an FBI SWAT team sitting in our back room waiting to be deployed," he continued. "So what the active shooter training does is take all the officers that are out there who would normally be the first responders to any incident, and gives them the training and the tools to neutralize an active shooter."
Police training for an active shooter has to be flexible, realistic and filled with unexpected surprises to match up with what officers might encounter.
"Every situation would be different," said Chief Weinstein. "There is no standard active shooter scenario."
An added difficulty for officers responding to an active shooter is the need to sift through the jumble of incoming information that may be fragmentary, useless or turn out to be erroneous. At Fort Hood, initial reports that a second gunman was barricaded in the processing center turned out to be false.
"These situations are so fluid that they can change in a minute or change on a dime," said Sandull.
"You have to be able to coordinate what you're doing with the information you have at the time," he added. "Maybe your desk is getting calls from people in the building. "He's on the third floor." "He's on the fourth floor." "It's a white male." "It's a black male." "It's a guy in a red shirt." "It's a guy with a blue coat."
Added Sandull: "And all that has to be taken into consideration because ultimately all that is going to come into play if deadly force is deployed. What information did the police have when they acted' What did they see when they got in there'"
The characteristics of an active shooter scenario demand that officers be focused and disciplined in how they react during an actual outburst of gunfire.
"Part what I have to teach my guys is that--the first team into the building--their job is to neutralize the shooter. That means you may have to step over a wounded person or you may have to walk around a person begging for help who's scared out of their mind."
Chief Weinstein underscores the need for focus. "The first responder's job in an active shooter situation is to neutralize the shooter threat immediately. That is your number one objective. Neutralize the threat. Make sure that person can't hurt anyone else."
Constant, varied and challenging training for officers is a bedrock principle for the highly intense environment involving an active shooter.
"What's unique about active shooting training is that you just can't teach people once," noted Sandull. "Every couple of months we run through the scenarios again. You have to keep reinforcing the training.
"The training itself is very physical and demanding in terms of firearms proficiency. Just because you're dealing with an active shooter, it doesn't eliminate your liability in placing your rounds. In other words, if we had to go in and neutralize an active shooter, just because it's an active shooter it doesn't mean you can accidentally kill two innocent people and it's going to be OK. So we also have to emphasize, like any other firearms training, that the use of force is proper."
With semiautomatic weapons that can unleash hundreds of rounds in a relatively short period, an active shooter situation can spark sudden pandemonium: chaos, confusion, panic, people running and screaming, blood, the wounded seeking shelter and victims on the ground in agony.
Is it possible to train officers to remain relatively calm and focused during a period of intense, sudden upheaval'
"If you constantly train, it eliminates the unknown," Sandull said. "What causes a person to be nervous is the unknown. With training, we hope to eliminate the unknown and build confidence.
"When the officers go to the range, they shoot at a piece of paper. When they do active shooter training, they actually get to see where their rounds (paintballs) hit a person who's running, and it builds their confidence. As best we can, we try to artificially create stress that they would be under during that incident. Because of the response and the formations that are used in training, they have to learn to act as a team."
Sandull credits Lt. Matthew McConnell, a rifle instructor who attended an FBI sniper course, along with training officer John Russo, with providing support that was instrumental in conducting the active shooter training.
"Without those two guys I could never have done the program," he added.
Training with weapons that discharge paint balls gives officers a whole different perspective and valuable skills that are crucial.
"Other officers are shooting back at you," Sandull said. "You can't train for an active shooter scenario using paper targets. It pushes officers to the limits of their capabilities and it's good to explore the limits once in a while. If they have to go there, it's not the first time."