Thinking Beyond the Active Shooter

While there is obviously a great deal of attention placed on preparing for, preventing, and responding to active shooter events, is that where the focus really needs to be?  Yes, active shooter incidents are devastating, but they aren’t taking into consideration the full potential of we might be facing.  The DHS definition of ‘active shooter’ actually allows room for additional potential, but the term is still misleading and indicates the presence of only one perpetrator.  (DHS definition: “Active shooter is an individual actively engaging in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area.”)

First, let’s consider that more than one person could be perpetrating the incident.  Second, let’s consider that the perpetrator/perpetrators might be using something other than or in addition to firearms.  This could include edged weapons, blunt weapons, improvised explosives, or other threats.  Third, let’s consider an increased complexity, including synchronized attacks conducted by one or more independent teams occurring at multiple locations sequentially or in close succession.

To address these potentials, we’ve heard the terms ‘Active Assailant’, which certainly addresses individual(s) using any form of weapon(s) in their attack methodology.  This can also address the more highly complex incident type, which is commonly referred to as a ‘Complex Coordinated Attack’ or ‘Complex Coordinated Terrorist Attack’.  In essence, we are talking about the same conceptual incident, with varying complexity.  But what’s the difference?

The difference is that we should be preparing for a credible worst-case scenario.  While a single shooter is more likely to occur in most places, we’ve seen incidents of knife attacks such as those in recent months in London and Japan.  We’ve also seen motor vehicle attacks in Berlin and NiceThe Columbine High School attack involved firearms, knives, and improvised explosive devices, although the latter weren’t successfully detonated.  For their own reasons, none of these seem to match up with the impression most have with the term ‘Active Shooter’.  ‘Active Assailant’ might be better a better term generally for these kinds of incidents.   More specifically, by current standards, Columbine would likely meet the definition of ‘Complex Coordinated Attack’.  A complex coordinated attack doesn’t necessarily require a high value target or an international terrorist group to perpetrate.

When a jurisdiction plans for a flood, they generally don’t prepare for a couple of road washouts that might occur with a hard rain storm.  They should be preparing for the sudden destructive power of flash floods and the slower but equally devastating potential of areal flooding.   If the jurisdiction is prepared for the credible worst-case scenario, their preparations should be able to address flooding of a lower magnitude.  I’d argue the same for the range of active assailant incidents.  Active shooter incidents are one specific type of active assailant incident, but are not what our preparedness activities should be focused on, as these kinds of incidents can be much more complex and devastating.  Preparedness efforts should, instead, focus on the complex coordinated attack, which is arguably the most multifaceted and impactful type of this incident.  Preparing for the credible worst-case scenario will help ensure our preparedness across the entire spectrum of this kind of incident.

As always, feedback is appreciated.

© 2017 – Timothy Riecker, CEDP

Emergency Preparedness Solutions, LLC

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