As casualties from mass shootings continue increasing at an alarming rate, security and law enforcement personnel face a blunt, unavoidable question—are we doing everything we should to save lives in an active shooting or terrorist attack that use firearms?
Since the Columbine attacks in April 1999, lessons learned from major active shooter incidents have spurred changes in response tactics. These incremental changes are essential to evolving tactics that can save lives.
But more needs to be done.
Despite the corresponding changes in police response tactics, as well as an increase in active shooter training drills and exercises, the average number of casualties per attack has increased rather than decreased, according to an FBI analysis of 160 active shootings between 2000 and 2014. Clearly this is not the desired result and hints that these changes alone may not be enough.
While more research should be conducted, it appearswe have reached a point of diminishing returns on the benefits of incremental changes. By addressing only response tactics it may be unrealistic to expect significant reductions in casualties as a result. Larger reductions in casualties can only be gained through more strategic and innovative methods.
For this we can look toward technology to do instantly and without error what humans cannot do under the same rapidly unfolding, chaotic circumstances. This technology already exists.
The obstacles that must be overcome to affect an optimal active shooter response are already clear. Delays in response by both building occupants and police, as well as the confusion caused by lack of timely, accurate information, are the biggest problems to overcome in reducing casualties. Currently, in about half of all incidents, the shooting is over before police even arrive. This leaves building occupants to fend for themselves for all or most—if not all—of the duration of an active shooter incident, which severely limits the ability of police to use their training and capabilities to reduce casualties.
To have a greater impact on saving lives, actions must be taken before police arrive. Evacuating building occupants, creating barriers between shooter and potential victims, and communicating with the shooter to de-escalate, disrupt or delay the shooting phase show the highest potential for reducing casualties.
Lack of critical information also limits the ability of building occupants to protect themselves. All too often, occupants of large buildings do not hear gunshots elsewhere in the building, or doubt what they heard were gunshots, and fail to evacuate while they still can. When they do recognize the sounds as shots they often do not know where the shooter is until shots are heard nearby. By then it is too late to evacuate safely.
Gunshot detection technology, once a high-priced tool reserved for use by militaries and major city police departments, has emerged as a low-cost building safety capability. It can sense an active shooter threat at the first gunshot and alert people inside the building to evacuate to safety. The systems can track a shooter while simultaneously alerting first responders and building occupants to the exact location of the threat. Even if first responders have never been in the building, they can follow a map directly to the shooter.
These active shooter response systems react without hesitation or error and provide real-time information to first responders that was previously unavailable to them until after an incident occurred. The sharing of critical information takes place in far less time than it takes for a 911 dispatcher to calm a panicked caller, obtain crucial information and dispatch officers to the scene.
To further reduce casualties, such systems will soon have the ability to automate building lockdown and support two-way communications with police, allowing law enforcement to gather critical operational and medical information, provide instructions to victims inside the building, and even to attempt to communicate with the shooter to de-escalate, delay or end the shooting phase of the incident.
With technology, all of these are actions can be safely employed in the period of time between the first shot and when police arrive to the scene. This type of technology can address the response gaps in the 50 percent of shootings that end before police are able to intervene.
We have seen another building safety problem beforethat solved the human error issue with technology. Scores of people used to die in building fires each year because we relied solely on building occupants to correctly identify and report the fire and to evacuate completely; .many people died or were injured because of delays and errors in judgment. With the introduction of new technology—including smoke detectors, sprinkler systems and other fire safety systems—casualties dropped significantly due to more rapid and complete evacuations and quicker responses by fire departments. Technology played, and still plays, a key role in saving lives.
We are entering a new phase where the extent of future casualties are avoidable through the application of these new, integrated gunshot detection technologies, which allow first responders, building owners and their security personnel to focus proactively on the strategic actions they can take to save lives. Through the hardening of buildings with these types of automated response technologies we can dramatically reduce the number of lives lost and take the first steps toward deterring future shooters and terrorists from selecting these soft targets in the first place.
Ed Jopeck is a business manager with Battelle, and has served as a security risk analyst for the CIA and security risk management consultant to the Department of Homeland Security. For nearly 30 years, Jopeck has assessed security risks from terrorism, mass shootings and the threat to government facilities from disturbed individuals.