Safe & Effective Active Shooter Exercises

Forethought and commitment go a long way

By Ed Allen  |   Dec 4, 2015
Photo Courtesy Georgetown (Texas) PD.

[Publisher’s Note: This article was originally published in the Summer 2015 issue of the National Tactical Officers Association’s professional journal, The Tactical Edge, and is reprinted with permission.]

Since the Columbine High School incident in 1999, agencies across the country have invested significantly in the planning necessary to respond appropriately to active shooter incidents. Critical events such as these can be extremely complex and dynamic events that place substantial demands on agency resources.

The planning process, however, goes far beyond merely training line-level officers in the appropriate tactics. It requires the implementation of successful multi-discipline unified command structures, coordination with non-traditional stakeholders, the purchase of additional response equipment and the regular exercising of response plans. Tabletop and full-scale exercises can evaluate the effectiveness of resource investments that have been made. But when done improperly, they can also cause more harm than good and even set response agencies and communities back farther than if they had not done them at all.

The Right Approach

Most law enforcement academies today have begun to incorporate the basic elements of active shooter response concepts into their training curriculum. More notably though, law enforcement agencies also often include this as part of their agency-specific field training programs and recurring training curriculum.

Few could argue that today’s law enforcement officers aren’t more aware of and better trained for active shooter response than their predecessors of just two decades ago. But training officers to shift the mindset from contain-and-call-for-assistance to immediate intervention, and the dozens of practical skills associated with such a tactic, is merely a small piece of the overall puzzle.

Effective response goes far beyond teaching patrol officers to be able to shoot on the move, hold a shield or perform victim rescues. It requires the first responders and other stakeholders to focus on the “4 Cs”—contain, control, communicate and coordinate. These priorities are not uniquely assigned to just law enforcement officers and commanders. In order to truly build this capability, law enforcement agencies must find ways to include non-law enforcement stakeholders into the training and exercise process appropriately.

Effective law enforcement and tactical team trainers recognize the importance of a building-block approach to training. They start with individual skills before bringing participants together to work on team tasks, then unit capabilities and eventually broad operational objectives.

All too often, however, agency trainers are quick to run their personnel through training and go right to the exercise portion of the process without ensuring their peer stakeholders are at the same level and prepared for a collaborative response. Doing so will often create a sense of failure for some and can lead to safety issues during such exercises. Remember: Full-scale exercises should serve as the capstone to the series of training efforts and planning discussions. They are in essence the test, not the class.

Failure to appropriately plan a full-scale exercise exposes the responsible organization(s) to unnecessary liability. Worse, it could put participants and the public at risk. An Internet search easily reveals numerous civil lawsuits alleging mental anguish and physical injuries by responder agencies and employers who failed to adequately plan and notify participants of a full-scale exercise. Failure to adequately notify all exercise participants and potential civilian observers is a recipe for failure. The risks associated with such behavior are far outweighed by the misguided notion that it will add a sense of realism for the participants.

Bringing in Stakeholders

In addition to each of the stakeholders having a vested interest in building this type of response, they also likely have their own set of accreditation and certification requirements mandating that they conduct regular emergency response exercises to test their staff. By collaborating effectively in the exercise design process, multiple organizations can meet those requirements through a single exercise. Building this type of response capability takes time, though, and is no place to cut corners for the sake of expediency.

The first step in this process should be to designate an exercise planning team. One or more of the team’s members should be personnel who have successfully completed the Homeland Security Exercise and Evaluation Program (HSEEP) training offered by the Department of Homeland Security’s Federal Emergency Management Agency. Using an HSEEP model in exercise planning will ensure that all aspects of the exercise are followed universally by all participants through the use of a well-developed exercise plan (ExPlan).

An ExPlan will often contain critical elements such as a master series of events list (MSEL), exercise evaluation guides (EEG) for evaluators and a formal after action report (AAR) that provides a path forward for improvement. This planning process is as useful in tabletop exercises as it is in full-scale exercises. It is often recommended that key decision-makers are given an opportunity to participate in a tabletop exercise first, as a subsequent AAR may allow for the correction of issues, prior to conducting a corresponding full-scale exercise.

The ExPlan will also clearly establish objectives, necessary safety processes, forecasted expenses and logistical details. Leading up to the actual date of the exercise, the ExPlan will require appropriate notifications to be made to participants, role players, observers and, most importantly, the public if they will be exposed. Such notification may come through written documents, email, social media, radio or teletype announcements. Proper notification reduces the likelihood of someone accidentally being surprised by the exercise, or worse, getting caught in the middle of it.

Of all the benefits that a HSEEP ExPlan offers during full-scale exercises, clearly the safety processes are the most critical. Having a formal check-in process for participants helps ensure that they are clearly identified and accounted for, as well as given appropriate direction and briefings. This should include a thorough weapon inspection if the scenario includes law enforcement officers. Safety monitors and controllers also ensure that role players and participants stay within the designated exercise area and operate within certain predesignated safety restrictions.

When done properly, exercises can be incredibly useful tools for first response commanders. They help highlight an organization’s strengths, as well as expose areas that need improving. In the end, the only bad exercise is the one that puts people at risk.


For further information on HSEEP training, talk to your local, county or state emergency management agency regarding available classes. For information regarding Police Response to Active Shooter Instructor Certification courses, visit