Author: Mike Wood
The American law enforcement, firefighter and EMS communities are nothing, if not conservative, so changes tend to happen slowly in these cultures. Against this backdrop, it’s actually rather remarkable to see how quickly many public safety agencies across the United States have adopted new protocols to respond to evolving active shooter threats, and how adaptable their training, tactics, techniques and procedures have become.
One of the evolutions in active shooter* response has been the concept of the rescue task force (RTF). In this model, fire/rescue assets are teamed up with law enforcement to allow them to enter an active shooter scene earlier in the response, even before the scene is completely secured. By getting fire/rescue into the “warm zone” with police protection early, instead of waiting until the scene is declared fully secured (or “cold” as fire/rescue has traditionally done), the treatment and evacuation of critically injured victims can be accelerated, which saves lives.
It’s a good idea, yet while the RTF concept is gaining traction in some places, several recent failures demonstrate that public safety agencies still have a lot of work to do coordinating response.
Two sides of an awful coin
Consider the June 12, 2016, attack on the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida. During this incident, the Orlando Police Department made rapid entry to confront a terrorist who killed 49 people and wounded 58 more.
Despite the fact that the police pinned down the attacker in a corner of the building minutes after entry, fire-EMS personnel were prohibited from responding to the scene by their chain of command, delaying critically needed treatment for victims. Although the attacker was isolated inside, and police were ready to provide force protection for fire-EMS crews, the Orlando Fire Department leadership refused to allow their personnel to respond to the warm zone casualty collection point located outside and across the street. Fire leadership also forbade their personnel to open the doors of a fire station located several blocks away from the incident (clearly in the cold zone), after victims fled to that location, despite the presence of police officers to provide force protection at the fire station.
The reverse of this drama unfolded in Parkland, Florida, on February 14, 2018, where an attacker killed 17 people and wounded 17 more in an attack on Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. When Coral Springs Fire Department crews responded to the incident, they encountered unexpected resistance from the Broward County Sheriff’s Department Captain who was acting as the Incident Commander. This commander denied multiple requests from a deputy fire chief to allow his trained RTF personnel into classrooms that had already been cleared and secured by police. As a result, critical care was withheld from victims while law enforcement leadership struggled to establish command and control of the incident.
The biggest problem in rescue task force response
It’s important to note that the agencies involved in each of these incidents had previously conducted RTF training and had available RTF resources in place.
In Orlando, the police department had conducted four major joint training exercises with the fire department prior to the Pulse attack and had provided RTF training to fire personnel on multiple occasions. The police department had previously provided 25 protective vests and helmets for fire department use, but they remained in storage at the fire department headquarters at the time of the Pulse attack.
In Parkland, the Coral Springs-Parkland Fire Department had already formed and trained RTF teams, each consisting of three paramedics and three to four police officers. Two of these teams were on scene and ready to go during the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
The problem in Orlando and Parkland was not a lack of trained RTF assets. Neither was it a lack of initiative on the part of fire-EMS personnel. In Orlando, two paramedics took a great professional risk and violated orders to remain outside the scene, making 5 trips and rescuing 13 people. In Parkland, the deputy fire chief asked six times to deploy his RTFs and was denied each time by an overwhelmed and indecisive Incident Commander.
The problem in Orlando and Parkland was not equipment, and it was not personnel; it was a lack of good leadership.
Leadership tasks during an active shooter event
The RTF concept is still relatively new, and there are numerous “tactical” or operator-level details that teams still need to work through. Issues such as team composition, training needs, necessary equipment and tactics all require attention and effort to ensure RTF readiness.
However, the Orlando and Parkland examples show us that the most critical deficiency in public safety RTF preparations lies in the area of leadership, and specifically, command and control. In order to fix these weaknesses, law enforcement and fire leaders need to take action in several key areas:
1. Establish doctrine
The first task for police, fire and EMS leaders is to agree on a basic RTF doctrine. The doctrine will establish the fundamental principles and beliefs that will guide RTF operations for the respective agencies. It will define necessary terms (i.e., hot, warm and cold zone), detail the circumstances in which a RTF will be employed, and provide top-level guidance on the command and control responsibilities and duties of each agency.
If doctrine is clearly established and agreed upon at the command level, personnel at the tactical and operational levels will then have the necessary guidance to turn the RTF concept into reality.
For example, if the required level of security before a RTF will be inserted can be clearly defined in doctrine, then this simplifies lower-level decisions about equipment, tactics and training. If doctrine clearly establishes who will make the decision to deploy the RTF, and who will be responsible for their operational control, then this also supports RTF planning and preparations.
2. Train command staff
Once doctrine has been approved, key members of the command staff must be trained to assume incident command duties and use that doctrine to guide RTF operations.
Police, fire and EMS leaders must be capable of fulfilling their responsibilities as part of an Incident Command System, and be well-practiced in making decisions and exercising leadership during critical incidents. Potential incident commanders must understand:
Who is responsible for RTF command and control; What level of security is required to deploy a RTF into a warm zone; What conditions will preclude the deployment of a RTF.
They must be trained to effectively coordinate and work with their counterparts from other agencies and disciplines to solve the problem.
3. Train personnel
Once there is a clear doctrine and capable incident command leadership in place, police, fire and EMS leaders must organize, train and equip their personnel to conduct RTF operations. It’s vital that police and fire-EMS personnel have the opportunity to conduct realistic, joint training that will allow them to understand their roles in the RTF model, and gain confidence in their partners and their abilities to effectively operate as a combined team.
It’s ironic that many agencies that have moved toward the RTF model have placed those priorities backwards. They have focused on training and equipping their operators first but have neglected the development of standardized doctrine and the training and maintenance of leaders who are capable of managing RTF teams during critical incidents.
This is like building a house on sand, and the result is what we saw in Orlando and Parkland, where the troops were capable of getting the job done and eager to do so but were hindered by leaders and institutions that weren’t up to the task.
The RTF is a winning concept, but it cannot succeed without a commitment from police, fire and EMS leadership. Leaders must embrace the RTF and truly make it part of their agency’s culture and standard operating procedure, if it’s going to work. If they don’t, it will only guarantee more failures like those we saw in Orlando and Parkland.
*I prefer the term “rapid mass murder” coined by LE trainer Ron Borsch, which seems more accurate and comprehensive than active shooter.