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The active shooter represents a unique challenge for public safety, and not just those responding to the scene. Emergency communications personnel play a vital role in managing these volatile situations.

What is an Active Shooting Incident?

According to the Department of Homeland Security/FBI, an “active shooter” is defined as: one or more individuals participating in a random or systematic killing spree demonstrating their intent to harm others with a firearm. An active shooter’s objective is that of mass murder, rather than committing traditional criminal acts, such as robbery or burglary. Active shooter attacks are dynamic incidents that vary greatly from one to another.

Responding to Active Shooter Incidents

Figures released by the Department of Homeland Security indicate that the average active shooter incident lasts 12.5 minutes, while the average law enforcement response time takes 18 minutes. These acts of extreme violence often cannot be prevented. Unless law enforcement is present precisely at the time of an attack, there will always be a delay between the initiation of violence and their arrival on scene. This means that the 911 dispatcher is very likely to be the first law enforcement representative to establish contact with victims or those closely involved in these dramatic and often fast moving events. Until responders are physically present, the only individual predominantly in control during an Active Shooter incident is the shooter themself. So in the time separating the first and last shots fired in Active Shooter incidents, those who have the capacity to react to the threat are the victims and potential victims. Yet many people in these circumstances will turn to 911 for help and advice. Agencies need to not only ensure that their response plans are current and the correct responders are dispatched to the scene, they also need to recognize the importance of the dispatcher in these situations and equip them with the tools to help mitigate risk at a critical moment of the incident timeline.

Pre-Arrival Survival Instructions

The Department of Homeland Security in its publication “Active Shooter: How to Respond” puts forth three steps that building occupants should take when an active shooter is in the vicinity:

  • Evacuate: Building occupants should evacuate the facility if safe to do so. Evacuees should leave behind their belongings, visualize their entire escape route before beginning to move, and avoid using elevators or escalators.
  • Hide: If evacuating the facility is not possible, building occupants should hide in a secure area (preferably a designated shelter location), lock the door, blockade the door with heavy furniture, cover all windows, turn off all lights, silence any electronic devices, lie on the floor, and remain silent.
  • Take Action: If neither evacuating the facility nor seeking shelter is possible, building occupants should attempt to disrupt and/or incapacitate the active shooter by throwing objects, using aggressive force, and yelling.

Reporting an Active Shooter Event

An Active Shooter event could initially be reported by the caller as something other than an obvious active shooter scenario. They may describe sounds they have heard, such as gunfire or people screaming. The caller may have witnessed a suspicious person moments before the attack or as they opened fire. The descriptive details they provide may be invaluable to protect responders or assist them in identifying the attacker within a crowd. But in the critical moments before responders arrive, priority must be to protect life, either by instructing those closest to the scene to escape or to secure their location.

PowerPhone’s Active Shooter procedure assumes the dispatcher possesses the core communication skills required of a public safety communicator. All PowerPhone instruction is based upon the principal of empowering students to understand the fundamentals of a structured call handling approach and utilize their skills and experience in response to the information presented to them. Of course these points alone will not ensure complete preparedness for any situation. To ensure best practice is maintained, a continuous process of call review should be in place to promote a culture of continuing education and to confirm that agency policy and procedures meet operational needs. Over the years, PowerPhone has developed a number of specific methods in responding to emergency calls. One of the most important and widely used methods is the Journalistic Investigative Approach. This is considered to be the most effective way to systematically screen a call and quickly, effectively and appropriately respond.

Active Shooter Procedure

The procedure has been designed to be used after the initial dispatch of responders to a reported event. With units enroute, the dispatcher handling the call is encouraged to try and solicit additional information from the caller that may aid responders, as well as offer advice and reassurance to the caller.

This Active Shooter procedure is excerpted from Total Response®, PowerPhone’s emergency call handling system. For more information on how Total Response can guide your center in achieving greater call consistency and a better standard of care visit us at