Police, fire crews devise new response plan based partly on military tactics

We live in an era when the possibility of someone taking a gun and opening up on complete strangers in a public place is far from a rarity. But it’s reassuring to know Hillsboro’s police and fire departments are setting a new standard for ways to respond to the dreaded “active shooter” situation.

In a somewhat unorthodox approach, the focus of the rapid response Hillsboro is pioneering deals less with the shooter and more with getting to and treating victims.

After studying hundreds of active shooter incidents, Sgt. Craig Allen of the Hillsboro Police Department came to realize that the perpetrator is typically taken out of the equation relatively quickly because he has been killed or apprehended, taken his own life, or fled.

“I have spent the last three years analyzing 290 incidents relating to active shooters, 98 percent of which are perpetrated by a single male attacker,” said Allen, who has been with Hillsboro’s police force for 20 years.

Allen noted that the trends do not spark optimism.

“From 2008 to 2011, the average spree killing — the rapid mass murder of innocents — took place in less than three minutes,” Allen said. “But suspects have recently become even quicker with their murders. Since 2011, these incidents typically conclude within two minutes. The 2012 Aurora, Colo., movie theater shooting took less than a minute, with 70 persons shot.”

Therein lies a key problem, Allen pointed out.

“Historically, police officers arrive in time to interrupt the shooting in less than one of every 13 incidents. In only 22 of these incidents have police arrived in time to interrupt the shooting,” he said.

For Allen, that meant the ultimate focus of the emergency response needed to be redirected.

“Our response is not where it should be,” Allen said. “The intrinsic problem is that there are two schools of training — police response and fire response — but that is not efficient. An integrated response is what is efficient. It’s not just a police problem. The biggest thing is to get people to the hospital. The conclusion is, police and fire have to work together to have a meaningful impact. The goal is to save lives.”

With this directive in mind, Allen teamed up with Jeff Gurske and Abe Madrigal, engineers with the Hillsboro Fire Department, and the three of them developed an innovative concept.

“The cutting edge is to get fire personnel in there, and we worked on finding an integrated casualty collection point,” said Gurske, who noted that much of what the rapid response team practices is patterned after lessons learned in military operations.

“In mass casualty incidents, you want the goal to be to get each patient to the operating room table. It’s very similar to combat situations,” he explained. “There are minimal life-saving measures going on. Our goal is to stabilize that person and get them out of there because we don’t have the equipment or personnel to do much more at the scene.

“We followed military tactics. We found we could cut out a lot of fat. It’s all trying to shave off seconds.”

A group of Force Tactics instructors from Hillsboro’s police and fire departments have implemented the new training protocols.

In December 2011, a massive training exercise was held at Hillsboro’s South Meadows Middle School. In that test, approximately 450 emergency responders trained, joined by 200 volunteers in a variety of roles.

“The magnitude was immense,” said Allen. “These drills look and feel real.”

The training scenarios involve multiple law enforcement agencies, firefighters and emergency medical responders, as well as emergency dispatchers.

“This is a model to maximize police and fire working together,” Allen said. “If you’re not training everybody, we’re not going to do real well.”

Gurske pointed out that in actual active shooter locations around the nation, it takes an average of about 40 minutes before emergency medical service teams are allowed to enter a mass shooting scene.

But with the integrated response model Hillsboro is designing, the timeline can be dramatically improved.

“In our scenario, we had the last patient transported at 40 minutes,” Gurske explained.

Allen said he believes changing tactics to adapt to the increasing number of random shootings is overdue.

“We’re 13 years past Columbine,” he pointed out, referring to a horrific crime in Colorado in 1999 when two students entered their high school and went on a shooting rampage that left 12 students and one teacher dead.

Hillsboro Mayor Jerry Willey praised the city’s emergency service providers for their efforts to create the innovative program.

“I believe our active shooter training is among the best in the nation,” Willey said. “This coordinated approach saves lives, because people who are hurt, often seriously, receive medical help far more quickly.”

Gurske noted that coordinating the response of police and fire units has applications far beyond crime scenes.

“The more we did, the more we realized this integration training can apply to any disaster,” Gurske said.

Interim Hillsboro Police Chief Ron Louie is also on board with the new approach.

“The scenario-based training is considered among the best, I say with pardonable pride,” said Louie.

On June 4, Hillsboro’s emergency team will present the plan to the International Association of Directors of Law Enforcement Training in Portland.

“This is a great achievement for Hillsboro,” Gurske said. “They want to hear about our model, and we’ll provide the template to other agencies. This is great information and it should be free and easy to access for everyone.”

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