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FBI Confidential: Do you have an active shooter strategy?

SALT LAKE CITY — The agent who trains FBI SWAT members in Salt Lake City says active shooter situations across the nation has him reviewing their protocols, but he also wants citizens to have their own plan.

FBI Confidential host Sheryl Worsley interviewed the agent (who we are not naming for safety reasons because he works active SWAT cases).  He recommends the Run, Hide, Fight strategy.  However, he says it’s not enough to have a plan.

“Teachers and students need to train with run, hide, fight. The district needs the protocol in place and needs to practice it. You need to have a plan and protocol, but you need to practice. You can have a plan, but it won’t help when the shooting starts,” the agent said.

What does Run, Hide, Fight entail? It’s pretty self-explanatory. Your first choice during an active shooter situation is to run. Get away. If you can safely help someone who is injured to escape, help them get away from where the shooting is happening.

When running isn’t possible, the second preferred option is to hide. If you’re in a building or office, barricade the door with desks, file cabinets, copy machines or whatever you can find.  Put your cell phone on silent. If you are far enough away from the shooter that you won’t be heard, call 9-1-1. If you can’t get through to 9-1-1 the agent says it is okay to tell police where the shooter may be in the building on social media, but don’t reveal that you are hiding or where you are located in the building.

When running and hiding are no longer possible, it is time to fight.

“Use anything that might be laying around, chairs are a good thing to throw at somebody.  Fire extinguishers can knock somebody out pretty easily,” the agent said.  “Just even standing behind the door when they open it, slamming the door shut on them could potentially knock the weapon out of their hands.”

The SWAT trainer also says if there are more of you than the shooter, your chances are good to disarm.

“When you have multiple civilians attacking an active shooter, they’re going to take him down.  Some of them might get shot in the process, but they’re going to win if they’re aggressive and working together. If it’s just one unarmed civilian, well they might lose that battle but if guys and girls gang-up on that active shooter they’re going to win that battle and they can over-take them.”

The special agent says protocol has changed since the Columbine High School shooting in 1999. Police used to wait until SWAT arrived to enter a building with a shooter inside. They no longer wait. By the time SWAT and officers entered Columbine High, 40 plus minutes after the initial call, the shooters and all the victims were dead.  He says most of the action in an active shooter situation happens in the first five minutes.

The statistics for a single officer responding to an active shooter call alone are not great.

“If one officer responds and engages the shooter, a third of those officers are shot.  So that’s a huge risk that those guys are taking. You gotta do it.  You gotta go in and stop that killing because innocent people are getting killed, but they are taking a huge risk and I think it’s important that the public recognizes that.”

The FBI’s SWAT team in the Salt Lake Division responds to between 15 and 20 most years and it takes lots of training to maintain the edge needed to react in volatile situations. In order to maintain a spot on the team, members must train a minimum of four days every month. Specialists, like bomb techs or snipers, undergo more intense training.  Team members are case agents first working in areas like white-collar crime, cyber, public corruption, and SWAT is an auxiliary duty.

The FBI SWAT is generally in a safer position than most police officers, in that most situations are planned and controlled, while a patrol officer has no idea who he is dealing with at a traffic stop. SWAT team investigations are long term, they know who they are dealing with and get to pick the time and place. The agent says they avoid car stops and chases and generally know if there are kids in the house.

The trainer says in his 2 and a half years in Salt Lake, he’s done about 30 SWAT operations. In about a quarter of the cases there are kids in the house and most of the time they know where the kids are located inside the house.

In most cases, the FBI will knock and announce their presence at a residence. After waiting, the door is then breached and non-lethal tactics are deployed. The situation changes depending on the intelligence collected around the suspect.  Someone who has a history of using hostages in confrontations raises the risk level.

“If we know that somebody might be prone to taking their girlfriend hostage, rather than giving them a ton of time to think about that and hold outside, then we might revert back to the old tactics where you run in, get in there and get between the main subject and the potential hostage”, the trainer said.

The special agent says the highlight of his career happened in the winter of 2013 when a suspect kidnapped a 5-year-old boy from a school bus in Alabama and took him to an underground bunker. He was held hostage for almost a week.

“He was holding that kid. He wanted to get a reporter down there and talk about what he saw as all the injustice in the world. Eventually, on the 6th day, the situation was unraveling.  We felt he was going to kill the kid, so we launched a rescue attempt. It was extremely difficult. He ended up shooting up out the hole as we were trying to make entry.  It was pretty traumatic but ultimately we saved the kid and the main subject was killed in the process.  None of the operators were hurt.”

The special agent is a father and lives with his family in the Salt Lake area.