Responding to Terrorism is not as Simple as you Think
About 30 people are in a conference room at the Frederick Chamber of Commerce’s offices on Gas House Pike. An announcement booms over the crowd: “Shelter in place until we give you additional information.” A loud alarm sounds and most try to squat down behind their make-believe chairs, cowering. A masked gunman bursts into the room. He stops, takes out his gun and methodically starts shooting. A man in the third row. A couple of women in the second row. Several on the other side of the aisle. With his plan done, the gunman calmly exits the room.
“OK. Real world,” shouts Scott Zimmerman, a Montgomery County police officer and chief executive officer of K17 Security, alerting participants that the scenario was over.
“I think I’m dead,” says one woman, getting up.
“I’m dead,” another adds.
“I got shot,” chimes in another ‘victim.’
“How did that work out for everybody?” Zimmerman asks. Many shake their heads. Some say, “Not good.” “Would that be your ideal response option for you or your children?” Zimmerman asks. “No,” the audience murmurs in unison.
The scenario was part of a one-day active shooter response training program at the Chamber. “It should have felt abnormal for you,” Zimmerman says. “It’s an unnatural feeling to sit there and wait and wait for somebody else to help you. Whether my gunman was tactically trained or never picked up a gun before. … It’s one kill shot after another. Everybody is docile, sitting there waiting to be killed and injured.”
While Zimmerman says the natural reaction for most people is to recoil in fear and wait for help, he wants them to be prepared and fight for their lives and those around them. With sensitive installations like Fort Detrick and Camp David, Frederick County—whether we want to admit it or not—could be a terrorist target or the location of a mass shooting. So how well-prepared are we as individuals? How well prepared are police?
“Make an informed response”
The only emergency preparedness lesson most people have engrained in their head is “stop, drop and roll” during a fire or perhaps “duck and cover” when waiting for nuclear warheads to land. Other than that, calling 911 and waiting for help is the norm. But times have changed. With a new mass shooting dominating the news nearly every month, there is a more proactive movement underway. In recent years the FBI began promoting the initiative “Run Hide Fight” for those caught in an active shooter situation. The agency wants people to evacuate the premises, if possible, hiding in a spot that may be able to be barricaded or aggressively fight an attacker with improvised weapons like keys, staplers, mugs and shoes.
Zimmerman started his company in 2009 as a way to help individuals, businesses and organizations be prepared for the unthinkable with services including security consulting, active shooter response training and risk and vulnerability assessments. “Talking about shootings is not a fun thing, but I want [you to have] confidence,” he says to the attendees at the Chamber training. “If you don’t have the confidence, if you don’t feel empowered to do something, then you are going to do nothing. …Whatever the incident is, your response, being on-site, is the most important. You guys are the immediate responders. First-responders are always coming [but] 30 seconds is going to feel like 30 minutes. Two minutes is going to feel like two hours. What happens [with those already on-site] makes the biggest impact in lack of damage and loss of life.”
He encourages businesses and organizations to look at their weakest security points and prioritize them. “You cannot address everything at once and what I don’t want to see is an organization decide, ‘This is too much for us to take on so we’re not going to do anything,’” Zimmerman says. “Many organizations fail to even do active shooter response training or have emergency action plans to address it because of liability concerns.” Any place can be made into Fort Knox, he says, but it is usually defeated by internal employees looking to save time, like propping open a card-access door.
For those who adhere to the “shelter in place” philosophy with no additional information, they will not find a fan in Zimmerman. “I want to be able to make an informed decision,” he says. “Communication should be timely, frequent and consistent. … My ideal is training your [employees]. You train your people and then you give them information. Then you hear, ‘Well isn’t it a liability if we allow people to make their own decisions?’ It’s a liability if you force people to stay in a room and they get shot and killed. I hate the way the schools do it. I don’t like the way most corporations do it. I like information and training your people and allowing them to make an informed response.”
He does not want people waiting to be victims until somebody comes to help them. He wants to teach people how to be battle-ready—knowing where the exits are, alerting others when someone is not acting like themselves, using whatever is available to successfully barricade an entrance and disrupt the invader’s plan.
“Killers are lazy,” Zimmerman says. “They are going for soft targets, unarmed individuals that are going to be like sheep and be docile. They start hitting doors that are giving resistance and people that are giving resistance, they are moving. Why do I want to breach that door if I can go to another one that is open?”
“It could occur any time”
If a terrorist attack or mass shooting would ever occur in the county, police are equipped with a multi-jurisdictional response. Local agencies prepare for the unthinkable through planning, training courses and real life scenarios. “The whole reason for this training and planning and communication and cooperation—all of that is to save lives,” says Frederick Police Department Capt. Dwight Sommers. “Plain and simple, we definitely need to be trained and we need a coordinated, professional, immediate response to incidents like that.”
During his tenure as the county’s top cop, Sheriff Chuck Jenkins says he has made homeland security and local readiness an agency priority. “The local law enforcement role has shifted from traditional criminal enforcement and fighting crime to recognizing that we are now in the position of being initial responders to any localized terrorist style attack or mass shooting event,” he says. “As the types of events and threats have increased, the Sheriff’s Office is continually preparing with increased training in tactical response as well as improving our intelligence and information sharing to mitigate the risk of being a potential target locally.”
In the past, the main focus of the training was stopping criminals from continuing the attack. Police must make sure a building or area is safe before allowing emergency medical technicians inside, but these seconds and minutes are critical to those suffering from gunshots or stab wounds. This year, law enforcement agencies have begun training their officers to medically assist victims they come across while searching a building for a threat. “We don’t want to delay our response in eliminating the shooter because the longer it takes … the more people get hurt,” says Sgt. Paul Beliveau of the Frederick Police Department. “It’s an integrated response. It’s doing both at the same time.”
The agencies receive requests for information, assistance, presentations and training from businesses and community members. The availability of resources depends on manpower and scheduling. “Any time there is an event that receives a significant amount of media attention, we see an increase in the number of requests,” says Capt. Ron Hibbard of the Sheriff’s Office.
Earlier this year, Frederick police trained all city employees in responding to active shooters. Beliveau, one of the instructors, says the training focused on the Avoid Deny Defend strategy (similar to Run Hide Fight) put forth by the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) center at Texas State University. “The biggest thing that people have to be aware of is understanding that it could occur any time, any place, and be very vigilant and aware of your surrounds,” Beliveau says. “Don’t live in fear but be vigilant of surroundings and understand your points of exit, your points of entrance if you are in [a building] and what you would do yourself … if a shooter walks through the door.”
If there is an active shooter, Beliveau says people need to defend themselves. “It’s something [residents] are not used to because you don’t generally have law enforcement telling civilians, ‘You have to fight. You have to do what you need to to protect yourself,’” he says. “It’s usually, ‘Call the police and we will come and help,’ but that’s definitely not the case here because you just don’t have time” with an active shooter.
“It was empowering”
During a second scenario at the Chamber training, an announcement is heard throughout the room: “Gunman in the building. We’ve got a white male in the lobby coming in with a gun. Stand by.”
The group breaks off into two smaller factions. One side has plastic balls ready to throw when the door is breached. The other is along the wall by the door ready to attack the gunman upon entry. “I’ll call 911,” a woman shouts. The shooter comes through the door and is met by a chaotic scene filled with shouts, screams and projectiles from every direction. The other group swarms, grabbing the nozzle of the gun and capturing him.
“Real world!” Zimmerman shouts.
“Good job everybody. Good job.” Could the pretend gunman focus on very many people or any with all the commotion? he asks. The gunman answers he couldn’t. “Often, when we do actual projectiles, what we see is maybe [the shooter] getting off one or two shots,” Zimmerman says. “Instead of those center-mass shots that we saw earlier, they are shooting somebody in their leg or shooting them in their foot or their rear end. I don’t want to get shot anywhere but I’d rather take a shot in my arm or something like that other than my chest.”
After the program, Lisa Hammer, a principal at Leadership Techniques LLC, recalled feeling helpless during the first scenario. “I just felt like I was dead,” she says. “Clearly, I wasn’t doing anything to help myself. By the second one, he gave us some information that helped us arm ourselves better. … It was definitely a change in mentality which was what he was trying to help us do.” Linda Morgan, Support Unlimited Inc. president, added, “I think [the scenarios] really demonstrated that ‘shelter in place’ really is not a great plan of action. There is no plan. There
is no action in ‘shelter in place.’” During the second scenario, Morgan was amid the group throwing projectiles. “Although they were just plastic balls, it was empowering. At least I am doing something.”