By Tom Polera, Emergency Manager and Chief Fire Marshal, Falls Church, Va.
The city of Falls Church, Va., Office of Fire Prevention and Emergency Preparedness, has developed a program called “The First 12 Minutes.” This is an innovative community active shooter preparedness program focused on educating those in harm’s way. This office is structured under the city’s police department, which provides a great opportunity for collaboration with police staff. The cadre of instructors is a diverse group that includes police officers, the fire marshal-emergency manager and a paramedic. The focus of the program is to empower and train the community with its first responders on those best practices during an active shooter event.
The key to this training is it must be comprehensive in nature. It includes the principles of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design, or CPTED, orientation of basic weaponry and the aspects of using today’s proactive response systems including “Stop the Bleed.” While active shooter events are complex, and any program that targets all these goals would be overwhelming, the rule is to keep it simple. The program uses a commonsense approach that is teachable to everyone in the community in a three-hour block of time. So far, Falls Church has taught over 600 participants, which have included teachers, members of houses of worship and all city employees.
The program was recently endorsed as a model program by the National Institute of Justice, which is a research, development and evaluation agency of the U.S. Department of Justice. The topics include a review of the data from previous events, the importance of situational awareness and notification systems, evacuating versus barricading, confronting a shooter and understanding the techniques of “Stop the Bleed.”
The First 12 Minutes derived its name upon the foundation of the program, which is the data from previous events. Active shooter tragedies are typically concluded in less than 12 minutes of time. Yet communities have failed to correctly educate the public on what to do during those first 12 minutes. The accepted practice in many places today is to refer the public to a video about locking your doors, turning off the lights, hiding in the corner and waiting for help. This is no longer acceptable when you have an understanding of the data. The data clearly shows the speed of violence will typically end prior to the police department arriving on the scene.
Half of the three-hour program consists of a lecture followed by three breakout sessions that are 30 minutes each. These include barricading, confronting scenarios and “Stop the Bleed.” Training must be hands-on if the objective is to move from a passive response to a proactive response. All sessions include a safety briefing and class size is typically between 15 and 30 participants.
Time is spent discussing the concepts of situational awareness and how to improve existing notification systems. Important factors include empowering those in harm’s way to make the best decisions for their situation with the goal of getting out of the building.
In some cases barricading may be required. It’s not just locking a door, but the ability to fortify and secure an area. This is done by understanding door function, locking mechanisms and using the furniture arrangements within the room in order to add time and distance from an attacker. Topics include a discussion of building and fire code concerns regarding adding door locks as well as contingency planning if confronting the shooter is necessary.
Simulated scenarios are conducted to demonstrate distraction and confronting techniques. This includes visual familiarization with different types of weapons. A comparison is conducted to simulate the differences in passive response versus a proactive response. This is the “ah-ha” moment when participants understand they don’t have to be a victim and they can be empowered to resolve the threat.
“Stop the Bleed” is taught as a simplified approach to saving lives. Participants utilize tourniquets on extremities; they also learn about packing junction wounds and how to “seal the box” utilizing occlusive dressings on chest wounds. The First 12 Minutes isn’t designed to train the general public to be paramedics, but rather its focus is on simple skills that can save lives. An additional benefit in rolling out this program is the discussion for “Stop the Bleed” trauma kits on location at the training site. Whether it is a school, house of worship, child care or office building, kits containing the correct tools should be purchased and located on-site.
The program is always being updated and improved on the basis of lessons learned from after-action reports from the most recent tragic events. The success of the program is driven by having a dedicated cadre of instructors and always learning from its participants. From time to time, there are obstacles to overcome and new gaps that are identified. Some of these require the involvement of the whole community in order to mitigate the risk.
The First 12 Minutes is offered as a community-service program, free of charge. It has received rave reviews by those who have participated. Last August the faculty and staff at St. James Elementary School completed the training. In a recent interview, Sister Mary Sue Carwile, principal at St. James, was asked if she or her faculty felt afraid? Her response, “I don’t think we’re afraid but rather prepared, and we’re blessed for that preparation.
Tom Polera is the emergency manager and chief fire marshal for the city of Falls Church, Va., and serves on the police department command staff. He retired from the Arlington County Fire Department in 2011 with 30 years of service and responded to notable incidents, including the 1982 Air Florida crash and the Pentagon on 9/11. Chief Polera holds a bachelor’s degree in public safety, is a professional emergency manager (PEM-VA) and is a certified public manager. He currently serves on the arson/explosives committee for the International Chiefs of Police.