Active shooter response, prevention in sights of VIPR seminar

GEORGETOWN – You’re attending an awards program in your child’s seventh-grade science class on a sunny spring morning.

Suddenly, there is loud popping within the school.

Firecrackers? It’s mid-April, not the Fourth of July or New Year’s Eve.

Screams and shrieks in hallway horror are heard. The popping continues.

What do you?

Mass shootings grabbing headlines in the world today garnered the spotlight Wednesday in a public seminar aimed at prevention and – in the event of an active shooter situation – enhancing chances of survival.

Approximately 200 people attended the March 28 Violent Intruder Preparedness Response (VIPR) seminar at Sussex Central High School. It’s the first in a series of seminars planned in partnership between Delaware State Police and the Delaware Department of Education.

The second seminar is scheduled for Tuesday, April 17, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Indian River High School in Dagsboro. Additional sessions are being planned at other schools throughout Delaware.

“In the aftermath of the massacre in Parkland, once again we are reminded of the frequency of mass violence, active shooter events that occur quite often at peaceful, lawful venues where we don’t expect any crime, let alone violent crime,” said Det. Timothy Kerstetter, Terrorism Liaison Officer for the Delaware State Police.

The 2 1/2-hour seminar covered bombing scenarios and motivational factors but focused predominantly on active shooter events.

VIPR seminar training goals are to:

  • Increase situational awareness to mass violence;
  • Assist Delawareans with emergency action plans;
  • Reduce risk, liability and casualties during violence; and
  • Demonstrate Emergency Casualty Care tactics.

Prevention is VIPR’s priority mission.

“Our strategy is using our power of observation and recognizing behaviors that are inconsistent with the norm,” said Det. Kerstetter. “We encourage you to be vigilant in looking for behaviors; mental health, somebody uniquely angry and hostile; an individual who had never hunted or been to the firing range before but is now obsessed with assault rifles and bulk amounts of ammunition. If it concerns you it concerns us, too. We want to provide intervention prior to any violence.”

Bob Mooney, Delaware Crime Stoppers executive director, speaks at the VIPR seminar.

It’s better to be safe than sorry, says Bob Mooney, executive director of Delaware Crime Stoppers, a non-governmental agency that offers an anonymous tip line in collaboration with local and state law enforcement.

“The biggest fear people have is retribution and retaliation by giving information to the police. With today’s society and the fears of today we provide an opportunity through Crime Stoppers,” said Mr. Mooney, a retired Delaware state trooper and United States Air Force Lt. Colonel. “There is no tracking to that number. There is no recording of information. We never ask names of the caller, and we never ask for an IP address if someone goes online and sends the information by a computer. It is all totally anonymous. It has an opportunity and a feature within the program if the information is sent to Delaware Crime Stoppers to where I can reply back. That opportunity window is available.”

Delaware Crime Stoppers rewards up to $1,000 for tips and information that lead to an arrest.

In 1983, Crime Stoppers was receiving on average 20 to 30 tips monthly. In February 2018, Crime Stoppers received 281 tips, which local and state law enforcement turned into 207 open cases.

Mr. Mooney made reference to the Columbine school massacre in April 1999 in which 12 students and one teacher were murdered by two students who subsequently committed suicide that same day.

“I want you to think historically for a moment back to Columbine. And I am going to suggest to you, and it has been proven, every incident including Columbine, citizens knew, or somebody knew what was going to happen. It wasn’t a secret. They were in fact bragging about it,” said Mr. Mooney. “It goes all the way through to today, to Parkland. Somebody was suspicious. I would be the first to say, a lot of people messed up under the circumstances. That was unfortunate.”

Det. Tim Kerstetter shows the safest place to be in a classroom during an active shooter scenario.

“However, I can tell you that here and now, without a doubt in my mind, Tim (Kerstetter) and the Homeland Security folks associated with the state of Delaware … that is not going to happen,” said Mr. Mooney. “We’re not fearful of that. With that said, I’d say the important thing is to give the information to somebody who will respond. We want to encourage the information to come forward.”

“Recognize suspicious behaviors to help identify and prevent these episodes prior to them ever occurring,” said Det. Kerstetter. “How do we fight an enemy that hides among the innocent? In Delaware we call that Hometown Security.”

Motivating factors for mass killings include workplace violence, domestic violence, hate crime, mental illness and terrorism.

VIPR training encourages citizens to be cognizant of surroundings, in particular location of exits and doors at places they frequent; workplace, schools, places of worship, restaurants, nightclubs, etc.

“Know what doors lock and unlock,” Det. Kerstetter said.

Violent intruder/active shooter

Here’s a scenario: An armed gunman enters a school, church or business. How do you respond?

VIPR training’s three prioritized options are: Run, Hide, Fight.

RUN

First and foremost, if you can get out, get out. Always attempt to escape. Leave personal belongings behind. Alert and warn others on the way out and call 911 only when safe.

“Our first strategy is very simply, get out of sight and sound from that shooter, from that violent intruder, from that American citizen who may have a behavioral health disease, a mental illness, that hostile employee that was separated from the organization six weeks ago or maybe that homegrown violent extremist,” said Det. Kerstetter.

Upon exiting a building VIPR training recommends running with a purpose, not randomly, seeking temporary concealment shelter while searching for more permanent safe cover. Running in spurts in a zig-zag pattern is recommended. “A moving target is harder to hit,” said Det. Kerstetter.

A plastic trash container, trash dumpsters, utility poles, trees and the area near a vehicle’s thick engine compartment may momentarily keep you out of the shooter’s sight for several precious seconds that could be the difference between life, death or serious injury.

In a school, a stage curtain could provide several moments of temporary concealment. The goal is to stay out of the shooter’s sight.

“If we can see the shooter the shooter can see us. We cannot outrun bullets. It doesn’t stop the gunfire. Concealment is temporary, but we just increased survivability rates,” said Det. Kerstetter.

He noted the tragedy of the October 2017 mass shooting on the Las Vegas Strip where a gunman opened fire on a crowd attending a concert, killing 58 people. There simply weren’t many places to hide or seek cover.

“Nothing can guarantee anyone’s life during a mass casualty event,” Det. Kerstetter said.

HIDE

If you can’t run, hide quickly and quietly in a secure place, preferably behind large objects. If in a classroom or office, turn out the lights, draw window shades drawn, silence cell phones (perhaps even rendering them useless to avoid detection and the gunman’s attention), lock the door and if possible barricade beyond lock-down.

“We want to go beyond locking door; a locked door is not a guarantee. It is a step, but we want to barricade,” said Det. Kerstetter.

Makeshift barricade improvisation could include securing a solid table, desk or equipment wider than the door with nylon straps, zip-ties, neckties, purse straps, backpacks, duct tape, extension cords. “Anything that you can tie into knots,” said Det. Kerstetter.

Wooden broom handles, shovels as well as materials that can be improvised to jam a door and prevent it from immediately opening can also provide precious seconds.

“Practice in advance,” said Det. Kerstetter.

Inside a room during an active shooting, occupants should make sure they cannot be seen by the shooter through door glass/window by lining up tightly against wall on the side of the room where the door is.

However, in a non-shooting hostage situation, window shades should be left open to allow law enforcement “eyes” into the hostage area, Det. Kerstetter said.

Delaware State Police Det. Tim Kerstetter tightens a strap with a pencil to make a makeshift tourniquet as Delaware State Police Det. Jeff Hudson, School Resource Officer at Sussex Central High School plays the victim.

FIGHT

As a last resort, resort to fighting back.

Det. Kerstetter emphasized repeatedly that Delaware State Police and the Department of Education do not encourage any citizen to seek physical confrontation with a violent intruder.

“We encourage everyone to run and hide and call 911 when it is safe to do so,” he said. “We don’t encourage any citizen to engage an armed intruder. It is a suicide mission to run down a corridor chasing after an active shooter.”

However, he acknowledged there is a certain segment of society that will voluntarily engage, risking their own “physical safety to try to neutralize that threat … using less than lethal force or lethal force.”

Such reasonable force is lawful in Section 464 of Delaware Code, he said.

VIPR’s recommended plan of attack: attack the weapon. Typically, the weapon will precede the shooter entering through a door. First reaction, Det. Kerstetter said, is to not punch the intruder in the jaw, whack him with a baseball bat or kick him in the groin.

“He can still pull the trigger. Therefore, the option to consider is attack the weapon. Attack the hand. Most people are right-handed. Attack weapon; an ambush so we can control the weapon.” Det. Kerstetter said.

This tactic does not guarantee prevention of injury or loss of innocent lives.

“We may have victims. That is tragic. But the consequence of that …,” said Det. Kerstetter, recalling the Virginia Tech massacre in April 2007. “Thirty-two were murdered, many of which were shot in the back of the head as they did not take any action. That’s not to criticize any of them. That’s why we are here today to talk about the lessons learned from these critical incidents.”

“Backing up, holding our hands up, ‘Please don’t shoot me’ … that is not a survival strategy. That is a hope and a prayer,” Det. Kerstetter said.

In securing the shooter’s weapon, ordinary items can become improvised weapons: fire extinguishers, chairs, scissors, razor blades, letter openers, pens and pencils, bug spray, pepper spray, mace, cleaning supplies, screw drivers, hammers, golf clubs and kitchen knives.

“Whatever you have. Attack the eyes, the carotid artery,” said Det. Kerstetter. “It will slow the shooter down; our actions are quicker than his reactions.”

“Most active shooters don’t have military training; some have by chance. Many have behavioral health issues. They are not thinking logically. They are very angry. They know they are going to jail. They are trying to murder several people,” said Det. Kerstetter. “They are not thinking rationally because they know law enforcement will be here in just a few minutes.”

Fire alarms: Pros and cons

Det. Kerstetter said there are positive and negative consequences in utilizing a fire alarm during an active shooter scenario.

On one hand, fire alarm activation will open up some key pad doors for use as temporary hiding and sanctuary.

On the flip side, “Releasing a fire alarm in an educational venue has great liability,” said Det. Kerstetter. “Now, you have 1,500 to 1,600 students funneling out in the hallways, all vulnerable. Those are options to consider.”

Sussex Central High School Principal Dr. Bradley Layfield speaks prior to the VIPR seminar.

Always room for improvement

For several years, the Indian River School District has had a visible presence of armed security in all of its schools.

“The Indian River School District as you may know is the first school district in the state of Delaware to have an armed constable in every building to ensure student safety,” said Sussex Central High School Principal Dr. Bradley Layfield. “We are also blessed to have several School Resource Officers, who are trained law enforcement officers, not only to protect students from the everyday and the mundane – I don’t know that anything is ever mundane here in a high school with 1,650 (students) – but also to respond to the unthinkable. We are highly trained within our district, but we are always seeking further training. And that is why I am proud that we have leaders within our school district like our superintendent Mark Steele, our board of education …”

Dr. Layfield’s brother, Delaware State Police Capt. Rodney Layfield of Troop 4 in Georgetown, is an IRSD school board member who oversees the comprehensive school safety team and planning for the entire Indian River district.

“That is where we have made the greatest strides,” said Dr. Layfield. “But we are hoping to push ourselves further in order to keep children safe.”

In closing

Data shows that active shooter events – there have been 249 from 2000 through 2017 – are not occurring in high-crime rate metropolises such as Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Baltimore or Philadelphia.

About 22 percent of the incidents have occurred at schools – ranging from kindergarten through college.

“This is not a big-city epidemic. This could happen here. Hopefully it never will but we need to prepare. There is a one percent chance it may occur. Lives can be lost, and communities can be changed in small towns such as rural suburban Sussex County,” Det. Kerstetter said. “Our first primary goal is to stop the violence, contain or neutralize the violence. We meet violence with greater violence. We meet fire with fire. We do not stage outside waiting for SWAT teams as we saw in the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office in the Columbine High School massacre. We do not stage outside tragically like we saw with the Parkland, Florida high school massacre on Feb. 14. Delaware law enforcement, all agencies to include state police, we are trained to respond and neutralize that threat immediately. We want to stop the shooting, the killing. Our second phase: now render aid.”

More information

Delaware’s Terrorism Tip hotline is: 1-800-FORCE12 (1-800-367-2312).

For more information, call 302-739-5996, email the Delaware Information Analysis Center (DIAC) at diac@state.de.us or visit www.dediac.org.

Delaware Crime Stoppers tip line is: 1-800-TIP-3333.

News Editor Glenn Rolfe can be reached at grolfe@newszap.com

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