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Tuesday, 15 December 2015 06:00

Have We Really Learned Anything Since Sandy Hook?

Written by  Jim Sharp

It's been three years since the atrocity at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Three years since the murders – in their school – of 20 children and six school staff members. Three years and countless hours of talk and debate and rhetoric, but have we really learned anything?

Sure, we've learned some big-picture, conceptual things, like "schools need better security" and "certain people shouldn't have access to firearms," but in reality we probably knew those things before the Sandy Hook killings. Law enforcement, firefighters, EMS and others in the first responder professions certainly continue to refine their response tactics, saving lives at the risk of their own, and yet if I were asked today if any of those lessons have been translated into day-to-day actions by end users, I might have to answer no. Here's why:

One of the school districts in the region is contemplating a bond issue to improve physical security in their buildings (security upgrades at entrances, cameras, better lighting, etc.). It’s a small town, where people still talk to one another over breakfast at the diner or standing in line at the hardware store, and some of that talk is centered on the costs of those improvements – which run into the millions of dollars – and is it all really worth it because, "what are the chances of something like that ever happening here?"

By the numbers, the probability of an armed attack in a school is pretty low in any given location, but as the people of Newtown (and elsewhere; it’s a long list) can attest, there is a life-and-death difference between low probability and zero probability. If you had asked the people who worked at Columbine High School, or Virginia Tech, or Sandy Hook Elementary, or Umpqua Community College before those attacks if they thought they would ever be targeted, they might have answered something like, “Here? Why would anyone want to do that here?”

Last week I visited a middle school, and as I was standing outside waiting to be buzzed in a mother and son who were exiting the building politely held the door open for me as they did so. I appreciate manners, and I appreciate the fact that I did not “appear” to be a threat, but those doors are locked for a reason. Not everyone who poses a potential threat looks the part. If we could tell by appearance alone that someone was about to commit an armed attack on a school (or any crime for that matter) we would literally arrest them on sight.

Think about the last active killer exercise you observed, or in which you played a role in a school (since the attacker is there to do more than just shoot, I believe the phrase “active shooter” doesn’t quite cut it). What did the “attacker” look like? The exercises I’ve been a part of usually have him – and it’s always been a “him” – dressed in all black or some type of para-military clothing. He’s agitated from the start. He’s got a weapon, often some type of long gun, either visible or barely concealed. His entire appearance screams “Threat!” to the point that, if you saw him walking down the street, you’d probably cross to the other side.

Take a look at the first few seconds of the FBI’s Run-Hide-Fight training video and you’ll see what I mean: black pants, black T-shirt, big dark sunglasses and a black backpack on his back. Even if you didn’t know the subject of that video, you could make a pretty good guess that he’s about to cause a problem. Had I been dressed like that for my middle school visit, they would probably have put the building on lock-down and called the police as soon as I stepped out of my car. What would happen if the armed killer in your building was dressed like a teacher, you know, khaki pants and a polo shirt?

Even the most sophisticated, mutually-supportive, multi-layered, technologically advanced security protocols are worthless if they are bypassed by their users. You are your own first line of defense. Someone approaches your facility – he’s dressed in camouflage with a mask over his face and carrying a large bag – is he a threat? Most people would answer yes without hesitation. Would you open the door for him? Most of us would say not just “no” but “hell no!”

Now imagine that same person approaching your facility, but this time dressed in a suit and tie, clean-shaven, and carrying a laptop case – is he a threat? Maybe, maybe not, but I’d bet he gets a door held open for him more often than the first guy, even though he may have a high-capacity pistol in the small of his back and a couple of full magazines in his pockets.

Killer No. 1 is in your building with an AR-15 and 30 rounds; killer No. 2 is in your building with a 9mm handgun and 30 rounds. One scenario is just as deadly as the other if you’re one of the people hunkered down in a darkened office or classroom. We may not yet have learned, at least not fully, that the bad guy doesn’t necessarily have to look like a bad guy.

Sharp-JimJim Sharp, vice president and chief training officer with Aegis Emergency Management, is a 30-year veteran of the emergency response and emergency management professions and a highly-sought trainer and presenter. An experienced incident commander and emergency operations center manager, Sharp is a certified professional continuity practitioner and respiratory protection program manager for incidents involving weapons of mass destruction. Prior to starting his own firm in 2010, he spent the immediately previous 10 years with an Illinois jurisdiction working his way through the ranks (from officer through corporal, sergeant, and lieutenant) and holding positions as their emergency management agency’s field training officer, public information officer, and assistant coordinator (equivalent to deputy chief). Sharp has trained literally thousands of people – civilians and first responders – on topics that include severe weather safety, continuity of operations, CERT, pandemic preparedness, incident command, the National Incident Management System, and many more.