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In the age of mass shootings like Sandy Hook and San Bernadino, how do local institutions prepare?

Don Burman | Flickr | Creative Commons

In 2015, on average there is more than one mass shooting per day in the United States—and the impact of that is felt across the country. From the terror attacks in Charleston, Paris, Colorado Springs and San Bernardino to shootings closer to home, it is hard for the topic to stay off the minds of Americans these days.

In fact, today marks the third anniversary since the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, which left 20 children and six teachers dead.

On Monday’s “St. Louis on the Air,” we talked about how businesses and schools in St. Louis can address active shooter situations and how they prepare in case one does happen. Two Tactical Operations Unit officers from the St. Louis County Police Department, Corey Zavorka and Matt Taylor, joined us for the discussion.

Changing police response

The thinking behind how officers approach an active shooter situation has changed in the past few years—firstly, by changing the semantics of how police officers talk about aggressors armed to kill multitudes. Active shooters are now referred to as “active killers” until their weapon of choice can be confirmed.

Credit Kelly Moffitt | St. Louis Public Radio
Corey Zavorka and Matt Taylor.

“The best course of action that we’ve found in law enforcement is that the first officer getting to the scene needs to make an entry to the building,” said Zavorka. “The faster we can locate and stop the aggressor, the more lives we can save. We’ve progressed quite a bit since the Columbine days where we waited for a team of officers or a SWAT team to get there. That’s an old school of thought. We now get in there as soon as we can to stop any kind of violence that’s occurring.”

Taylor said that for the most part, these killers “want a body count.” Going in right away reduces the number of people an aggressor could harm. Officers in the St. Louis area are trained to respond to an active shooter situation in 10-20 seconds, meaning that the first officer in is usually followed by a team of help.

Officers are expected to know the buildings on their beat—how businesses and schools are laid out and how doors and locks work. The St. Louis County Police Department uses a training called Multi-Assault Counter-Terrorism Action Capabilities (MACTAC) to prepare its officers for what to do in an active shooter situation. The department has also paired with local fire departments to loop them in on the training.

Business training

The St. Louis County Police department has offered training for businesses in unincorporated St. Louis County free of charge since 2013. These teach employees what to do in the case of a killing spree. Taylor said that calls for the training, which consists of a 2-hour power point presentation called “Run. Hide. Fight.,” have ramped up recently with the string of highly-publicized mass shootings that have occurred.

“It’s an option-based program that we give the business employee that if there is an active shooter that you have an option. You don’t have to just hide. You can run, hide or fight.”

"We cannot give out this information soon enough or quick enough. We want everyone to be aware that you do have options here."

Taylor did say, however, that fight should be a last resort.

Taylor has done trainings with big businesses, hospitals such as St. Anthony’s, as well as government bodies. He said that if you live in Clayton, Ladue or somewhere else, you should contact your local police officer for their version of the training—which would be similar.

“More times than not, they’ll have an active shooter program,” Taylor said. “We cannot give out this information soon enough or quick enough. We want everyone to be aware that you do have options here.”

Training in schools

A version of “Run. Hide. Fight” is used in schools to teach students and teachers what to do in an active shooter situation—but it is modified to convey the messages in a more accessible way to a younger audience. Zavorka said the St. Louis County Police Department helped created the “4E” program, which stands for “educate, evade, escape and engage.”

“We want to put it into terminology that is easy to understand and not frightening and scary,” Zavorka said. “Will it be frightening and scary? Well, of course, it will be a life and death situation they might put into.”

Zavorka said the training looks different because the officers are training teachers who have to care for 20-25 students in the case of an active shooter. The initial training is with school staff and, after they are confident, they take it to students from preschool all the way to high school.

“Thankfully, because we take it in a step-by-step approach, these are professionals at relaying information to our young ones, we rely quite heavily on them for this message,” Zavorka said. “We work with them hand-in-hand so that we can work with that preschool teacher on the correct terminology and right terminology so we don’t frighten these kids but educate them.”

Preparing yourself

One the questions that Taylor gets asked most often is “How far do I run if I choose to run?” Taylor said that if you have the chance to escape from an active shooter situation—down a back hallway or stairwell—you should. Run until you can’t run any more and then run again, he said.

Both officers shared tips from their trainings. One such tip was that people should know about their office intercom system and use clear and concise language to denote what you know about a shooter’s movements. Likewise, Taylor said that many office supplies, such as computer monitors, keyboards and even a snow globe could be used to incapacitate an aggressor.

“Our biggest thing is that everyone gets nervous and says ‘I’m so late when it comes to this game,’ and our response is  ‘If you’re asking about it, asking anything about it, then you’re already leaps and bounds in front of anyone else,” Taylor said.  “In a life-or-death situation, one should plan, practice or visualize how one would react.”

After Sandy Hook, Zavorka said that there were calls to arm teachers with guns. He said that, to his knowledge, no school district in the St. Louis area has been comfortable with that or allowed teachers to do so.

“There’s quite a few problems we’d need to talk about. Simply being familiar with several schools and teachers, they’re very busy. To find additional time to do all the training necessary to be going through a school with a gun and students everywhere, too be that proficient, it takes law enforcement an entire year to feel proficient, I can’t imagine a teacher or staff member having to go through similar training.”

"We do tell people that if you have an event like this at your business, you have to remember that we understand this is going to be the worst day of your life. Please understand it will probably be our worst day also. We are human."

A caller to the show, Sandra from Bridgeton, said she had seen circulating the idea of teachers using a fire extinguisher on an attacker. Zavorka said this was a good line of thought—and fit in well with what he teaches educators about confronting an aggressor.

Taylor said that it is up to an individual business to make rules about employees’ firearms in the workplace, but to understand that does add a layer of complication for police officers.

“We do tell people that if you have an event like this at your business, you have to remember that we understand this is going to be the worst day of your life,” Taylor said. “Please understand it will probably be our worst day also. We are human. Things are going to be moving very fast for police officers that are arriving. We can practice every single day but until that event happens, we don’t know how we’re going to act. … We train our officers to remember that the first thing you’ll forget to do is forget to breathe. Breathe, relax until you’re able to give clear and concise commands.”

"St. Louis on the Air" discusses issues and concerns facing the St. Louis area. The show is produced by Mary EdwardsAlex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt and hosted by veteran journalist Don Marsh. Follow us on Twitter and join the conversation at @STLonAir.

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.

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