There Are No Monsters in the Closet: Why Fire Departments Are Not Implementing Best Concepts for Active Assailant Incidents

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David Sabat


Fire departments are encouraged to implement best concepts to rapidly access casualties during active assailant events.[1] Despite these recommendations, fire services across the country are not consistently developing and implementing policies that reflect best practices. Further, the best concepts offered in the extant literature indicate that rapid access to victims requires the coordination of law enforcement and fire department personnel at active assailant events, yet the adoption of such practices languishes for unknown reasons. Examples of these discrepancies in current operations can be seen when comparing responses to the June 12, 2016, Orlando shooting and the May 31, 2019, Virginia Beach shooting. When an active assailant began firing his weapon at patrons in Orlando’s Pulse nightclub in 2016, police quickly arrived on the scene and engaged the shooter. With the shooter barricaded in a bathroom, police asked fire department units staging on the scene to assist with the evacuation of victims. However, the fire department incident commander refused to allow fire personnel to assist, despite the Orlando Fire Department’s three-year effort to develop an active assailant policy. Forty-nine people were killed at the Pulse nightclub, and a 2018 study concluded that sixteen victims “had potentially survivable wounds [and] a coordinated public safety approach to rapidly evacuate the wounded may increase survival in future events.”[2]

In stark contrast, Virginia Beach Fire Department’s response to an active assailant incident demonstrated how the adoption of best concepts can improve the chances of victim survival. During the active shooter incident in 2019, Virginia Beach police arrived quickly on the scene and exchanged gunfire as the shooter retreated further into the building.[3] While police were actively engaging the shooter, law enforcement and Virginia Beach Fire Department personnel simultaneously created small rescue teams and entered the building to begin rapidly removing victims for treatment and transport. The collaborative efforts taken by law enforcement and fire fighters that day were the result of joint training, and they demonstrate how responders can increase the chances of victims surviving active assailant events.

Ultimately, fire fighters will be called to respond to active assailant events, whether or not their agency has a policy to guide their actions. Paul Atwater points out in his master’s thesis that “the absence of such policies and training places a tremendous burden on the first-in officers, as they will be required to make life or death decisions without guidance or instruction.”[4] Without policy and training to coordinate efforts between fire and law enforcement personnel, fewer victims may survive active assailant events. The factors hindering policy development and the implementation of best concepts in guiding fire department responses are not understood. This thesis therefore asked the question: What are the barriers for fire departments to implementing best concepts in active assailant incidents?

Research for this thesis focused on interviewing representatives from seventeen fire departments that are representational of the larger fire service in the United States. These representatives discussed the challenges and facilitators for implementing recommended best concepts for active assailant incidents. Interviews were transcribed and then coded according to common themes. The interviews confirmed that there are barriers currently preventing fire departments from implementing policies that reflect best practices for active assailant events. However, perhaps more importantly, research confirmed that facilitators for success also exist. After coding themes found in the interviews, it was found that a common set of barriers were encountered by all participating fire departments, regardless of policy outcome. Generally, representatives from the fire departments described the conservative culture of the fire service, a lack of leadership support, difficulty in establishing trust to support the collaborative response effort between fire and law enforcement departments, and difficulty in completing training exercises.

These barriers are not insurmountable. All of the representatives interviewed for this research also described facilitators of successful policies, which have the potential to help departments overcome barriers. These facilitators of success include the ability to secure funding for ballistic protection equipment and training, preexisting relationships between fire and law enforcement agencies, joint fire-police training exercises, and the availability to learn best concepts.

This thesis provides several recommendations that fire departments can implement to overcome barriers to implementing active assailant response policies. The differing amount and availability of resources for fire departments around the United States makes a one-size-fits-all approach to best concepts difficult to implement. Resultantly, these recommendations identify factors that fire departments can maximize to adapt best concepts to encourage implementation.

Now that the existing barriers are better understood, fire service and government leaders have a responsibility to address them. Victims of future active assailant incidents will be expecting that the fire fighters called to rescue them are trained, equipped, and ready.


[1] Lenworth M. Jacobs et al., “Active Shooter and Intentional Mass-Casualty Events: The Hartford Consensus II,” Bulletin 98, no. 9 (September 2013),​2013/​09/​hartford-consensus-ii; InterAgency Board, “Active Shooter/​Hostile Event Guide” (guide, InterAgency Board, July 2016),​sites/​default/​files/​publications/​IAB%20Active%20Shooter%
20&%20Hostile%20Event%20Guide.pdf; Department of Homeland Security Office of Health Affairs, “First Responder Guide for Improving Survivability in Improvised Explosive Device and/​or Active Shooter Incidents” (guide, Department of Homeland Security, June 2015),​sites/​default/​files/​publications/​First%20Responder%20Guidance%20June%202015%20FINAL%202.pdf.

[2] E. Reed Smith, Geoff Shapiro, and Babak Sarani, “Fatal Wounding Pattern and Causes of Potentially Preventable Death following the Pulse Night Club Shooting Event,” Prehospital Emergency Care 22, no. 6 (November 2, 2018): 662–68,​10.1080/​10903127.2018.1459980.

[3] Christina Maxouris, “Shooter Had a Long Gunbattle with 4 Officers. They Helped Prevent More Carnage, Police Chief Says,” CNN, June 1, 2019,​2019/​06/​01/​us/​virginia-beach-officers-shooter-gunbattle/​index.html.

[4] Paul Atwater, “Force Protection for Fire Fighters: Warm Zone Operations at Paramilitary Style Active Shooter Incidents in Multi-Hazard Environment as a Fire Service Core Competency” (master’s thesis, Naval Postgraduate School, 2012), 83.

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