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July 25, 2013

Staff get active shooter training


Would you know what to do if someone started shooting in your office?

Police evacuate UPMC’s Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic during the March 8, 2012, active shooter incident.

Police evacuate UPMC’s Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic during the March 8, 2012, active shooter incident.

Pitt Police have begun to prepare University staff for the unthinkable. This month they put 26 Pitt staff members through training to face an active shooter, an employee training program that began in January.

The voluntary training for employees of the Department of Biomedical Informatics took place in the department’s fourth- and fifth-floor offices at 5607 Baum Blvd. Participants learned the history of active shooters and bombers, particularly in K-12 schools and universities, and had the chance to practice strikes, clenches and other ways to attack the attacker.

The officers emphasized that this training was regrettably necessary — and that fighting should be used as a last resort. They said the first choice is always to run from such a dangerous situation; the second best option is to hide until police arrive.

Pitt Police began devising their training program in 2007, following the mass shooting at Virginia Tech University, based on the National Tactical Officers Association active shooter response program, which has certified Pitt instructors. The public safety department also has incorporated teachings from other organizations and experts.

Initially, the Pitt Police focused training efforts on police: first their own officers, then training regional campus police departments, whose members invited other area police organizations to participate. Pitt Police also have trained other law enforcement agencies, including Allegheny County police. Department personnel will spend next month undertaking their annual in-service training for active killer response.

Staff members line up to practice thrust kicks with Sgt. Kevin McDowell during the July training session for the Department of Biomedical Informatics.

Staff members line up to practice thrust kicks with Sgt. Kevin McDowell during the July training session for the Department of Biomedical Informatics.

That training came into play March 8, 2012: John Schick entered the lobby of UPMC’s Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic with two pistols and opened fire, killing one person and injuring seven others. Schick was killed by Pitt Police officers within minutes.

Sgt. Paul Burgh, the department’s Special Emergency Response Team (SERT) leader, said that last December’s mass shooting in a Newtown, Conn., elementary school pushed his department to offer the training to Pitt staff members.

He told participants at the July 15 training session: “After Sandy Hook, I got fed up with civilians not knowing what to do if something happened … I took that personally. If I can spread my knowledge to you, that’s my purpose now.”

“Everyone wants a specific game plan: ‘What should I do?’” Sgt. Dan Papale told training participants. “It’s really something that we can’t address … The reality is, what we are talking about is a dynamic situation.”

Papale is SERT assistant leader for the Pitt Police and created the training curriculum. He began the day’s lessons with a history of major active shooter incidents (see box), showing that each occurrence had little in common with its predecessors, apart from the targets (confined, populated area) and the speed with which it occurred — typically 2-10 minutes, which did not give police much time to arrive.

Department head Rob Cecchetti prepares to grab Sgt. Andrew Redman’s gun as he enters the room.

Department head Rob Cecchetti prepares to grab Sgt. Andrew Redman’s gun as he enters the room.

“There’s not a profile of an active shooter,” Papale told the group, but they do have “certain commonalities. They always say it was the quiet guy you never thought would do it, but that’s not really true.”

Typically, he said, the single perpetrator has been planning the incident thoroughly, and for a long time. In 93 percent of cases, the shooter exhibited odd behavior beforehand. And 80 percent of the time, someone else knew what was about to happen, or had clues.

Rarely do the perpetrators threaten the target beforehand, Papale said. Those who send direct threats usually are venting and don’t carry through on their threats.

The first step toward security is analyzing your workplace for exits and possible security improvements, Papale said. Consider possible hiding places and materials to use for barricades, should evacuation become impossible.

“I’m not telling you to make this your Alamo where you’re going to hole up until the end of time,” he cautioned; a fresh escape plan should always be considered. “Make your plan … simple and flexible, because most plans never survive the first contact” with the shooter, he said.

Cecchetti practices grabbing the gun barrel and pushing it away to try to disable the shooter’s weapon.

Cecchetti practices grabbing the gun barrel and pushing it away to try to disable the shooter’s weapon.

Attackers count on chaos and fear, but planning and training can replace fear with sound tactical solutions, he added. “The faster your decision-making process, the more likely you are to succeed.” Unfortunately, he noted, under stress a person’s judgment becomes overwhelmed by the body’s physical response. That adrenaline rush may increase muscle strength, he said, but it’s no substitute for preparatory training.

The best evacuation route is through a low window to the outside. Avoid hallways, which is where the shooter is likely to be. Pulling a fire alarm might be your first instinct, but it has mixed results: It warns everyone of danger but sends them streaming into the hallways. Some schools have begun using different signals in the case of active shooter incidents. Papale recommended keeping handy glass-breaking tools for window escapes, and having a roll-up fire escape ladder available.

If you must be in open space, he recommended running in a zigzag fashion and not traveling in groups — anything to increase the shooter’s difficulty in hitting his targets.

Participants also were taught how to “pie” a doorway window by moving in a half circle from one side of the doorway to the other, arcing outwards as you pass across the middle of the window glass, then peeking up and down the hallway before evacuating.

In addition, once outside, staffers were instructed to put their hands up. “Don’t assume we know you are a good guy,” Papale warned. Avoid anything that could be a bomb, he advised, from vehicles to packages, which the shooter may have placed outside his target, yet stay close enough for police to interview you about the situation.

And don’t be fooled by movies and TV, police said: It’s good to be concealed, but taking cover behind car doors and office furniture won’t stop the bullets. Cover requires such things as thick steel, large trees, 30 inches of dirt or bullet-proof glass.

“If you can’t get out,” Papale said, then hiding and barricading are “effective only to the extent that the barricade can be maintained.”

He recommended locking doors, silencing cell phones, turning off lights and staying out of view from the hallways. Staffers were instructed on how to bar inside- and outside-opening doors, wedge items under doors, wrap belts around their handles and stack furniture against them.

Although fighting is a last resort, a good portion of the training session was devoted to learning how to disable or disarm an active shooter.

“If you find yourself applying this part of the active shooter training, this is your last card,” said Sgt. Kevin McDowell, who led the fight training with Sgt. Andrew Redman.

“Now, distance is dangerous,” McDowell explained. “Being close is safer.

“You don’t have to be a big or strong person to be effective with these techniques,” he added.

After learning each move, staffers paired up to practice on each other — just short of making contact — and then lined up to practice on pads held by McDowell and Redman.

“Feel free,” McDowell instructed. “Let it go. If you’ve never done it before you’re going to feel awkward. That’s what we want to get rid of … We want to put you in the mindset of continually moving forward.”

He instructed participants to shout such things as “Get back!” as they attacked, both to feel more aggressive and to keep breathing; being in a stressful situation apparently causes people to hold their breath. McDowell also advised staff members not to target large parts of the body and instead “decentralize,” attacking smaller, more vulnerable areas.

He demonstrated the first move, the brachial stun: a downward chop to the side of the neck with the side of your fist — or with any part of the arm available, a heavy object or a sharp one. The move can stop or even knock out the assailant, he said: “Affect the nerves, affect the motion.

“Velocity is actually more important than mass or strength,” he added. “The faster you are, the more damage it’s going to cause to the body.”

Next came the clench: locking your hands behind the assailant’s head or off to one side, then powering your knee into his body as you pull him toward you. The best areas for such a strike were outlined: the liver or diaphragm, the groin or legs.

“I want you to strike until the guy melts,” McDowell said.

The group also practiced thrust kicks (using your heel or the ball of your foot), elbow strikes (rotating your hips as you sweep your elbow across your body, as if clearing a countertop) and pressure-point control (beneath the ear, under the jaw and behind the collarbone).

“They want the least resistance possible,” Redman said of active shooters. “When you give them resistance, you’ve just blown their plan. Don’t limit yourself. Don’t say, ‘Okay, knee strike, then what?’ You’ve got to do what you’ve got to do. The moment he comes through that door you should be on top of him. Bite his nose off. Everybody gang tackle!

“Do we want a fair fight? Absolutely not. In our training as policemen, we say, ‘If you find yourself in a fair fight, you’ve done something wrong.’”

The group then practiced how to crouch along the wall beside the door to grab the arm of the shooter as he enters a room with his gun, taking him down or driving him out of the room.

Finally, the pair of officers demonstrated how to disarm a person with a handgun, using an orange plastic model. Grabbing certain handguns by the barrel or farther back will make them malfunction, Redman pointed out, freezing the slide and preventing the spent shell from ejecting and the next bullet from springing into position to be fired.

“This is just a machine,” he said. “Once you take away the machine’s ability to function, it breaks, just like any other machine.”

They also showed how to grab a gun barrel and push it away in one direction while swiveling your body in the opposite direction.

“The last thing I want you to do is hesitate,” McDowell said at the end of the fight training. “When they come into that room, all bets are off.”

Indeed, explained Papale, the state’s crime code allows the use of any defensive force in an active shooter incident, although Pitt policy prohibits employees from carrying guns in its facilities or on its grounds.

The training ended with staff members returning to their offices to get individual recommendations for escape or barricading.

A simulated shooting incident usually concludes the training, with an officer firing a starting pistol somewhere in the office and staffers attempting to apply their training on the spot. “It’s very hard to tell where gunfire is coming from inside a building,” Sgt. Burgh said. “It is imperative that you know what gunfire sounds like.”

But too many staff members who had not participated in the July training session still were in their offices and unaware that shots were about to be fired, forcing police to call off the simulation.

Some of the staffers at the Baum Boulevard offices questioned how Pitt Police would respond to their off-campus location in case of an active shooter incident. But Burgh assured them: “If it’s an active shooter event, everybody who has a gun and a vest is coming. Every police department.”

McDowell also told the group that members’ requests for additional training would be honored, once there was legal approval from the University. “We’d love to do that, because the more we train you, it helps us,” he said.

“It’s an extreme time we live in,” he added.

Burgh warned the group at the end: “Right now there’s somebody who wants to be the champion active shooter … Somebody out there is thinking of doing it.”

—Marty Levine

History of active shooter incidents led to training

Training video available on police website

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