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FBI Promotes Partnership Approach to Planning for Active Shooter Incidents

By Becky Lewis
January 2014

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) offers extensive resources related to handling active shooter incidents on its website, resources from within the FBI itself and from a number of other federal and partner agencies. The Active Shooter/Mass Casualty Incidents page notes that “[t]he successful prevention of these active shooter incidents lies with a wide range of public and private entities all working together.” And the Bureau doesn’t merely dispense that as advice, it implements it as practice with co-authored products such as guides to developing emergency operations plans and ongoing assistance, on request, to college and university threat assessment teams.

The FBI; the U.S. Departments of Education (ED), Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services (HHS); the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Oriented Policy Services Office; and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) teamed up to create Guide for Developing High-Quality School Emergency Operations Plans and Guide for Developing High-Quality Emergency Operations Plans for Institutions of Higher Education, both released in 2013. Special Agent Christopher Combs, Section Chief of the Strategic Information & Operations Center at FBI Headquarters, describes the content of the guides as “all-hazard planning at the macro level. They help schools make plans to deal with any crisis.”

The combined input from the various agencies helped ensure that the guides reach their target audience of school administrators instead of ending up with a law enforcement or emergency management agency or health care agency focus. Representatives from the different federal agencies provided different portions of the content, then reviewed and refined each other’s work.

“I think the whole plan is great. FEMA, Education, everyone did a nice job with their sections. The FBI and Education working together on an important issue like this led to a great partnership. We learned a lot from them and I hope they learned something from us as well,” Combs said.

One section for which the FBI provided content focuses on handling an active shooter situation. Combs says it advocates the “Run Hide Fight” approach, which represents a switch in strategy for secondary and elementary schools and has caused some confusion.

“This strategy is aimed at the adults in a school, not at elementary school children. The first best thing to do is always to run. If you can’t run away, then hide,” Combs says. “Locking the doors, covering the windows, we support all of that, but if a shooter gets into the closet where you’re hiding with the children, you have to decide what to do. We’ve seen evidence that fighting is the best option.”

For example, he said, occupants of one classroom at Virginia Tech fought at the door to keep the shooter from coming in. Although those individuals who blocked the door were shot, the percentage of individuals in that room who were shot was much less than in the other classrooms: “That activity saved lives. It’s not a pretty plan but nothing in this scenario is pretty. Fighting back is your best last option.”

The whole issue of whether to fight back might be avoided by prevention, and Combs says that the guide for institutions of higher education places a great deal of emphasis on threat assessment teams. Made up of members from various disciplines such as campus police, the dean’s office, health care services and so on, the team members meet to talk about individuals whose behavior has caused concern. Through this type of assessment, patterns can emerge, sometimes indicating that a student’s problems have been noticed by professors, security and others.

“This came out of the Virginia Tech after action report, when it came out that several people had noticed the shooter had issues, but no one connected the dots,” he says. “It’s really about getting help for troubled individuals. The vast majority of the time it can be handled within the school, but occasionally they call us or another outside law enforcement agency because they’re really concerned.”

If an institution requests FBI assistance, agents work with local and campus law enforcement to do an analysis and make recommendations, with a goal of putting all available resources toward stopping something before it happens. Combs says that the FBI did 150 consultations on people of concern in 2013, adding that figure does not mean the FBI stopped 150 active shooter incidents, but the Bureau did help troubled individuals.

One resource that both schools and law enforcement can use to help ensure information that might help troubled individuals is shared appropriately is handouts on Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPPAA) regulations. The handouts, developed with ED and HHS, are available as PDFs on the FBI website andprovide easy-to-read summaries that clarify what schools can and cannot report under these confidentiality laws.

“We did an initial print run and quickly ran out of stock, the demand was so great,” Combs says. “We are trying to find funding to print more, but we encourage agencies to print out copies to meet their needs.”

Visit the FBI’s Active Shooter/Mass Casualty Incidents page at