Active Assailant, is an individual (or individuals), actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area. This is the definition approved and used by the US government agencies1
A Mass shooting, according to the FBI’s site, is a single incident in which four or more people, not including the suspect, are killed. The Gun violence archive defines it slightly differently as a single shooting incident where four or more people are injured or killed.
Often, we use the terms interchangeably, and we hear about them far too frequently. As of June 2022, there has been a mass shooting every single week in 2022. In fact, there have been over 250 mass shootings as of June 2, 2022. Of those 250, as of June 8, 2022, twenty-seven were school-related shootings in the US alone. This number is rapidly closing in on 2021’s final number which ended with thirty-four school shootings.
Our hearts break at these incidents, regardless of your public safety background, or not, the gruesome details regarding the victims and sometimes how the incident unfolds have a deep impact on most of society. We hear about the public safety responders involving law, fire, and EMS, we hear about the decision-makers, we hear about families and friends of the victims, we hear the 9-1-1 calls, and we rarely hear about the 9-1-1 heroes with headsets who answer and dispatch those calls.
On November 30, 2021, at 12:51 pm, the first call to 9-1-1 regarding an active assailant at the Oxford high school was received. Oxford is a normally quiet township of Oakland County in Southeast Michigan, with a population of 23,000. The Oakland County Sheriff’s Communication center answers and dispatches call for 19 fire departments, 10 law agencies, the Sheriff’s Office 15 contracted patrol areas, colleges, and EMS agencies, Oxford is among those agencies. On that day within the first hour of the incident, the dispatchers answered 115 calls. Calls that don’t stop when the dispatcher disconnects the phone, the pleading voices, frantic for help, play over and over in their heads. The community is small, one supervisor had a family member killed in the attack, and other responders had children who attended the school and were concerned about their safety, but they continued with the job at hand, answering the next call, and the next. Captain Jen Miles provides oversight to the 9-1-1 center, she relayed that the calls didn’t stop after the first hour, and the incident-related calls continued at a high volume for the next two weeks, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and the phones kept ringing. Citizens called in to provide information regarding the suspect, his family, information on social media, what they felt was a helpful tip, wondering how they could help, and a wide variety of other related topics.
On the day of the shooting, the 9-1-1 center had several new employees released from training just two weeks prior, other personnel were on day seven with a training officer (CTO), and still, others were in a communications training academy. The dispatchers, 22 scheduled and multiple calling, texting, or showing up self-deployed, did, by all accounts an amazing job. Even though the phones never stopped ringing and calls for service continued to be dispatched along with the high radio volume associated with incidents such as this, they did their best to help each caller and each other. They did what they could to make sure peers had their breaks, with the ability to take a walk, “they did the very best they could” stated Captain Miles. As with many PSAPs throughout the country, Oakland County, with a budget for 76 public safety telecommunicators, was down by several positions. This didn’t slow them down on this day. Along with on-duty personnel, the self-deployed personnel jumped right in and began answering calls, providing breaks, and helping everywhere.
For those called to serve in the 9-1-1 profession, one of the hardest factors to face is the feeling of almost helplessness for the callers and victims. Helpless because you can hear what’s going on, and you send help, but you cannot do more than that. Dispatchers are a breed of people who have been called to help. Seldom do new trainees get into the profession for anything other than to either be someone who can help others, make a difference,, or to begin a career in public safety, branching out into other areas within the profession. Captain Miles, relatively new in her assignment over the communications section, said the hardest part for her was to not grab her weapon and head to the scene. She relayed that she knew where she was needed, and it was with her staff in the center. The shooting left a mark on all of the staff, and despite the strong desire to serve, three employees left the profession within a couple of weeks, no longer able to move forward with their training. Even months afterward, one person had what is referred to as a trigger call, a call that brings back the event. As was the case with this person, these types of calls can often prompt responders into a decision to leave the profession. They realize they are not going to be able to continue because of the vicarious trauma they have experienced.
In April of 2002, I was able to visit the New York City 9-1-1 center. I met the Captain, supervisors, and several staff members who had worked on 09/11/2001. Seven months had passed and this group of 200+ Telecommunicator dispatch professionals and roughly 150 call-takers were still recovering from September 11th. We brought them a large screen TV, a check to buy snacks for all, and 200 chocolate bars from the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory as a gift from the telephone authority I worked with. This was not a mass shooting or active assailant, but the stories were the same. I heard stories of the thousands of phone calls that flooded the center that day, I heard stories of the helplessness and fear they felt because they had no television during the attacks and aftermath to see what was happening, and I heard stories of how the dispatchers, after working full shifts, for the next two months went to the twin towers location and helped clear the debris and assist with recovery of the bodies, I heard how many of dispatchers, there for a training day, had watched the second plane hit the tower.
I also heard another statement, one that I have often said, and one that Captain Miles stated. A fact that many people forget: Life goes on. That means that despite the horrendous event occurring, people are still having babies, heart attacks, medical emergencies, fires, accidents, and crime-related calls are still flowing into the center. Every single call that a first responder is sent to, must first go through the 9-1-1 communications center. If the road is busy, the center is busy too, and sometimes for agencies with multiple jurisdictions, the road may not be busy for one agency, but the center is hopping with multiple calls for other agencies. In the middle of the frantic caller afraid for their life, is someone who just arrived home to find their house burglarized. Providing the same level of service to everyone, regardless of the purpose of the call, is mentally and physically exhausting. Many years ago, I worked for an agency that had two law enforcement officers shot at the same incident. The bystanders who watched the incident were frantically calling in, one of the victims called 9-1-1, pleading for help because he was dying (he did pull through, but continues to be in a battle because of the internal trauma). I remember hanging up that call that I had snagged with one of the other dispatchers and we just sat there looking at each other, realizing that our friend, the Chief, was dying and we couldn’t do anything but what we were doing. It felt like the world had stopped for several minutes, but it was just a few seconds because the next call was ringing in. In the middle of this double shooting, people were calling complaining about the speed of patrol cars passing them (on the way to the scene) at what they deemed a reckless speed. People were also calling with all of the regular calls because life goes on.
For Oakland County, many amazing things were done during and after the incident. Lessons learned, and new ideas implemented after the shooting. For the first two weeks afterward, the Chaplin core was brought in just to hang out and be available for those who wanted to talk. Counseling services were brought in for group and individual sessions, even if it was just to say, “I’m okay” each person was mandated to attend. The peer-to-peer support team was active for both civilian and sworn personnel. While the program was relatively young, the peer support team is another tool to assist in coping with the trauma. One of the most well-received programs was the comfort dogs that were called in. I was able to see these gentle dogs firsthand, wandering from one person to the other, bringing a smile to every face in the center. The outpouring of support from neighboring agencies was also amazing. Captain Miles stated that “The responses you get from the public safety community, law, fire, EMS, dispatch, is unparalleled. No one does it like public safety does.”
One change that has been put in place is the new tactical dispatch team. During certain types of calls, the tactical dispatch team will be activated, assigning a dispatcher specifically to the scene in a designated safe-zone area, with a computer to streamline the process for all of the information to be entered directly into the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) instead of notes on a yellow pad to be entered in later. Also being discussed is a pre-planning measure for an information line to elevate some of the incoming calls. The information line would reduce the volume of calls for the dispatchers to sift through and has been identified as a helpful measure. An example of this is: press 1 to leave information about the school; press 2 if you want to donate; press 3 to leave a kind message. Each of the types of calls was received in the communications center.
They also learned that while the self-deployment (personnel showing up without being called in) was helpful, leadership must keep in mind that someone will need to come in on the next shift – and the hard choice to send people home needs to be made so that there is rested personnel to respond for their shift later.
When asked about any final thoughts regarding the incident, Captain Miles replied by saying, “The men and women working that day were amazing, they took on the challenge and I could not be more proud of them… it takes a special person to do this job, it just takes a special person.” Well said Captain Miles, well said.
ALICE. (n.d.). Active Shooter Definition. Alice Navigate360. Retrieved June 30, 2022, from https://www.alicetraining.com/active-shooter/