UMass-Amherst Active Threat Training Teaches a New Way of Thinking

Location: Massachusetts- By Becky Lewis Published November 2015

911, what’s your emergency?

I’m in Dickinson. There’s a shooter. I heard shots in the next classroom. Send the police, hurry!

I need your location, where are you?

I’m in Dickinson, send them NOW. I’m going to hide. Hurry!

But where…Oh no, she’s gone. I don’t where she is.

In Amherst, Mass., birthplace of poet Emily Dickinson, there are five institutions of higher education: University of Massachusetts-Amherst and Amherst, Smith, Mt. Holyoke and Hampshire Colleges. Every one of them has a Dickinson Hall.

Knowing your physical location — not just by name, but by address — is just one of the takeaways the UMass-Amherst Police Department wants to impart to students and faculty during Active Threat Training. The 90-minute program, offered on request, includes a 20-minute video and related discussion with an overall goal, according to community policing Officer Brian Kellogg, of “sending you away with more questions than you had when you came.”

“We tell them we’re not there to give them the answers. Rather, we want them to think about what the answers could be,” Kellogg says. “We try to go over what the options are, but it’s ultimately up to you to decide what you will do.”

UMass-Amherst uses a three-pronged approach: Get Out, Hide Out/Keep Out and Take Out. It has similarities to the Run Hide Fight approach, but is based on “Shots Fired: When Lightning Strikes,” a video produced by the Center for Personal Protection and Safety.

Officers start the post-video discussion by comparing active threat training to fire safety: “Everything here where we’re sitting is fire-rated and on every corner there’s a map on how to get out, and there are fire alarms on every corner. We ask if anybody can tell us the last time someone was killed in a school-related fire, and it’s been about 70 years. Then we ask if anybody can name the last time there was an active shooter, and unfortunately, you usually only have to go back about a week.”

“In the vast majority of active threat situations, those that are killed are still sitting in their chairs. There’s been no decision to act,” Kellogg adds. “We want them to learn to look at this through the eyes of survival. At Virginia Tech, for example, there was one classroom where students jumped from a second-floor window and survived, and another where they barricaded the door and then lay down on the floor. He did shoot through the door, but he hit no one.”

One of the first questions asked during the training is what would participants do first when faced with an active threat, and the standard answer is call 911. When asked who they’re calling, some participants said that call would go to the campus police; others, to the Amherst Police Department. However, if they’re calling from a cell phone, as is likely, the call goes to the Massachusetts State Police, and in the hypothetical situation that starts this article, it’s not easy to determine a caller’s physical location from a brief cell call. Therefore, “it might be best to just have us on speed dial. That’s just part of what we call pre-planning.”

Pre-planning also emphasizes having a safe evacuation route in mind and knowing a secure location if you need to hide: “We were training a group of custodians in the campus center, and we gave them a hypothetical situation where there was a shooter right outside the restaurant. We asked them how they would evacuate and they said — as we knew they would — they would use a stairway near the training room. We asked them where that stairway came out, and only one or two had ever used it and knew that it came out right in front of the restaurant — directly in the shooter’s path.”

To help participants avoid such outcomes, the training encourages awareness of and familiarity with surroundings. While the video plays, Kellogg and his colleagues scout the area near the training room, and then come back with questions such as:

  • Where would you go to lock the doors and be completely secure? Does the nearby copy room have a deadbolt? What about the restroom?
  • If you’re in your office and can’t go out the door, how would you break a window? If there’s nothing in your office now that would break a window, what could you put there that you could use: a brick, a toolkit with a ballpeen hammer?
  • Think about which way the doors open. Barricades are little help if the doors open out and don’t lock.
  • Are there shades on the windows, and if not, what other way might you cover them?

“We can’t cover every possible situation that might occur, but we can train you to think in an entirely different way. We make them think through the options. Time is the most important factor in managing this type of situation, and pre-planning gives you your best chances of surviving,” Kellogg says.

“When it comes to ‘Take Out,’ we do answer a lot of questions about self-defense and ways to improvise an attack,” he says. An important scenario addressed by the training at this point goes something like this:

  • You hid behind the door, hit him in the face and he dropped the gun. Now he’s getting up: What do you do? You may need to hit him again, and this time, hit him hard enough to render him unconscious.
  • You get some people who say ‘I’ve had military training,” or “I know how to handle a gun, I’m going to pick it up and hold him at gunpoint.” The police are coming to look for a shooter. They’ll come through the door quickly and see someone pointing a gun. Are they going to give you time to explain or will you end up getting shot? Is your best bet to not have a gun in your hand?

“We tell them the media covers school shootings massively, but school shootings are not the highest risk. Your chances are actually greater of being involved in active threat situation in public areas like in a mall or an open food court somewhere, and you can apply this training when you’re at work, when you’re at school or even when you’re at home,” Kellogg adds.