The Role of Emergency Preparedness in Preventing Mass Shootings

A line of police cars with their lights on at a crime scene.

On May 24, 2022, 21 people died, including 19 children, in a shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas. Tragically, mass shootings like the one in Uvalde and those in Parkland, Florida; Sandy Hook, Connecticut; and Umpqua, Oregon, are increasingly common.

Gun violence is a public health crisis. Effective emergency preparedness can help prevent mass shootings as well as manage their aftermath. Emergency management professionals who work to protect communities from hazards and reduce shared risk are key to this process.

Earning an advanced degree with a focus on public safety and emergency preparedness can equip experts in this field with the tools to keep communities safe.

Mass Shootings Defined

Pew Research Center reports that agencies and organizations vary in their definitions of the term “mass shooting.” For example:

  • The FBI tracks “active shooter incidents,” which involve one or more individuals “actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated area.” In 2020, active shooter incidents resulted in 38 deaths (not including the shooters).
  • The Gun Violence Archive defines mass shootings as incidents in which four or more people are shot, even if no victims are killed. In 2020, the victim count under this definition reached 513 fatalities.

By any definition, however, the number of mass shootings in the U.S. has increased in recent years. In 2000, the FBI reported only three active shooter incidents, but by 2020, that number rose to 40.

How to Prevent Mass Shootings

When applied correctly, emergency management promotes safer communities with coordinated, integrated plans to prevent and respond to mass shootings and other crisis scenarios. The field specializes in creating frameworks and systems to reduce community vulnerability to hazards and cope with disaster, including strategies for how to prevent mass shootings as well as recover from their terrible toll.

Emergency management of mass shootings involves several factors, including mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery.

Mitigation

In recent years, mass shooters have targeted venues with minimal security — movie theaters, grocery stores, schools and places of worship. These “soft targets” leave people exposed to gun violence and securing them is often difficult, costing resources that law enforcement may not have. However, emergency management experts understand that stopping gun violence starts with taking preemptive measures to prevent gun violence before it occurs.

For example, emergency management efforts can focus on combating domestic terrorism and adopting a zero-tolerance policy toward racism. In 2020, white supremacists and other far-right extremists perpetrated 66 percent of domestic terrorist attacks and plots, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) corroborated the culpability of white supremacists in domestic terrorism acts in an October 2020 Homeland Threat Assessment briefing that stated that “racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists — specifically white supremacist extremists — will remain the most persistent and lethal threat” in the U.S.

Identifying potential threats and preventing terrorists from committing acts of gun violence motivated by racism is just one strategy for preventing mass shootings.

Preparedness

Another facet of emergency management of mass shootings is preparedness. Preparedness involves response planning and training, particularly interagency and intergovernmental agreements on joint operations. It also involves “burden sharing”: allocating resources and deciding on roles and responsibilities ahead of time through crisis communication plans and other forms of triage decision-making.

Preparing for active shooter incidents should always include the creation of an organization-specific emergency action plan.

Emergency action plans enable stakeholder organizations, property managers, emergency responders and local law enforcement to collaborate on effective steps to take in an active shooter situation. Such steps may include establishing:

  • Methods for reporting active shooting incidents
  • Evacuation policies and procedures
  • Emergency escape procedures and routes (e.g., safe areas, floor plans)
  • A communication plan with the responsibilities of each individual listed
  • Nearby medical support contacts
  • An emergency notification system for individuals in the surrounding area, law enforcement and local hospitals

In addition to an emergency action plan, preparedness involves training. Stakeholders can conduct mock active shooter exercises to test and reinforce emergency preparedness plans. Lifesaving training exercises can include the following:

  • Recognizing the sound of gunshots
  • Quickly reacting to the sound of gunshots by evacuating the area, hiding out and (only as a last resort) acting against the shooter
  • Calling 911
  • Reacting when law enforcement arrives
  • Adopting a survival mindset during crises

Emergency Management During and After a Mass Shooting

Sometimes, prevention minimizes but doesn’t entirely neutralize a threat. If prevention fails and an active shooter incident occurs, emergency management can also provide tools and strategies for people responding to and recovering from the incident.

Response

The response component of emergency management involves taking actions during and immediately after an emergency. Effective response is critical for de-escalation and minimizing the loss of life and other damage inflicted by gun violence.

Successful response to potentially deadly disasters like mass shootings requires the complex coordination of individuals, communities, businesses and government agencies. Acting on emergency action plans and following crisis communication plans can save lives.

Tools for coordinating a response to mass shootings are available, including the following:

  • National Incident Management System: Developed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, NIMS provides a framework for responding to all manner of emergencies, including mass shooting incidents.
  • First Responders and Security Professionals: Resources developed by the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency offer tools to support first responders and law enforcement in the event of an active shooter incident.
  • Mobile Applications for Public Safety: MAPS is a project committed to developing and distributing mobile apps to assist first responders in crisis scenarios such as active shooter incidents.

Recovery

The final component of emergency management is recovery. This refers to maintaining services in the immediate aftermath of a disaster and in the long term.

Long-term recovery requires advanced coordination of many different organizations and groups. Essential services recommended by DHS to aid recovery after a mass shooting include the following:

  • Grief counseling to address the spectrum of emotional responses of those affected by the incident
  • Employee assistance programs to assist employees in resolving work-related problems after an active shooter incident, such as financial and legal concerns
  • Federal, state and local victim assistance programs to support those impacted by a mass shooting by offering various forms of aid, such as assistance with medical and mental health counseling bills, payment of lost wages, funeral costs, and costs associated with modifying homes and vehicles to accommodate permanent injuries

Preparing for Mass Shootings: Quick Tips

DHS provides the following tips for preparing for a mass shooting:

  • Ensure that all facilities have at least two evacuation routes and that personnel knows these routes
  • Post evacuation routes in clear, easy-to-read locations throughout all public buildings
  • Collaborate with local law enforcement and first responders for active shooter training exercises
  • Encourage law enforcement, emergency responders, SWAT teams, K-9 units and bomb squads to train for active shooter scenarios at soft target locations

Start Your Career in Emergency Management

Active shooter threats pose a significant risk to public safety. The nation needs diligent emergency management experts who can help mitigate and even prevent mass shootings.

Cultivating the knowledge and skills to safeguard communities from these dangers often begins with an advanced education, such as the Master of Arts in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness offered through the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University.

Students in the program will learn about emergency preparedness, cybersecurity law and policy, and other key areas that can prepare them for various careers in emergency management and homeland security. Explore how you can help protect communities from the unpredictable and unexpected at VCU.