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Emergency preparedness director discusses active shooter response

By Staff | Apr 13, 2018

Toni Milbourne/Chronicle Matt Watson, program director for the Emergency Preparedness Instructional Center at Shenandoah University, led the event. He also leads law enforcement counterterrorism awareness training.

Nearly every seat was filled Tuesday evening when the Jefferson County Community Organizations Active in Disasters presented an event titled, “Worried About an Active Shooter in Your House of Worship?”

The presentation featured instructor Matt Watson, director of the Emergency Preparedness Instructional Center at Shenandoah University in Winchester, Va., who shared details on how to develop and implement a safety plan in the event of an active shooter, particularly within a house of worship.

Watson, program director for EPIC, also leads counterterrorism awareness training for a federal law enforcement agency, organizing a team of instructors who travel around the world training embassy staff in tactical medicine and active shooter response.

During the two-hour session Tuesday evening, held at the Hospice of the Panhandle meeting room, Watson shared statistics regarding active shooter episodes in the United States.

According to Watson, in 2017 alone, there were 378 mass shootings with 531 killed and 1,615 wounded. In 2018, there have been seven school shootings as of March 1, five of which involved injuries or deaths.

Photos by Toni Milbourne/Chronicle The meeting room at Hospice of the Panhandle was filled to capacity by members of more than 17 churches in Jefferson and Berkeley counties during the active shooter preparedness presentation.

“Unfortunately, the numbers are going up,” Watson said.

As far as church shootings, Watson said that from 1980 to 2015, there were 139 shootings where 185 people were killed, including 36 children. From 2006 to 2016, there were 147 church shootings.

The active shooter, Watson said, is affiliated with the church in some manner nearly half of the time. He said statistics show 23 percent of those shootings involved intimate or abusive partners and 17 percent of the shooters felt they were “unwelcome” by the church.

General mass shooting statistics show that 97 percent of the time the shooter is male and that 98 percent of the time the shooter acts alone. Forty percent of the incidents end in suicide or attempted suicide by the shooter while 46 percent end with force applied by police or other individuals.

Watson said common scenarios for church shootings include the shooter feeling he or she was wronged and blaming someone in the church. Emotional despondency also plays a significant role; often, the shooter seeks out a target who may have played a role in a domestic dispute, such as the recent Texas incident where the shooter targeted his mother-in-law. Shooters often have an agenda and hate aspects of organized religion, the race of attendees or similar groups of people to the ones at the church.

Incidents, on average, last approximately eight minutes or less, Watson said.

“It is not a problem that will be solved by a tactical team of any kind responding,” he said.

Once a tactical team and police force arrive, according to Watson, their primary duty is to neutralize the threat.

Initial police on the scene “will not render aid,” Watson said. “If they don’t eliminate the threat, more people die.”

Watson said victims in an incident of this kind shouldn’t attempt to grab onto police officers or deter them from their target mission of eliminating the threat.

“That’s the plan, but it’s chaos,” Watson said. “At that point, the best laid plans are ideas.”

To prepare a plan, Watson said that the key component is to make sure the pastors and leaders of the churches recognize the possibility that an incident can occur. Creating a site security assessment plan is a next step in preparing for what everyone hopes will never happen in their church building, but could in fact take place.

Communication is key, as is creating a security team. He suggested radios with low visibility, such as earpieces, so people don’t have to rely on cellphones that could have failing signals. Team members should be trained in first aid, and first aid kits should be readily available. Training individuals in de-escalation techniques is also a key component, so that a potential threat can be averted before it begins.

In addition to the security team, other potential safeguards include having a check-in system for nursery or daycare within the church; controlled access to the building (i.e., not all doors open at all times without attendants); securing background checks for nursery and daycare workers; and developing emergency action plans for various types of incidents including fire, weather, bomb threats and threats of violence.

“Having a security team can help lower insurance rates,” Watson told attendees.

While planning for how to handle a potential threat, Watson stressed that, while the key components of action during an event would be “run, hide and fight,” an active situation is not a good place to learn how to react.

“An untrained marksman has a 22 percent chance of hitting a moving target,” Watson said, specifically referencing churchgoers who possess weapons. He explained that attempting to shoot during a chaotic situation could mean catastrophic results.

He suggested that churches hold tabletop exercises after creating a security team and developing an action plan.

Throughout the evening, Watson repeated the same mantra several times.

“Success is not the plan, but in the planning,” he said.

Those who were unable to attend the session can contact Michelle Goldman, executive director at the Community Free Clinic, at mgoldman@ mycommunityfreeclinic.org for additonal information.