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Together we are stronger

The whole community approach: Active shooter and hostile event response, recovery

16 Jan 2018 12:02 PM | International Public Safety Association (Administrator)

By Amery Bernhardt, IPSA Member & Sergeant, Westchester County (NY) Department of Public Safety

The concept of first responders working together and working with community members is gaining momentum in our society. The desire to expand perspectives and response capabilities is quenched by the whole community approach. “A whole community approach attempts to engage the full capacity of the private and nonprofit sectors, including businesses, faith-based and disability organizations, and the general public, in conjunction with the participation of local, tribal, state, territorial and federal governmental partners.” The whole community approach is also one of the underlying concepts of the International Public Safety Association.

Active shooter/hostile events

Active shooter/hostile event incidents require a whole community approach to have an effective response and recovery. Unfortunately, several municipalities still face challenges that set them back from achieving a whole community approach. These challenges may appear to be an overwhelming feat. This article provides some recommendations to begin the process based upon experience and recent national guidance.

According to Gerencser et al.,  the approach can be summarized by the formation of a megacommunity. “A megacommuity is a public sphere in which organizations from three sectors – business, government, and civil society – deliberately join together around compelling issues of mutual importance, following a set of practices and principles that make it easier for them to achieve results without sacrificing their individual goals.”

Start with schools

The first challenge that many first responders face is taking that first step. I recommend starting with a school in your jurisdiction. Schools filled with children provide an added incentive to the first responder community. I have observed firsthand the increase in motivation when the task involves saving children. There is an instinctive desire to protect children that can provide inspiration throughout the whole community approach.

The basic outline I recommend begins with an initiator. Next, progress to a stakeholder analysis. After the key participants have been identified they will need to come together to develop the vision, goals, and objectives. This process will involve potential challenges that can be identified early but must ultimately be overcome. Starting with a school and following this method may provide the needed momentum to inspire multi-discipline integration.

Identifying a leader, initiator

In order to ignite this type of megacommunity, Gerencser et al., identified that there needs to be a catalyst that provides visible leadership during the early phases. Two of the most important traits of the initiator are being passionate and steadfast. This person needs to take the lead on beginning the process and working through the different phases of the endeavor. Consistency is critical to keeping the momentum moving forward. This is not an exhaustive list, but the initiator can be a member of the local police department, fire department, medical services agency, 911 telecommunicator or the emergency manager.

School pilot program

The first step the initiator should take is to invite the key players to the table. Gerencser et al., recommends that a thorough stakeholder analysis be completed to identify the members needed in this megacommunity. To simplify the process, I recommend starting with a school within the jurisdiction. This may help to provide a pilot program that can be emulated throughout the community as the concept gains widespread buy-in and adoption.

Progress at this stage can be used as momentum to continue the collaboration effort throughout other areas of the municipality. This group would include representation from the school district, the school building, the community and each discipline of the first responder community. For example, the group may consist of a law enforcement officer, firefighter, EMT, 911 telecommunicator, parent, superintendent and a principal.

Creating a vision statement

During the initial meeting, the key stakeholders identified must develop a vision statement for the megacommunity. Kim & Mauborgne  identified that engaging the stakeholders in this way will help to bring commitment, cooperation and trust. Gerencser et al., provides guidance to develop a statement that is clear and envelopes all the vital interests and values inherent in facing this challenge.

For illustrative purposes, here is an example of a vision statement.

“To develop our municipality into a resilient community that is adequately prepared to successfully respond to threats of active deadly behavior within our schools. This response will be realized through a comprehensive program that will engage the whole community approach in preparing and responding to such attacks.”

Only after the group has successfully identified their mission can they truly make headway on collaboration.

Setting goals and objectives

The development of goals will flow from the vision statement. Gerencser et al., found that when organizations establish goals and milestones, it is a strong sign that they have a clear understanding of the community’s expectations.

Here is an example of one potential goal based upon the previously formed vision statement. “Train the school faculty to successfully respond to violence within the school.”

Given that objectives are the steps taken to reach a goal, each objective must be S.M.A.R.T. (specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound). An example might be, “conduct active shooter response training with all members of the faculty of the high school within one year.” The development of the goals and objectives will require active participation and follow-up to sustain the efforts and complete the mission.

Prepare for challenges

The activity of collaborating is filled with potential challenges that must be overcome. Some of these may include cultural differences, lack of quality relationships, inadequate communication and understanding, lack of participation or commitment and disagreements. There may be a major challenge of getting true participation and commitment from the stakeholders.

One of the best ways to move people toward a common goal is to focus on why you are doing what you are doing. According to Simon Sinek “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it, and what you do serves as the tangible proof of why you do it.” 

The key is to tap into what inspires people to act. For example, the goal is to save the children in the school. All the decisions of the group should serve this purpose. Often, challenges are closely related to each other and their solutions are intertwined. If the group maintains focus on why they are doing what they are doing, they will be more driven to work through each of the challenges.

For example, cultural differences between schools and first responders, and between fire and law enforcement services will need to be overcome through a consorted effort in understanding. The more the group works to understand each other, the more likely they are to build relationships. These relationships will help them prevail over communication barriers which in turn helps them better understand cultural differences. This becomes an endless cycle that builds collaborative strength throughout the sequence.

There are bound to be disagreements. Throughout the process of creating a megacommunity, there will be opposing points of view; however, differing opinions are a necessary part of the process. The danger lies when one person or a single perspective drives the outcomes.

It is important to understand the importance of conflict and understand an important point made by Lencioni that relationships need conflict to grow. A win/win environment will need to help shape the relationship. Stephen Covey provides this insight when he wrote, “It’s not your way or my way; it’s a better way, a higher way.” This can pull people away from the view that their engagement is one of a competition and place them into a realm of collaboration to produce something better. A realm where forward-thinking really does prevail. It is not my idea wins and yours loses, it involves progressive ideas that help everyone to win. 

The challenge of beginning a multi-discipline approach to active shooter and hostile event response will appear daunting. But, regardless of appearances, this is a task that must be embraced by the first responder community. A true whole community approach can be realized by someone refusing to give up and courageously taking the role of the initiator. This individual can lead a stakeholder analysis and progress through the development of the vision, goals, and objectives of the newly formed megacommunity. 

Focusing on the why and anticipating the challenges that will arise will prove to be invaluable. Start with a school and tap into the incalculable drive that seems to flow from first responders when they are rescuing children.

About the author

Amery Bernhardt, M.A. Homeland Security, is a Sergeant with the Westchester County Department of Public Safety in New York. He has 17 years law enforcement experience and is certified as an instructor for law enforcement and civilian active shooter response through the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training program. He has conducted training and numerous exercises with schools and first responder agencies throughout Westchester County. 

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