In the initial response phase of an incident, the goal of first responders is to arrive quickly and safely at the scene. This phase is fluid as responders determine exactly what is occurring and law enforcement officers take quick action to render the scene safe. Command during this phase is primarily at the field level, starting with the first responding officer and eventually transferring to the shift supervisor. The emphasis is on life safety by minimizing the effects of the emergency and containing the incident.
Operationally, the initial command post is likely to be the vehicle of the shift supervisor. For large-scale incidents, other commanders often will join and form a unified command, necessitating a move to a formal command vehicle or into a building.
With the criticality of life safety in mind, there is a lot to think about during an active shooter or other law enforcement incident. Incident commanders must consider jurisdictional issues: securing ingress and egress to the scene; identifying the hot zone; establishing perimeters around the hot zone as well as the entire incident; and gathering valuable information about the incident. Complex incidents require emergency communications, not just among the responders but also to the communities. Social media has introduced a new dimension to public safety in such cases.
Convergence of Responders & Tracking Issues
Comprehensive management is required from the onset, as the response to an incident often escalates quickly. Keeping track of officers “going in” is much easier than keeping track of everything else, such as other law enforcement officers who self-dispatch to the incident, and teams of non-law enforcement emergency response personnel who arrive on the scene.
Chief Cathy Lanier of the Washington, D.C., Metropolitan Police Department identified in a March 2014 Police Executive Research Forum report, entitled “Critical Issues in Policing Series: The Police Response to Active Shooter Incidents,” that, “Not all responding agencies reported to incident command,” during the September 2013 shooting at the Washington Navy Yard. Having officers report to the designated staging area(s) helps with this issue.
Keeping track of equipment, supplies, and other resources can become challenging. It is critical to properly manage these resources to enable their efficient and effective use in a controlled environment. Tracking resources, which includes people, is also important for purposes of accountability. When the incident ends, it becomes the “world’s biggest crime” scene and criminal charges may be levied. Not knowing who was on the scene complicates the investigation. The better the accountability at the front end of the incident, the easier it is on the back end of the incident.
For the Washington Navy Yard shooting, Chief Lanier also identified issues related to tracking resources and demobilizing incident responders. She stated in the 2014 Forum report that a variety of factors contributed to the difficulty in tracking and managing the orderly and efficient demobilization of all personnel and resources.
When a call goes out for a possible active shooter, “everyone” is coming: on-duty personnel dispatched to the scene; responders from jurisdictions around the region; off-duty personnel; and those who happen to be in the area. Officers from all agencies understand the need to get to the scene and stop the carnage. Although they are coming for the right reasons and with the best of intentions, their response presents another challenge for the incident commander, who must manage the incident as well as the influx of non-dispatched responders.
Chief William McMahon of the Howard County Police in Maryland led the response for the January 2014 Columbia Mall shooting. In the 2014 Forum report, he described seeing “waves of people in uniform coming onto the scene.” He added, “So I grabbed a sergeant and said, ‘You need to get a handle on all of those people for me’.” McMahon quickly recognized that, “A lot of people will respond, so you need to manage them. It would be good to have an understanding that officers who self-dispatch to the scene will go to a staging area and wait to be assigned a role, rather than having people just do what they think needs to be done.”
Staging Area Basics
There often are too few responders initially, and then soon there are too many – possibly more than needed for the incident. Knowing that there is a call for help, they come; however, unlike colleagues in the fire service, law enforcement agencies currently do not do a good job managing (human) resources. There is much room for improvement. It is time to revisit the idea of the staging area and the use of staging area managers.
Simply put, the staging area is where resources (people, vehicles, and equipment) await tactical assignments. There may be more than one staging area for an incident, but anything in staging is always ready and in an “available” status. The staging area is always outside of the inner perimeter (away from the hot zone), but inside the outer secured perimeter. It can be co-located with the incident command post, but this is determined on a case-by-case basis.
The staging area offers a location where officers check in for duty. In the initial response, officers must respond directly to the scene. However, if not the patrol officer or deputy that is dispatched to the scene, officers need to report to the staging area. In fact, “other” responding officers should ask where the staging area is located. If the incident commander has not established one yet, the request may be the prompt he or she needs to set one up.
Staging areas are not unique to law enforcement. Fire departments and emergency medical services (EMS) do this on a routine basis. The staging area is a concept taken from the Incident Command System (ICS) and fire/EMS stages on a regular basis when called to an incident of any kind. Even public utilities use staging areas when they prepare for major storms and the expected impact on their infrastructure.
When resources are no longer needed, officers do not return to the staging area. Once dismissed from the incident, perhaps because they need to rest and return later, they are no longer “available” and do not belong in the staging area.
The staging area manager (SAM) is a key component of incident command. This person reports directly to the command post – to the incident commander, unified command, or operations section chief. The SAM keeps the incident command post abreast of resources available and the capabilities that these resources bring to the incident. The SAM also provides security for the staging area, though this may require more people if the incident covers a large area. At an active shooter workshop in Baltimore, Maryland, on 7 March 2014, Capt. John McKissick, Howard County Police commander of the Special Operations Bureau, stated that what they were really missing at the Columbia Mall shooting was a good staging area and someone to manage it.
Requirements & Responsibilities of a Staging Area Manager
Since anyone may be a designated SAM, everyone should know what this function requires. The first step is to proceed to the designated staging area and establish the layout. Vehicles should be parked in configurations that allow them to respond quickly to the incident. The general rule is “first in, first out.”
The SAM needs to track who and what is in the staging area; ICS forms already exist for this purpose. Forms such as ICS Form 211 (Incident Check-In List) and ICS Form 218 (Support Vehicle/Equipment Inventory) are downloadable for this purpose, or individual agencies may develop their own forms. If forms are not available, a pad of paper is sufficient for writing down the information. Perhaps there will come a time when first responders have a credential with their training, skills, and equipment embedded in them that SAMs could easily scan and transmit wirelessly to the command post for this purpose. Until then, paper forms and existing technology will have to work.
SAMs need to maintain the staging area in an orderly fashion to ensure enough space for vehicles to maneuver and avoid blocking other vehicles. Vehicles should face in the same direction, which is usually toward the incident. By positioning vehicles and apparatus in such a way, when deployed, officers can simply drive forward in the proper direction when deployed. Officers should consider leaving a key with the SAM if they leave the staging area on foot. This allows the SAM or a designee to move vehicles as situations dictate.
Areas used for staging can be large parking lots at malls or shopping centers. If parking areas are not available, another option may be to close a roadway to establish the staging area. This may require more personnel to control traffic around or away from the staging area, but the incident is the bigger issue and the roadway may be the only choice.
There also may be other issues to contend with on occasion. Parking lots may be full with vehicles, snow, or snow piles after plowing. Crowds of people who self-evacuate an incident may be milling around the staging area – usually indicating the need for more personnel onsite to deal with the situation and gather intelligence from these people about the incident itself. Construction may be an issue as well, or the initial responders’ vehicles may be in the way. When dealing with any of these issues, it may be necessary to reconsider the location as a staging area.
Secondary Explosive Devices
There is another matter that needs to be taken into consideration as well, and that is the possibility of improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Although not new, their prevalence requires careful consideration when setting up a staging area.
Eric Robert Rudolph was famous for his bombing of Centennial Olympic Park at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, as well as the bombing of abortion clinics and a nightclub in 1997. On 16 January 1997, he bombed an office building in Atlanta, Georgia, because it contained a family planning service. The 1997 attack involved two bomb blasts an hour apart from each other. The first blast was directed at the clinic in the building, but the second device went off in a parking lot with the intent to kill or injure first responders. The bomb injured four people, and more than 50 others suffered from blast effects. In another bombing a month later, Rudolph’s secondary device was located before it could cause injuries.
The Columbine High School shootings on 20 April 1999 were actually supposed to be a bombing followed by a shooting. The two attackers were, thankfully, not very adept at their bomb-making skills and the majority of their devices did not work. However, they too left IEDs in their vehicles in the parking lot of the school, with the possible intent of increasing the fatalities by targeting first responders.
At the Columbia Mall shooting in Howard County, Maryland, the shooter had IEDs in his backpack. Although they were not used in the incident, their discovery presented a new question: Did he leave any in the parking lot to target first responders? He did not but, until that was determined, it had to be considered.
Given these incidents, it is important to include possible secondary attacks in the thought process. When establishing a staging area, officers need to strongly consider the possibility of IEDs. Securing the staging area, therefore, takes on a new meaning and cannot be taken for granted.
Standardizing the Staging Area Concept
A personal discussion on 10 March 2013 with Chief William Corrigan of the College Park Volunteer Fire Department in Prince Georges County, Maryland, provided a better understanding of how the local fire department handles its staging area. Protocols of the Prince Georges County Fire Department set two levels of staging. In Level I staging, fire units respond to the incident, set up preparations for fire operations, and stand by for instructions. In Level II staging, fire units stage away from the scene and prepare to deploy when called. Similarly, the Special Operations Division of the Prince Georges County Police Department establishes a safety zone where their tactical resources stage close to the incident for tactical operations and are co-located at the command post. All of these are standardized and performed on a regular basis. This concept of staging should be the norm for general law enforcement.
One thing Corrigan recommended was setting up staging in an area that eliminates, or reduces, the need for incoming units to respond past the actual incident scene. Strategically locating the staging area will minimize the potential and temptation for incoming units to bypass staging and freelance their way into the incident scene.
In summary, law enforcement officers that have not been sent to the scene should check in at the staging area and contact the SAM. Communications between the staging area and the command post are vital, and the SAM is important for providing incident commanders situational awareness of the resources at their disposal. Incident commanders also must remember the importance of establishing a staging area and getting the word out to potential responders where they should report.
This staging process, if conducted properly, would prevent some of the convergence to the incident scene and help in the controlled delivery of assets during the response. Lastly, SAMs need to ensure the security of the staging area, and consider the possibility of IEDs. Officers responding to an incident should consider where to deploy at an incident, so they can begin the process of developing a staging area.
Robert Mueck is an adjunct associate professor of public safety administration and homeland security at University of Maryland, Global Campus, and director of public safety at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland. He currently serves as a committee chair of the Governors Active Assailant Interdisciplinary Working Group in Maryland, and is an adjunct faculty member for the Texas A&M Engineering Extension Service (TEEX), where he was part of the CCTA project for the Texas Department of Public Safety. He retired after a 29-year career at the University of Maryland Police Department (UMPD), having served in a variety of capacities in operations, administration, and command positions.