Mass casualty events prompt FBI, local agencies to forge closer ties


This cooperation among local, state and national agencies proved valuable after Sutherland Springs shooting.

The FBI offers a wide range of resources and expertise to the local authorities where an incident unfolds.

Columbine. Newtown. Sutherland Springs. There is not a single place in this country bucolic enough that it is immune to violence on a scale that could be enough to cripple local first responders.

Authorities acknowledge that the threat of so-called mass casualty incidents has fundamentally changed training, preparation and relationships among small policing jurisdictions and their big city and federal counterparts. It was evident in the cross-jurisdiction response after the Nov. 5 killing of more than 20 First Baptist Church parishioners in Sutherland Springs, one of hundreds of such incidents in the United States since 2000 and one of the deadliest.

PHOTOS: Memorial service for shooting victims in Sutherland Springs on Nov. 6

Christopher Combs, special agent in charge in the FBI’s San Antonio division, said the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., prompted the White House to task the FBI with assisting local and state law enforcement agencies in active shooter responses and investigations.

“Before Sandy Hook, you didn’t see this FBI response to these active shooters,” Combs said. “Ninety-eight percent of active shooters are local crimes, not federal crimes. With the rise of ISIS, we are always concerned with whether it could be ISIS or terrorism, but most of the time it is local.”

Now, the FBI responds to every active shooter situation in the United States, offering a wide range of resources and expertise to the local authorities where an incident unfolds.

A matter of resources

The FBI comes to lend a hand, not to steamroll local agencies, Combs said. “There’s never a food fight about that.”

The issue is not about the capability of local police to investigate a crime, he said, but one of capacity.

Caldwell County Sheriff Daniel Law said agencies like his “may not have the numbers in their jurisdiction, … but they have direct connection to the people who are their support and probably already have plans in place and have already practiced.”

Law said smaller departments across Texas hold themselves to the same standards of training as their larger counterparts. Among his 31 sworn officers are specialists trained to handle any potential threat in his community, he said, and the department has partnerships with municipal agencies throughout the region.

“The emphasis on the training is not exempted because of the size of your agency,” Law said. “The only thing we’re limited to is bodies. There’s no way we can compete with the monetary resources of a Travis County or … even support another entity by sending 10 or 20 people because that would be our whole staff.”

Combs said most local agencies don’t have the staff resources to handle an incident in which dozens are killed or wounded, but he said intergovernmental networks have formed over the years that can now fill in the gaps.

Law’s plans and practice were tested when a balloon carrying 16 people crashed near Lockhart in July 2016. It was a grim reminder that first responders, wherever they serve, have to be ready for anything.

“We were told that a van had crashed and was on fire,” he said. “When they got there, because of the frame of the gondola, it looked as if a fire was so intense that it had melted the vehicle. One of the fire personnel said that it looked like a van full of mannequins, and it wasn’t.”

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Law said the training and preparation law enforcement agencies constantly undergo made the response to that scene, horrible though the crash was, smooth. “We were working from habit,” he said. “If anything has come from that incident to now, it is the knowledge of the resources needed and where they need to go and why.”

The longtime sheriff said his deputies would respond to an incident like Sutherland Springs with the same speed and professionalism. He hopes they never have to.

“There’s a very good chance that we could be hit if we’re not prepared,” Law said. “And it’s not if, but when, and what are you going to do to stop it.”

Developing expertise

For small communities, responding to mass casualty events can be a challenge because of a lack of expertise.

“Of roughly 18,000 police departments in the country, most have never seen an active shooter,” Combs said. “The FBI goes to all of them. We have the history (and) the lessons learned. The more you do it, the better you become just out of repetition and experience. Because the FBI is a $9 billion organization, we have resources that most police departments just don’t have.”

Whether a madman opens fire on the Las Vegas Strip or in a quaint church in a rural Texas community of fewer than 1,000 residents, the FBI will respond in the same way, sending both criminal and terrorism squads to pin down exactly what type of shooter they are investigating. The FBI also can send bomb technicians and SWAT teams if situations are still active.

“There is a SWAT team in every FBI field office. The size of it changes based upon the office,” Combs said. “Right now, I can dump a SWAT team, evidence team or bomb squad in a matter of minutes.”

The bureau also can set up infrastructure to help local authorities deal with media, manage multiple crime scenes and take calls from the public.

“It’s a large package,” Combs said. “After the attack in Sutherland Springs, around 150 FBI employees were working on the case either from the scene, a regional field office or in Washington, D.C.”

“On Sunday afternoon, we put 75 people at that church,” Combs said.

Sutherland Springs, like many active shooter incidents, involved multiple crime scenes that would have stretched the resources of local police without help.

“It’s never just one scene,” Combs said. “You have the scene where the shooting occurred. You usually have a car. That’s a separate scene. The guy lives somewhere, so automatically, you have multiple scenes. A police department certainly has the capacity to handle one scene, but if you get three or four, you can really be taxed on resources.”

These shootings can also be tough on officers who know the people involved.

FBI spokeswoman Michelle Lee said local police are highly motivated to solve these types of crimes, especially when one of their own is killed. But the FBI help can provide breathing room for officers to grieve, or just rest, rather than working a 24-hour shift or longer.

Training and tactics

As active-shooter cases and mass casualty incidents have continued to stack up, Central Texas first responders have taken special training and adapted their tactics to meet the threats.

“I never would have thought in law enforcement that I would have to take my people and prepare them for being ambushed by the citizens they work for and buy ballistic rifle vests,” Law said. “How do you prepare for something like that?”

The FBI has joined Texas State University’s ALERRT Center (the acronym stands for Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training) to help train police, fire and EMS personnel from around the country on how to respond to a mass shooter.

“What we have seen, which concerns us, (is) the number of incidents per year is increasing. Even more concerning, the number of killed and injured during each incident is dramatically increasing,” Combs said.

Most mass shootings happened outside of big cities in communities with relatively small police forces, Combs said, so the bureau has used federal grants to train small to medium departments in particular. “There is a waiting list,” he said. “We can’t get it all in. I can remember at one point there was a waiting list of 325 police departments (seeking training).”

RELATED: Guns are OK in Texas churches following Sutherland Springs shooting

The biggest change in the training these agencies get, he said, is a focus on rapid contact with the shooter.

“Going back to Columbine, police would go form a team. SWAT would show up and they’d go in,” Combs said. “Now, we’re teaching single-officer entry. The first cop there just has to go in by himself, which is extremely dangerous.”

It’s critical for an officer to stop the shooting as quickly as possible. Depending upon skill, a gunman can pop off as many as 90 rounds in 30 to 40 seconds from an AR-15 rifle, Combs said. “There is just no time to wait.”

“You have to take unimaginable risk to stop the killing,” he said. FBI statistics from 2000 to 2013 show that when lone officers engaged active shooters, the officer had a 33 percent chance of being shot.

“I’m not sure the Marines would operate on (those odds),” Combs said. “You’re teaching a small-town cop to respond like that. That’s hard. But they’re doing it, and it’s saving lives.”

Prevention the best response

“A lot of the time, what is not discussed are the active shooters that we stop,” Combs said. The bureau uses its profiling unit and behavioral analysts to profile potential shooters and identify warning signs that an individual might be on what authorities call the “path to violence.”

“Just in Austin, we’ve stopped two or three that are public knowledge,” Combs said. “We’re stopping them in San Antonio. We’re stopping them everywhere.”

Hector Morales, an FBI evidence response team leader, said the bureau is not in the business of prediction, but prevention. The best, if not only, way to get out in front of a mass shooter is for someone close to them to say something.

“There’s always an inner circle who knows something,” Morales said. “They see something about the individual that is just not right or concerns them, and they don’t report it because they think they’re overreacting or they don’t want to get them in trouble.”

Morales said it’s always better to call so agents can discreetly investigate and determine whether someone is a real threat. The FBI’s involvement doesn’t mean someone has to go to jail, he said.

Combs said he’d rather help somebody get the social services they need than arrest them.

Some states have also taken steps to help identify troubled university students and intervene before it’s too late.

“That was a big lesson that came out of the Virginia Tech shooting,” Combs said. “Twelve different departments had concerns about that shooter, and they just never got together. There were a lot of people on campus who were concerned about that guy, but they just weren’t aware that others were concerned.”

Flawed reporting of past offenses and unaddressed mental health issues can lead to would-be shooters falling through the cracks. After Sutherland Springs, the U.S. Air Force admitted that it never filed the conviction records of the gunman — a former airman who was booted from the military for domestic violence and involuntarily committed to a mental facility — into a federal database. Had the database been updated, retailers would have known Devin Patrick Kelley was barred from purchasing the assault-style rifle he used in the shooting.

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