Understanding the world we live in

Recently, I was listening to a podcast in which a mother and her eight-year-old child were talking about active shooter drills that her son had participated in at his school. He matter-of-factly relayed the actions taken by the teacher and students when the drill began and detailed that he assisted his teacher in moving a large desk in front of the classroom door when he witnessed her struggling to accomplish the task. He then relayed, in the same calm voice, that he remained standing at the front of the classroom near the door, despite his teacher’s admonitions to come to the back of the classroom with her and all the other students. When his mother asked him why he did so, he replied that he was seeking to try to save his fellow classmates by using his body, essentially as a human shield, for the rest of them. The boy’s mother, barely able to speak, told the boy how proud she was of him but gently reminded him of the importance of doing everything possible to remain alive for her. As a mother, she did not want to lose her child and, although the boy acknowledged her fear, he nonetheless remained steadfast in his intended actions. Sometimes, there really are no words.

We live in a far different world than the one I grew up in. I was fortunate to have gone to school in a generation in between the threat of annihilation when children practiced hiding under their desks during drills of a nuclear bomb (as if somehow such actions would have protected them) and today’s modern threat of incidents of active violence. It is astounding to think that children are practicing what to do in the event of an incidence of active violence. During the Parkland shooting, the fire alarm sounded and students began exiting the building, exposing them to the shooter. As a result, adults, children, and some school officials began lending voice to the idea that students should somehow stop listening to alarms when sounded and instead shelter in place. Such assertions are borne out of fear, not informed education, but you really cannot blame survivors of such incidents from looking to identify ways to make it less likely that others will be afflicted with such violence. As wrong-minded as it may be to consider, it should not surprise responding personnel when they arrive at an ordinary automatic fire alarm call and (a) find an active violence incident or (b) find that the school has not been evacuated in accordance with established policy.

To have the most effective chance of ensuring that those in harm’s way are protected to the greatest extent possible, more attention should be paid to ensuring that schools, law enforcement, and fire/EMS departments train together so that everyone understands what is going to be encountered when an event strikes. The incident could be as “routine” as a reported structure fire or as complex as a fire, explosion, and active violence event occurring concurrently. Even today, as strides are being made in coordinating law enforcement and fire department response, there remain opportunities to improve the relationship between public safety and schools in terms of trying to find a way to help keep kids safer. The reality is that there is simply no way to prevent a single individual from inflicting harm on others when that person does not telegraph his intended actions. Accordingly, schools are searching for alternatives, some of which risk interfering with ensuring that those who need to get into the school, or out of the school, can do so when the time comes.

The absurdity of having to write this column is not lost on me, but ignoring the reality of the world that we live in is similarly not reasonable. Company and chief officers should visit their local schools and have a conversation with the principal to schedule a time to be present for the next active violence drill so that lessons can be learned before the actual event occurs. Fire and EMS personnel must also come to terms with the fact that the threshold of tolerance for risk during an active violence incident is different, especially when integrating with law enforcement. Clearly, the entire mindset for law enforcement has changed in the post-Columbine era. Arriving officers now engage the suspect as quickly as possible to neutralize the threat. Rescue task forces comprised of armed officers and firefighters/EMTs/paramedics should be a component of the response plan. Unified command needs to be more than words on a page in some policy. Only through purposeful engagement, practice, and a relentless pursuit of improvement will the success of an incident be determined by those who are called up to stabilize it. The fate of our children should not have to rest in the hands of an eight-year-old … no matter how brave he may be.