The concept is simple.
“In an active shooting situation, you have to make sure the killing is stopped first,” Lopatcong Township police Chief Jason Garcia said last week, after a shooting scenario began to play out with gunfire at Lehigh Valley Mall in Whitehall Township.
No one was wounded or injured after shots were fired in that mall and eventually police went store to store and guided everyone to safety. No one has been charged in the ongoing investigation.
For many years, Garcia’s department shared the now-defunct Phillipsburg Mall with Pohatcong Township police. He was one of several first-responding officials to speak to lehighvalleylive.com in the wake of last weekend’s incident about responding to an armed assault in a mall or shopping center.
Garcia said the goal is to limit casualties. But mostly that’s by going after the shooter.
Those already wounded are aided in the next round of response.
Palmer Township fire and area emergency medical personnel have been training for years with police for such an event at the Palmer Park Mall, said fire department Deputy Chief Jim Alercia. He is also a township police officer, but was speaking in his other role.
“I think about this every day,” he said. “I take active shooter to heart.”
Only when the threat is isolated or over — where at least parts of the mall go from a hot zone to a “warm, safe zone” — can fire and EMS personnel, escorted in by police, begin to treat and remove the wounded, he said.
Colonial Regional police have a trainer on staff for active shooter incidents, Chief Roy Seiple said. All officers are regularly trained and equipped for scenarios like this.
“Hopefully it doesn’t happen here,” the longtime chief, a police officer for about 40 years, said. “Who knows anymore?”
‘You go right in’
But he’s straightforward about what would happen next if a shooting was in progress along his territory’s retail corridor divided by Route 248 in Lower Nazareth Township.
“You go right in,” he said. Officers listen for the sound and rush toward it. It will only get louder. It can be gunfire, it can be screaming. It can even be visual, such as a trail of blood, shell casings or victims.
“We’re going to neutralize the subject. It’s that simple,” Seiple said. “The tactics have changed from sitting back and waiting for SWAT. If we can’t wait, the officers are trained to go right toward the sound of the action and take care of it. Like firemen putting water on the fire, we take care of the fire.”
Bethlehem police Capt. Ben Hackett, whose city includes the Westgate Mall and several commercial corridors, said training is the key, even if police don’t have access to a mall to practice. A space is created to simulate that location.
“A well-trained team will adapt to an environment,” he said. “It’s something you prepare for because you hope you never need it.”
Garcia admits that “no two situations are alike,” but officers are ready for fast-changing situations where you have to make decisions “on the fly.”
“You’re being pulled in several different directions,” but there are plans and there has been training, he said.
“These situations happen more and more frequently,” he said. “Everybody should have a plan in place. You have to implement the plan to see how it unfolds. At the Lehigh Valley Mall, their plan was in place and it went really well.”
Any plan doesn’t just include emergency responders, Garcia said.
Everyone plays a role
During the Lehigh Valley Mall shooting, store employees gathered up shoppers and brought them to safer rooms at the rear of the businesses or locked down the stores until police came and escorted everyone out.
Even shoppers play a part.
“Know your surroundings,” Garcia cautioned of those visiting malls. “People are catching on to be aware of their surroundings — and providing that information to police.”
In some settings, the work to prepare people is well underway, Hackett said.
“There has been a big push in the corporate world for active shooter training,” he said. “If definitely helps us if they are securing that area. It doesn’t become an open liability.”
No matter how much police train, there will be unique decisions to make, Garcia said, adding that with the Phillipsburg Mall now closed, the worry is shifting to huge warehouses coming online.
“Ultimately they house a number of people,” he said. A new warehouse along Route 22 is more than 1 million square feet, he said.
“You’re talking about a very large space, a lot of equipment,” he said. “It’s something you have to think about as they ramp up and start opening.”
Alercia, who is trained as a tactical EMT and has gone through ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) and FBI active shooter training, said large-scale training — some of it in the empty BonTon store on the property — can include live actors, he said.
“We run numerous scenarios of active shooter with victims,” the deputy fire chief said.
Township firefighters and Suburban EMS personnel are trained in the second phase. Once the shooter is isolated, “it turns into a mass casualty” situation where patients need to be quickly stabilized and removed, Alercia said. Firefighters wearing ballistic vests carry triage bags and equipment that allows them to lift a wounded person. Advanced medical care will have to wait until the victim is out of harm’s way, he said.
“The main goal is to get them out of the hot zone,” Alercia said of the wounded.
‘Owning’ the threat space
In the Lehigh Valley Mall incident, forward command posts were set up in stores. The fire department would be part of a unified command in such a post, Alercia said. If the incident is happening in a large store such as Walmart, the surveillance room that hosts video surveillance is secured. Walmart has more than 150 cameras in the Northampton Crossings store, Seiple said. His department even has a drone and trained pilots if it came to that in a mall.
The mall space already cleared is “owned” by the initial response and allows the other personnel to come in with officer escort and begin life-saving efforts, Alercia said. Whereas the initial surge may have bypassed victims, the second stage is all about them.
In the Lehigh Valley Mall incident, police were called in from throughout the region. Some things, Garcia said, happen automatically. Others, such as the Lehigh Valley Mall response requiring K9 officers rather than SWAT, have to be requested, he said.
And key to that working is training that is now more consistent, Alercia said. A lot of it has to do with joint exercises — which Hackett said are very helpful, even with a large number of well-trained officers on his city’s force. For example, the radio system Bethlehem uses has been adapted so officers can communicate with personnel from other departments, he said.
“Synergy with other agencies is great,” he said.
Alercia compares it to a second alarm being called at a fire and other area departments joining the effort. While in the case of an active shooter, authorities might not need firetrucks, “we need personnel” much like at a major fire, Alercia said.
“The training has advanced from what it was back with Columbine,” he said referring to the 1999 school shooting in Colorado. “Everybody is trained the same way. I call my 10 surrounding departments, now everybody is on the same level of what we want to do.”
And police are not outgunned in an active shooter situation.
“We’re loaded for bear in case anything happens,” Seiple said, detailing the rifles and shotguns available to the first patrol officers arriving at a scene. “We have specialized vests, specialized training. We throw as many people at it as we can.”
Colonial Regional has state police nearby if needed, as was the case at Lehigh Valley Mall.
While much of police training in active shooter has focused on schools, it crosses over to malls and stores, Seiple said.
“It’s very similar,” he said.
There’s going to be “a lot of chaos,” no matter the location, Garcia said. “There will be a lot of people involved and limited information. … Weeding out what is going on is the most challenging part of a call like that.”
That’s where the training kicks in as responders contend with multiple entrances and exits and questions like: Is the shooter running out of the mall with the shoppers? The shooter is likely walking and shooting, so a location given by cellphone from inside the mall could change in a moment.
“It’s kind of hard to pinpoint what information being given to you is accurate and what information is not,” Garcia said.
But in the end, the key is to get to the shooter and end the carnage.
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Tony Rhodin can be reached at email@example.com.