UAA emergency manager drills on active shooter scenarios

Wednesday, February 17, 2016 - 09:18
  • Ron Swartz (standing) is the emergency manager at the University of Alaska. He presented a workshop, “Active Shooter & Response” on Feb. 12 at the Chugiak-Eagle River campus. Workshop attendees surmised the room the workshop was presented in might not be the best choice to hide to evade an active shooter because the room was on the second floor of the building and had windows that did not open that might provide an escape route. Photo by Amy Armstrong for the Star

Awareness is the best weapon to engage when thrust in to an active shooter scenario. It’s also a weapon available to anyone.

That is part of the message Ron Swartz, University of Alaska Anchorage emergency manager, brought to the Chugiak-Eagle River campus Feb. 12 as he addressed a classroom full of area business leaders, concerned citizens and educators all seeking professional advice on what to do should the unthinkable — an active shooter — show up at their business, a school or the workplace.

“Paying attention to what is happening around you is essential,” Swartz said. “Often times, people will question if what they really heard was indeed gunshots. They lose critical time doing this.”

Swartz said it is better to assume you heard gun shots and take evasive action only to discover it wasn’t necessary versus not taking immediate action to size up the situation and quickly determine if you and others around you are able to escape the area where an active shooter is or if you have to find a place to hide.

He explained that people don’t identify gunshots because actual gunshots sound nothing like what is portrayed on television and in the movies during cops versus bad guys or war scenes. Gunshots often aren’t the loud, intrusive noise heard on screen. Most often, Swartz said, gunshots sound more like popping noises.

“Questioning leaves you unable to take action,” Swartz said. “That is exactly where the active shooter wants you to be: paralyzed with fear of the unknown.”

Stories of an active shooter in a public place killing and maiming others that just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time have become common headlines across the nation. Federal, state and local authorities grapple with how to combat the social ill that many describe consider epidemic.

It’s why the Chugiak-Eagle River Chamber of Commerce sponsored the event.

“Unfortunately, this is something we have to not just talk about, but also become aware of how to handle should we find ourselves facing this,” Merry Braham, the chamber’s special events coordinator, said. “We need to learn how to react and to understand the mind frame that an active shooter has.”

Indeed, most people that could be victims of an active shooter do not fully understand the definition of an active shooter, Swartz said.

“It is a very different mindset,” he said. “Active shooters are people that are using a ‘violent mind’ — a term that the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) coined. They are overcome by some injustice and they have an obsessive need to take back the control they feel they have lost.”

Because of this, Swartz said the best course of action to take in an active shooter scenario is to avoid the shooter.

“If you hear gunshots and if you can, run in the opposite direction,” he said.

If you cannot easily escape, hide. Turn off lights and silence cellular phone or any other devices capable of making noise to alert the shooter to your presence. Lock doors. Turn window shades so the interior of the room cannot be seen.

Then prepare yourself to wait. That means using awareness skills again to continually evaluate the situation. If you must remain hiding until law enforcement is on scene, don’t expect a super friendly reaction from SWAT teams or other officers when they first encounter you.

“Follow every command they give,” Swartz said. “Have your hands up where they can see them. They have to assume you are a threat until they assess you. This assessment most likely will be fast-paced. Don’t rush to law enforcement or try to hug them at this point no matter how thankful you are. They aren’t there for that.”

That is something Braham can attest to.

Several years ago, she volunteered as a “hostage” in training for emergency services. She gained first-hand knowledge of just how unfriendly law enforcement and rescue personnel are during crisis or emergency situations.

“They told us ‘hands above your head’ and they meant it. Even after 20 minutes, they meant it and were yelling at us right in our faces even if we rested our arms on the top of our heads. Even though we all knew this was a drill and they really weren’t going to shoot us, it still was scary to experience,” Braham shared with the rest of the class.

Others in the class had previous experience with a firearm being pointed in their direction.

He’s former military, and while his experiences in uniform prepared him for facing down an armed gunman robbing the South Anchorage credit union he worked at eight years ago, Wolf Toller said it was still a shock when he experienced a potential active shooter in the civilian world.

His training did kick in, but his first thoughts were ones that only someone with firearms experience and training would have.

“As I looked down the barrel of that .44 Magnum, my initial thought was, ‘if he shoots me with that, it is going to leave a very dirty car because this guy is so rude, he didn’t even clean the firearm before taking it on a hold-up,’” Toller said.

His remarks triggered a few snickers among other attendees, but mostly because odds were good that at least one — most likely more — in the room own firearms.

It’s the blessing and the curse of living in northern latitude such as Alaska.

“In most northern states, guns are everywhere,” Swartz said.

Statistically speaking, it is far more likely in Alaska than almost any other geographic location that an innocent bystander inadvertently swept up in to an active shooter scenario is packing heat as well.

Even more interesting from the standpoint of the “fight or flee” debate is the fact that individual most likely has been trained or thinks they have been trained sufficiently enough to “take out” an active shooter.

Chances are good that the John Q. Public now thrust in the midst of a situation in which lives are on the line, believes he or she is competent enough to engage the active shooter and either kill, maim or disengage that individual.

When asked what someone meeting those qualifications ought to do, it was evident he not only knows this is a pertinent question in Alaska, but also one he considers more often than he probably wants to.

Clearly, as the emergency manager for the university system which does prohibit firearms being carried on campus, his preference is that law enforcement engage active shooters; not the general public.

 But he also knows that most active shooter incidents are over within 15 minutes of their start. Often times, law enforcement cannot arrive on scene within that time window.

His advice to the firearm proficient suddenly placed in an active shooter scenario:

“If you have to shoot, be extremely aware of who or what is behind the active shooter you are aiming at. Make sure you are not going to hit an innocent person. Then, when law enforcement does arrive, immediately put your weapon on the ground or floor in front of you and put your hands up in the air so they know you are not a threat.”

The university system currently finds itself in a defensive position against moves by the Alaska State Legislature.

Sen. Pete Kelly, R-Fairbanks, introduced legislation requiring the university to allow concealed carry on is campuses. Current university regulations allow firearms on campus only if locked in a vehicle or stored in a vault owned and maintained by the university.

The university’s response to Kelly: “Not until the state legislature allows guns to be carried on its grounds.”

While that issue may not resolved anytime soon, Braham indicated the chamber is interested in working with Swartz to bring further work place training such as techniques for de-escalating angry customers, former employees or visitors and training on selecting surveillance equipment.

Connect with Amy Armstrong via email at [email protected] or online at

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