Mass Violence Attacks: Five Ways Communities Can Prepare for the Unthinkable

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Memorial following the PULSE nightclub shootings in Orlando. via Flickr licensed under CC

No community is immune from the kind of mass violence attacks that have recently occurred in Texas, Ohio and Florida.

And once again, the national conversation has shifted to how these events can be prevented.

Mass violence events cause terrible trauma, tragedy and shock that no amount of preparation by a community can avert. But it’s possible to learn from the different responses some communities have made.

The Center for Mass Violence Response Studies (CMVRS), formed under the umbrella of the National Police Foundation, has found that community “resilience” is strengthened significantly when there is a plan in place that can be activated quickly should the very worst day come.

Jaclyn Schildkraut. Courtesy SUNY Oswego.

With such a plan, the immediate response is quicker and more effective, and over the longer term strengthens a community’s ability to recover from such tragedies. But implementing a best-practices model requires developing the resources and systems in advance that increase the likelihood of resilience.

It’s not an impossible dream.

Based on our review of the after-action reports prepared by CMVR studies of mass violence events in San Bernardino (2015), Kalamazoo (2016), Orlando (2016), and Parkland (2018), we have identified five key strategies that all communities should consider in their planning discussions.

Build Relationships Before Tragedy Happens

Mass violence events demand the immediate deployment of significant resources that no single community can supply on its own. That’s why it is so important to build relationships and mutual trust with neighboring communities and organizations during normal operations to prepare for a regional response.

This includes (but certainly is not limited to) relationships among law enforcement officials, mental health professionals, leaders from the community, private sector, and faith-based organizations, and other vested stakeholders. Mutual aid agreements and/or memorandums of understanding between agencies also can help to clarify the roles and expectations of all partners during the response and recovery from crisis.

Conduct Regional Multi-Organizational Training Exercises

Should that very worst day come, hundreds of responders from agencies across the region will arrive on the scene. Local, national, and even international media will flood the community. Assets, such as video surveillance, electronic records, and communications information will be essential to the law enforcement response and investigation.

Frank Straub

Frank Straub

Regional training before a critical incident can help improve coordination between diverse stakeholders in such times.

Training should be inclusive of first responders in the region (police, fire, EMS, 9-1-1, and emergency operations managers), the medical community, local governmental leaders and other elected officials, mental health providers, media, private-sector, and faith leaders, so that each knows how to respond within their respective roles.

The public also should be included in trainings, such as active assailant drills, to enhance understanding about the community’s responses in such situations. Moreover, training exercises should encompass all phases beyond the initial response, including victim extraction and recovery, scene security, media contacts, reunification, and family notifications.

The exercises should, as much as possible, attempt to create real-world scenarios for responders to train within. All training plans should be reassessed annually to ensure compliance with state and federal standards, and additional sessions should be held to provide updates to all potential responders based on emerging patterns and trends.

Develop a Unified Command Structure

With so many different agencies, organizations and people responding to a mass violence event, the potential for chaos, particularly while a scene is active, is ever present. Having a unified command structure is essential for a timely response and improved coordination among agencies and responders, as well as assigning responsibilities, facilitating communication, and allocating resources on scene.

Like other aspects of emergency response, the unified command structure should be integrated into routine operating procedures to ensure that it is a normal part of critical incident response; it also should be part of interagency training initiatives.

To achieve the latter, communities may wish to create a regional incident command system (ICS) team, similar to an all-hazards team. Dispatchers should also be included in ICS training, particularly as it relates to radio and communication systems. Plans for interacting with local medical facilities are essential.

Leverage Social Media Resources

Considering how rapidly mass violence events unfold, the need to continually update the community is a top priority for law enforcement and other relevant stakeholders.

Kathleen Kiernan

Kathleen Kiernan

Leveraging social media resources (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, and others) and other contemporary communication strategies can help to release information quickly and accurately to the public and media alike, which also reduces the need for numerous press conferences by law enforcement at the scene.

It may also create opportunities to tell members of the community how they can best help with the response (e.g., blood drives or donations; avoidance of critical areas; road-system updates).

Liaisons (who will be on scene with elected officials) can work with the public information officer to help transmit the messages. Therefore, including both in training will help to improve their response coordination.

Prepare Counseling Resources in Advance

Resources in the aftermath of mass violence events are typically focused on the provision of emergency medical care to individuals who were injured and the families of those killed.  Our research suggests that, while this response is essential, the impact of an event on health extends for years through a social and psychological footprint affecting not only the victims and their families, but also survivors, first responders, and the broader community.

Broadly speaking, resources such as mental health services and faith-based counseling should be identified ahead of a critical incident . All those providing assistance must be properly vetted and trained in psychological first aid. A mental health incident commander should be designated to ensure that the appropriate mental and physical health resources are available to all personnel.

These resources should be available not only in the immediate aftermath, but should be included in long-term planning, as the presentation of trauma symptomology may be delayed for weeks and months following the incident and may also reemerge (or worsen) around the events’ anniversaries or the occurrence of similar events.

Furthermore, the welfare of all those who are impacted should be included in interagency planning, training, and coordinating exercises.

Anita McGahan

Anita McGahan

There is no plan through which a community can prepare fully for a mass violence event.  Yet our work suggests that, in the midst of the trauma, communities that have adopted these five strategies to build capacity in advance ultimately demonstrate greater resilience over the long run.

In the face of the unimaginable horror of a mass violence event, communities must not become paralyzed by an inability to respond effectively. Building these capabilities now is essential.

 Jaclyn Schildkraut is an Advisory Board Member at the Center for Mass Violence Response Studies (CMVRS) at the National Police Foundation. Frank Straub, Ph.D., a former police chief in Seattle and Indianapolis, is director of CMVRS. Anita McGahan, Center Board Member and Professor at the University of Toronto, and Kathleen Kiernan, Center Advisory Board Member and Founder & CEO of Kiernan Group Holdings, also helped to prepare this essay. Readers are welcome to comment or address questions directly to our team at


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