Rules of Engagement

How do you prepare for the unthinkable? We look inside a school that teaches people how to respond to a mass shooting.

ON AUGUST 1, 1966, perched on top of the 27-story clock tower at the University of Texas at Austin, a former military sniper named Charles Whitman took aim at an unsuspecting campus below. Over the course of an hour and a half, Whitman shot 47 people, killing 17.

Emergency services diagnose an actor mocking an arterial gunshot wound at the ALERRT facility in San Marcos, Texas, November 2016.
Police and medical officers rest during interdisciplinary training for active shooter and mass murder scenarios, San Marcos, November, 2016.

AND SO BEGAN the modern age of the mass-casualty shooting. By the beginning of the 21st century, civilian gun violence resulting in high body counts had become so commonplace that special schools were created to offer training to individuals most likely to be in contact with active shooters—from law-enforcement officials and first responders, to regular civilians such as teachers and students.

Jose Rodriguez and Eric Schultz practice responding to an active-shooter incident at San Antonio Fire Training Academy, February 2017.

Since its founding in 2002, ALERRT has trained more than 105,000 police officers and 85,000 civilians from every state in the US.

Last November, Houston-based photographer Spike Johnson spent three days documenting training exercises at an Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response (ALERRT) center in San Marcos, Texas, where students learn how to clear rooms, neutralize shooters, treat casualties, and evacuate personnel. For some photographs, Johnson double-exposed his film in-camera to evoke a nonliteral documentation of an event.


Unfortunately, preparing for the unthinkable has not yet yielded many benefits. It has been little over a year since Omar Mateen took a Sig Sauer MCX rifle into a nightclub in Orlando, Florida, and killed 49 people. In the 365 days following that event, there were 397 mass shootings that killed 421 and injured over 1,500.

Trainees practice breaching rooms, neutralizing an armed threat, creating safe passage for emergency services, treating casualties, and evacuating personnel.
Police practice neutralizing an active shooter and clearing a room for safety during a training exercise at San Antonio Fire Training Academy. Numerous departments in cities and states have adopted the ALERRT curriculum as their standard active shooter training, including Mississippi, Texas, Iowa, Maryland, Virginia, New York City, Miami, and Atlanta. ALERRT’s aim is to train enough first responders to equip them with a common protocol if they find themselves at the same shooting.
Police officers practice breaching, entering, and clearing an active shooter incident during a live fire training exercise at the ALERRT facility. Impressed by ALERRT’s tactical training program—which was rooted in data analysis through a partnership with Texas State University—the FBI offered ALERRT a $28 million dollar grant to perfect their training by collating all available data from every active shooter incident in the country in the last 17 years.
Police officers practice responding to an active shooter incident. Of the roughly hundred thousand officers ALERRT has trained, only two have since been in a position to respond to an attack. According to the FBI, 70% of active shooter incidents finish inside 5 minutes, often before the police can arrive. In these scenarios, teachers, students, or employees assume the role of first responder.
Fire fighters at San Antonio Fire Training Academy listen to debriefs during weekly active shooter response training drills. The exercises also involve police officers from the San Antonio Police Department, and encourage interdisciplinary collaboration in responding to active shooter incidents. Before Columbine, law enforcement and emergency responders worked independently, often undercutting each other’s movements. Now, emergency services in most cities monitor each other’s radio channels, learning codes and language specific to each, a coordination that experts say is still hard to get right.
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Police and fire fighters practice evacuating wounded civilians from active shooter scenarios at the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response training facility. Police practice neutralizing an active shooter and clearing a room for safety during a training exercise at San Antonio Fire Training Academy.

The FBI doesn’t know whether arming civilians saves lives. “We really don't have data that supports one way or the other about armed civilians,” says Katherine Schweit, FBI Chief in the Violence Prevention Section.
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