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Meeting An Active Threat Head-On

By Becky Lewis
May  2013

The next Adam Lanza may not shoot his way through the door of an elementary school. He might get past a school’s “buzz for admittance” policy because he’s a known visitor, only this time he’s carrying a knife and looking for his partner for a deadly reason. Or he might be a student in a small rural school with a gun in his backpack. Or he may find some other way to get past a school’s well-thought-out, well-executed safety plan.

However he gets in, if local law enforcement has taken advantage of the free Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) Program offered through the Texas State University-San Marcos and funded at a national level by the Bureau of Justice Assistance (BJA), officers will know how to deal with this active threat.

Since 2002, more than 40,000 law enforcement officers from across the nation have participated in scenario-based training through the university’s ALERRT Program, starting with Level I training focused on dealing with active threats. The university’s partners, the San Marcos Police Department and the Hays County Sheriff’s Office, helped develop the original training program, which has expanded to a national level through the use of state and federal grant funding.

Assistant Director Terry Nichols has been involved in the program since the beginning, when, as a sergeant with the San Marcos Police Department, he worked with Sgt. David Burns, a counterpart at the sheriff’s office, to train every officer from the two agencies on dealing with the active shooter threat. Nichols and Burns had received their initial active shooter instructor training from the Texas Tactical Police Officers Association and after teaching the local officers in Hays County  they appealed to the university for assistance in developing a statewide program. The university then took ALERRT to the national level with the acquisition of BJA funding.

“We’ve slowly built the program, but Level I remains centered on the active threat,” says Nichols. ALERRT offers training sessions at San Marcos, takes them out to other jurisdictions on request and as funding allows, and offers train-the-trainer sessions that spread ALERRT’s reach even farther.
“We receive a limited amount of funding from state and federal sources each year to deliver training to law enforcement personnel outside of Texas, and in addition, some states and regions use us to provide training in their areas,” Nichols says. To host Level I ALERRT training, the agency must provide a facility such as an unoccupied office or school building with wide hallways and multiple rooms off those hallways. On facility approval, ALERRT allows agencies to enroll between 25 and 30 students, and in return, provides four certified instructors and all the needed materials and equipment.

Read about a Level II ALERRT training class in another article in this Special Issue of TechBeat on School Safety, “After the Shooting Stops.” For more information on the program as a whole, visit

It Can Happen in a Small Town
Galax, Va., an independent city near the North Carolina border, has a population of just slightly more than 7,000 residents. Approximately 400 of them were shopping in a local Wal-Mart late one evening in May 2010, when a call came in about an active shooter in the store. Chief Rick Clark says that his ALERRT-trained officers correctly formed two contact teams, with one moving directly to the threat and the other, to the victim. The shooter, as it turned out, shot himself after shooting his wife, a store employee. He died, and she survived.

“There was no hesitation on the part of my officers. They knew their roles. I’ve been around a while and I learned the old school way of methodically clearing an area. ALERRT says you go straight to the heart of threat and they did that,” Galax Chief Rick Clark says. “We believe in the program. The acronym is ALERRT and I think it gives them more confidence and makes them more alert when they respond.”

The leader of the Galax tactical team took ALERRT train-the-trainer training in Lynchburg in 2008, and brought its concepts back to the rest of the agency. Officers can also take ALERRT training at the New River Valley Criminal Justice Academy, which offers in-service training throughout the year and includes ALERRT in its basic recruit training. Galax also hosted a statewide rural-specific training in 2012 that teaches officers how to operate in more wide-open spaces and in wooded areas.

“I believe in training. I believe my folks should have every tool and function necessary to perform their jobs. Even though we’re a small agency (24 sworn officers), we face the same issues as they do in Roanoke and Richmond,” Clark says.

It Can Happen Without a Gun
Given the proximity of the Lone Star College System in the Houston area to the ALERRT Training Center in San Marcos, it’s no surprise that Lone Star College System Police Department officers have been taking ALERRT training on an ongoing basis for a number of years. Officers at two different campuses have put that training to use in 2013, the first a shooting incident on January 22 on the LSC-North Harris campus, the second a multiple stabbing incident on April 9 at the LSC-CyFair campus. (Each campus has an enrollment that approaches 20,000 students, with numerous faculty and support staff present at any given time.).

“The time from when the stabbing call came in until the suspect was in custody was under five minutes. He had run through the hallways of two buildings and assaulted a total of 14 people,” says Chief Richard Gregory. “In addition to the ALERRT training our officers received, we had been doing a lot of training for faculty, staff and students on how to respond to an active threat. In fact, some of them had watched a training video earlier that same day, and officers had talked to them about what to do in an active threat situation. In this case, several students actually dragged him to the ground before the officers caught up with him. When I looked at video of the incident, I saw the officers using the movements that I expected from individuals who had taken ALERRT training.”

During the shooting incident, Chief Gregory didn’t have to look at video: he was present on the LSC-North Harris campus and witnessed his officers putting their training to use: “The call came out that three people, two students and a facilities employee, were injured. The shooter ran into one of our buildings and the first officer on the scene, adhering to the ALERRT training, went into the building after him before any backup arrived. Two other officers arrived within minutes, and I followed them through the building and observed they were using the ALERRT formation. Officers from two other agencies who also had received ALERRT training arrived and joined right in the formation with no discussion needed. The training allowed officers from three different jurisdictions to search together as a team,” Gregory says. (The shooter fled to a wooded area, escaped and was ultimately apprehended a few days later near Dallas, TX.)

“We initially trained our two firearms instructors to be trainers, because they said it was good active threat training, but also just good officer safety and survival training,” Gregory says. “It’s just good solid training that we were able to put to good use.”