Collaborating for a Safer America

A look at the Department’s New Hampshire active shooter full-scale exercise

Exercise directors meet with role players during the exercise to answer their questions. Photo by Judy Emmert
Exercise directors meet with role players during the exercise to answer their questions. Photo by Judy Emmert

By Lynda Kasonde

Every minute federal, state, and local agencies are working to protect nearly 330 million people in the United States and active shooter drills have come to the forefront of emergency preparedness training in anticipation of frightening realities. Recent Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) data reveals that the highest probability of encountering an active shooter arises from an internal threat. 

On Sept. 19, 2019, federal, state and local first responders discovered precisely what to do in the event of an active shooter, as they collaborated on the New Hampshire Active Shooter Full Scale Exercise at the National Visa Center and National Passport Center in Portsmouth, N.H. Department of State staff from the Bureau of Administration’s Office of Emergency Management (OEM) and representatives from the Bureaus of Diplomatic Security, Consular Affairs, Global Public Affairs, the Department of Homeland Security, and the FBI collaborated with New Hampshire Homeland Security and Emergency Management, New Hampshire State Police, Portsmouth Police and Fire Departments, and Newington Police and Fire Departments to plan and develop exercise goals and objectives. 

The exercise leaders and planning teams meet to discuss their plans. Photo by Judy Emmert
The exercise leaders and planning teams meet to discuss their plans. Photo by Judy Emmert

The purpose of the exercise was to examine the ability of Department, federal, state, and local partners to prepare for, respond to, and recover from an active shooter event. Specifically, the OEM Policy and Planning Division and Diplomatic Security’s (DS) Domestic Operations put in an extraordinary amount of effort to conduct significant levels of planning over eight months to ensure the exercise was a success.

“OEM’s role in overseeing the planning, coordination, training, and execution of the exercise across multiple federal, state and local enterprises over the course of the past year was critical to the success of this endeavor,” said Assistant Director of the National Passport Center Chris Frazier. 

Victims’ Resource Advocacy Program Coordinator Kayla Hall-Morgan and therapy dog Wolfe stand ready to assist victims during the exercise. Photo by Jason Smith
Victims’ Resource Advocacy Program Coordinator Kayla Hall-Morgan and therapy dog Wolfe stand ready to assist victims during the exercise. Photo by Jason Smith

As a result of the careful planning, the scenario encouraged adaptation and quick thinking for participants. The exercise involved more than 1,000 Department personnel role players in an internal relocation drill at the National Visa Center, or to run/hide from the shooter at the National Passport Center. Nearly 100 New Hampshire police, fire, and emergency medical service (EMS) first responders collaborated with the Department’s uniformed protection officers (UPOs) in the response effort to locate and neutralize the shooter. The scenario provided law enforcement, fire, and EMS personnel a rare opportunity to validate their Rescue Task Force response, which provides care to wounded patients in “warm” zones while a shooter is still active but no longer presents an immediate threat. The EMS Rescue Task Force treated more than 25 role players that had moulage applied. Their injuries ranged from sprained ankles, broken limbs, and minor to serious gunshot wounds. Realizing that not all trauma is physical, DS’s Victim Resource Advocacy Unit provided mental health counseling, which included Wolfe, a therapy dog. Wolfe was available for the employees to interact with should the need arise, and many employees stopped by the unit to pet the dog.

Portsmouth Police arrived at the National Passport Center as they respond to the New Hampshire Active Shooter Exercise. Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Administration
Portsmouth Police arrived at the National Passport Center as they respond to the New Hampshire Active Shooter Exercise. Photo courtesy of the Bureau of Administration

A significant strength of the simulation was the ability of all stakeholders to engage and learn. For example, the exercise was the first occasion in which many of the first responders had to work with Department UPOs. Understanding the building’s layout, entrances, and exits helped to develop a common operating picture with the local first responders. Communication issues were apparent as state and local responders had to attempt to find a common operating channel with their federal partners. The Incident Command System (ICS) is a standardized approach to the command, control, and coordination of emergency response providing a common hierarchy within which responders from multiple agencies can be effective. The ICS exercised in an ad-hoc joint command center process allowing law enforcement, fire, and EMS a chance to practice their respective command and control functions in an integrated fashion. 

“This carefully planned exercise highlighted and strengthened the excellent cooperation between [the] Diplomatic Security Service (DSS) and local law enforcement partners,” said David Tauber, the resident agent in charge at DSS’ Portsmouth Resident Office. “The DSS Resident Office in Portsmouth and Uniformed Protection Officers at National Visa Center and National Passport Center worked seamlessly with local fire, rescue, bomb disposal, emergency communications, and tactical units and gained confidence in their own and partner capabilities.”

A Diplomatic Security Officer and member of the Portsmouth Police Department work together during the incident command function of the exercise. Photo by Judy Emmert
A Diplomatic Security Officer and member of the Portsmouth Police Department work together during the incident command function of the exercise. Photo by Judy Emmert

The exercise realistically prepared employees in a controlled environment, built relationships and strengthened lines of communication with local authorities in preparation for real-world emergencies. An after-action report provided realistic feedback that will help enhance policy and planning procedures across the board.

“The safety and security of our staff and our customers is paramount,” said Frazier. “The Active Shooter Exercise was an invaluable experience both for our entire DOS team in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and our emergency response partners.”

In the end, the exercise highlighted the Department’s commitment to employee safety in today’s environment where active shooter incidents occur at alarming rates. Real-world events supersede any one organization and the whole of community response training bolsters not only the Department as an organization but also benefits the entire community. Cross-pollination of the skills, knowledge, and experience developed from this training by first responders and Department personnel creates a better prepared, safer environment for all.

The Rescue Task Force works to evacuate injured victims during the exercise. Photo by Judy Emmert
The Rescue Task Force works to evacuate injured victims during the exercise. Photo by Judy Emmert

 “It has been heartening to see OEM’s commitment and dedication in working with New Hampshire state and local stakeholders to helping the National Visa Center improve our emergency preparedness capabilities,” said Angela Manalo, deputy director of the National Visa Center. “The exercise planning activities also led to a closer working relationship between the National Visa Center and the National Passport Center, which has resulted in more regular engagement and collaborative security improvement efforts across both facilities.” 

The Rescue Task Force treats an injured victim, while an evaluator assesses their response. Photo by Judy Emmert
The Rescue Task Force treats an injured victim, while an evaluator assesses their response. Photo by Judy Emmert

Employees are encouraged to take OEM’s Active Shooter Awareness Training (intranet only and must be opened using Internet Explorer), which is a great tool to learn the active shooter response principles of “Run, Hide, Fight,” and the training demonstrates different ways to plan for and respond to an active shooter. Additionally, DS and OEM are available to conduct two-hour interactive Active Shooter town halls which will provide information on various active shooter scenarios and specific response actions that employees can take. To request more information, please email A/OEM/PPD at [email protected]

Lynda Kasonde is the director of Policy and Planning, Office of Emergency Management.