ALERRT: Born from tragedy

ALERRT demonstration
ALERRT has trained more than 130,000 first responders.

ALERRT: Born from tragedy

by Robyn Ross

Texas State center is the national standard for active shooter response training

“People reported hearing gunshots inside the building,” instructor Trey Turner tells the police officers in the school hallway. “That’s all the information we know.”

The four officers nod at him and at one another. They come from Austin, San Antonio, Bastrop, and Athens, Greece, and they met just a few minutes ago at the training facility of the Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) center at Texas State University. Plastic prop pistols in hand, they fall into one of the formations they’ve been taught and move quickly but deliberately down the hallway, checking each classroom for a possible shooter.

Suddenly, the sound of gunfire rings out at the end of the hall, and the officers break into a run. They reach the doorway, raise their weapons and yell, “Bang-bang-bang!” For a split-second there’s quiet. Then instructor Jeff Ferry, who fired the blanks in the training classroom, steps into the hallway. “That was good,” he says. “I’m ready for the next group.”

Turner, a member of the San Antonio SWAT Team, and Ferry, a sergeant with the Luling Police Department, are teaching 27 law enforcement officers how to respond to active attack incidents in the simulated school building at ALERRT’s training facility in Maxwell, outside of San Marcos. The center teaches police, fire, and EMS best practices for responding to an active shooter or another active attack incident. Since 2013, ALERRT has been the FBI’s national standard in active shooter response training.

Birth of ALERRT

ALERRT was developed in response to the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School. The first responding officers followed what was then the protocol: They contained the scene and called the SWAT team. In the 47 minutes the police waited for the team to enter the building, the two teenage gunmen continued to kill. Afterward, the law enforcement community realized it needed to change how it responded to such attacks. The first officers on the scene needed to be trained to enter the building and disable the shooter, regardless of whether they were SWAT members.

In 2002, Texas State, the San Marcos Police Department, and the Hays County Sheriff’s Office partnered to form ALERRT and begin teaching those skills to law enforcement officers. To date, ALERRT has trained more than 130,000 first responders at its facility in Maxwell and in communities across the country. Federal grant funding allows officers to receive the training at no cost to their departments or themselves.

Students come from all over the world, sometimes paying their own way — like Hellenic Police Sgt. Giannis Chalaris, of Athens, Greece, who took a class last spring. “In our country, we don’t have this kind of training,” Chalaris says. “I will try to give my colleagues the feedback from the U.S. training because we have a serious problem in Europe with active shooters. Eventually, it’s going to happen in my country too, and that’s why I’m trying to prepare.”

ALERRT’s courses are developed with rigorous analysis of past shooting events and proven tactical response. “What makes us distinct from other active shooter programs is that we have a heavy research component,” says Dr. J. Pete Blair, ALERRT executive director. “We are really using data to drive what we’re teaching, as opposed to just expert opinion.”

Grant in 2017

Blair and his colleagues collect information from police reports, news reports, and after-action reviews about every active shooter event: the number of people injured or killed, the type of weapon used, and how the event is resolved. Their research informs both the public — ALERRT gets calls from CNN, NPR, and other national news outlets after major shootings — and officers who train in ALERRT’s classes.

For example, analysis of the 2012 shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, revealed that the chaos was compounded by a lack of coordination between police and fire department medics, which slowed the delivery of lifesaving medical care and the evacuation of victims. That discovery led to the development of ALERRT’s Active Attack Integrated Response course, which trains police, fire, and EMS to communicate effectively and expedite the post-shooting medical response.

In October 2017, the Department of Justice awarded ALERRT a $5.4 million Community Oriented Policing Services program grant to expand the number of integrated response classes offered across the country. Graduates of ALERRT regularly report that the training has saved lives. In 2015, officers responding to a hostage situation in a West Virginia high school disarmed the gunman and rescued the hostages without any shots fired.

A woman who took ALERRT’s active shooter response class for civilians later attended the Route 91 Harvest country music festival in Las Vegas, where a shooter killed 58 people and injured hundreds more in October 2017. She said the training — including the basic instructions to trust her instincts and to locate all the exits when she arrived at the venue — saved her life.

Santa Fe Shooting

On May 18, 2018, a 17-year-old student walked into Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, wearing a trench coat and carrying two weapons: a .38 pistol and a shotgun. The gunman walked into one of the art classrooms and began shooting.

Classrooms in the immediate area began closing and locking doors. Students helped teachers barricade. Noah Dupuy, 15, was one of the students. His father, Troy Dupuy, is a Houston SWAT officer and ALERRT adjunct instructor. Noah knew what to do because his dad had taught him. Father and son together had watched the ALERRT video "Avoid Deny Defend” and discussed what options might exist in different settings.

A pair of Santa Fe ISD officers arrived and attempted to engage the gunman. They had both taken ALERRT active shooter training; in fact, they’d taken the ALERRT Level 2 (medical) class in the high school just a year before. For the next several minutes, officers arrived on scene and moved to where the gunman was barricaded and had been firing at officers in the hallway. One of them was ALERRT adjunct instructor Cliff Woitena, who was dropping his children off at school not far away when the call at Santa Fe High School went out. Everyone in the area knew the ALERRT instructors well, and that instant recognition helped break the ice quickly between multiple agencies on the scene. Woitena arrived just as the shooter was talking about giving up. A deputy giving verbal commands had the shooter lie down in front of the doorway. Woitena told the deputy to have the suspect crawl away from the door and come closer to their position. It was almost like the threshold evaluation drill that had been practiced or taught hundreds, if not thousands, of times before by some of the officers on scene. The suspect was placed in handcuffs and taken from the scene.

“No matter how realistic we try to make our training, nothing fully prepares you for walking through a room full of the carnage that lay at these  students’ feet that morning. So many kids,” says John Curnutt, ALERRT assistant director. “With security established in their immediate area, and communication with outside units flowing like a river, medical interventions and evacuation plans started working furiously. A critically injured student was picked up and rushed outside to an ambulance that had just pulled up.”

ALERRT training also helps officers respond on incidents that are smaller in scale but where seconds count.

In December 2017, two Buda Police Department officers were the first responders to a motorcycle accident that left the cyclist with a severed femoral artery and minutes to live. Using training from an ALERRT class, they applied tourniquets, stopped the bleeding, and saved the man’s life.

“ALERRT has affected not just law enforcement but police, fire, EMS, and the community,” says Buda Police Chief Bo Kidd, who also teaches ALERRT courses. “It’s made a huge impact on a very big problem and has made us all better prepared to address it.”