Two men stand anxiously at a classroom entrance and another lies seriously wounded beside a wall outside. "Don't come down here, I'm telling you — I'll kill 'em," a man inside the classroom shouts to officers snaking down the corridor with guns drawn. A brief attempt at negotiations quickly fizzles as the officers approach the room, yell to the men inside to get down and take out the gunman in a swift firefight.
The drill is part of a training program the FBI is helping run for local law enforcement agencies nationwide. Acting on a White House directive after last December's Connecticut school massacre, and partnering with a Texas-based training center, the FBI this year has been teaching best practices for responding to mass shootings.
"You don't need negotiators, you don't have time for SWAT teams, you need to get in there as fast as possible and stop the killing," said Chris Combs, who runs the FBI's Strategic Information and Operations Center, the headquarters command post for major emergencies, and is involved in running the program.
The goal is to promote a standardized strategy as local police departments — invariably the first officers to arrive — respond to such shootings. Besides the tactical drills, conferences run by FBI field offices are intended to prepare local agencies for the challenges of an active shooter emergency and to let them know that federal help, including extra manpower to interview witnesses, collect evidence and manage a sprawling crime scene, is available to them.
"It's not capability — it's capacity," said Katherine Schweit, another FBI official involved in organizing the program. "Every police department, sheriff's department has the ability to do interviews and to do evidence collection ... But we can bring capacity. We can bring 100 agents to a scene in a day and do hundreds of interviews, and have done that time and time again."
Localized training programs have proliferated in recent years amid high-profile mass shootings in places such as Tucson, Ariz., where then-U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was wounded by a lone gunman in 2011 while meeting with constituents, and in Aurora, Colo., where a man killed 12 in a movie theater.
After the Newtown, Conn., school shooting, President Barack Obama directed the FBI to work with local law enforcement to develop a more consistent response and signed legislation formalizing the agency's authority to assist in mass killing investigations.
The FBI then partnered with an existing active-shooter training program — ALERRT, or Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training — established in Texas after the 1999 Columbine High School shootings and funded in part by the Justice Department. The bureau sent about 100 tactical instructors to Texas for training and returned them into the field to run exercises, alongside ALERRT trainers, for local officers.
Officials say the partnership helps spread ALERRT's teachings farther and faster than the program could cover on its own while lending the program what Schweit calls "the imprimatur of national support and standards." Officials hope the partnership lasts for as long as funding remains available.
The two-day tactical session — like the one held on a college campus in Maryland last week — opens with classroom instruction and ends with role-playing exercises.
Officers and instructors were divided into gunmen, responders, hostages and victims and given real-life scenarios that test their ability to enter a building and confront a shooter. The officers, in blue protective helmets, fired non-lethal projectiles from lookalike handguns — enough to make a loud "pop" and sting on impact. An instructor filmed the drills so participants could study their mistakes later; another periodically shouted out pointers.
"In that kind of event, you can never get to the point where it's real life. Always in back of the officer's head, they know, 'I'm not actually going to die. No one's being killed,'" said J. Pete Blair, the ALERRT program's research director and an associate professor at Texas State University-San Marcos.
But, he added, "It's as close as we can get to the real thing without people getting hurt."
The drills coach officers to directly engage the shooter instead of waiting for specialized SWAT teams to arrive, even if the officer's weapon is less powerful than the gunman's and even if research shows an officer who arrives alone and confronts the shooter will himself be shot one-third of the time, Combs said.
The willingness to go in alone is a "horrible personal decision," but must be weighed against the potential carnage inside a building, he added added. The average shooting is over within minutes, sometimes ending before police arrive or once the gunman hears an officer approaching.
The protocol marks a stark shift from past training that focused on containing the scene, controlling the perimeter and calling for SWAT help. That strategy, though widely accepted at the time, was criticized as too slow and painstaking after the Columbine shootings.
"Now because of those lessons learned, because of the willingness to be introspective of what took place, tactics have evolved, and they're continuing to evolve," said Arvada, Colo., police Sgt. A.J. DeAndrea, who was among the responders at Columbine.
Under the new initiative, the FBI is making available its behavioral analysts to consult with local police agencies concerned that someone in their community might be planning a shooting, and the bureau's 56 field offices are running table-top exercises and conferences to augment the tactical drills.
The conferences cover the added challenges posed by mass killings, such as collecting enormous amounts of evidence, interviewing hundreds of witnesses and sifting for explosive devices, said Stephen Vogt, who runs the FBI's Baltimore office. Interacting with the national news media also is discussed, along with other logistical problems.
"We had hundreds of satellite trucks in a small, rural community that clogged our streets. People came from far and wide to see our memorials; traffic was a nightmare," Newtown Police Chief Michael Kehoe recalled in an interview.
Brian Waller, the operations commander for the Salisbury University police department, said he was re-evaluating his department's plans after sitting in on some of the training.
"There's kind of an explanation or some support, evidence, statistics, behind what they teach when we discuss the different tactics," Waller said. "It's not just, 'Hey, this is what Joe came up with.' There's research behind it, there's experience."
Mike Sotka, the FBI SWAT team leader in Baltimore and one of the tactical instructors at last week's training, acknowledged the training could be "very overwhelming" for patrol officers. But he said those are the officers who most need to be taught the proper response in the same standardized way, especially since active shooter emergencies are no longer just a SWAT team problem.
"We are asking patrolmen to go in and do a hostage rescue of hundreds of people, in some situations, with minimal amount of training when we ask SWAT teams to train their whole career for that."