Emergency Communications for Active Shooter and Hostage Scenario


I recently observed an exercise that simulated an active shooter scenario inside of a suburban shopping mall. I witnessed this event from the perspective of the radio communications officer.


SWAT Team Incident Response

The Scenario

In this scenario, both the county and city SWAT teams responded to an active shooter at a large shopping mall. Hostages were taken.



Radio Communications Setup

The two responding agencies did not share a trunking system, so they had to be “patched” together using our ICRI – radio interoperability gateway. Both agencies had Motorola XTS-5000 radios, both used AES 256 encryption, but did not share encryption keys during the incident.

Where We Come In

The ICRI was used primarily to bridge the radio communications between the two squad leaders from each agency (Let’s call this talk group “command”.) Other team members remained on their agency’s simplex channel, for intra-team communications. This setup limited the amount of unnecessary radio traffic between the squads.

The host agency, in whose jurisdiction the incident occurred, operated on its trunking channel, while to supporting agency operated from a simplex channel.

Overall, the use of a radio patch (regardless of its manufacturer) during response to this type of incident, greatly enhanced the effectiveness of the mutual aid response.

Shopping Mall InteriorShopping Mall Exterior 





Lessons Learned

A few important lessons from this exercise, that may be relevant to other incidents:

  1. Keep track of all radio channels used during the incident. This will prevent the same channel from being used by two agencies. During this response, both squads used separate simplex channels for inter-team communications. If additional agencies responded to the incident, the radio officer would need to ensure these channels were not used for bridging.
  2. Know if encryption will be used on any of the channels. The city SWAT team had the same radio channel programmed for use in both encrypted and unencrypted/clear modes. At the start of the scenario, the city SWAT team was operating in encrypted mode, while the donor radio connected to the ICRI was in the clear.
  3. Have a spare power supply available. The primary power supply of the radio gateway failed during operation. It had to be immediately replaced with a backup to to un-interrupted communications.
  4. Have a way to extend communications into areas of poor RF propagation. Due to the large interior size of the mall, radio coverage became poor as the teams moved towards the edges of the building (furthest from the radio gateway) and into a few of the stores. As the teams moved throughout the facility,  voice/audio received over their radios became distorted. A cable-reel was deployed with the ICRI to extend radio coverage to those teams and improve audio quality/clarity.
  5. Avoid using the short antenna, meant for a speaker mic, as the primary antenna on a portable radio. Antennas are cut to a specific length to match the transmitting and receiving RF frequency of a radio.  Using the shorter antenna, while it may be more convenient, made the radio less efficient, affecting signal range.
  6. Train additional personnel on using essential communications equipment. Only one or two personnel, in the entire county police department, were capable of setting up our gateway. If they were sick or had to respond to a far away incident, the mutual aid communications may not have been possible or at least delayed.


Need more tips & best practices for using a radio gateway?


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