Eastern Iowa officials look at new ways to confront armed intruders

New ALICE system teaches that hiding from threats may not always be best strategy

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From Columbine High School in Colorado nearly 14 years ago, to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. last December, authorities have looked for better ways to respond to the sudden danger of a shooter in a school or other building. And more recent shootings, like Newtown, may show the need for more change.

By mid-year, an estimated 500 to 600 people in law enforcement, teaching and other businesses in Iowa will have taken what’s now called “ALICE” training.

ALICE stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Escape, and it’s a new system of responding to an active shooter in a public or private building.

After Columbine, many schools went to a lockdown system, basically telling students and teachers to remain in a classroom with doors locked until law enforcement help arrives. But the ALICE program teaches that simply cowering in a room and waiting for help isn’t always enough.

About 35 participants in Cedar Rapids took part in a two-day training program that included acting out realistic scenarios in an empty office building along the Cedar River. Shawn Slezak, an ALICE instructor with the Story County Sheriff’s Office, told everyone to stay in individual rooms as instructed while a volunteer “shooter” firing soft pistol training projectiles stalked the halls. This scenario ended badly as the shooter simply went room to room and shot nearly everyone inside.

Slezak said the typical “lockdown” response to an armed intruder ignores the problem of response time for help. It would typically take the first officer on such a scene at least three to five minutes to arrive. Typical school, or mass shootings, end in just one to two minutes.

Susie Poulton, an administrator with the Iowa City School District, said the problem with the lockdown response was apparent to her.

“We did a lockdown, you cower and wait for the attacker to come in. But if you have other options, like countering or evading, it just felt much better,” Poulton said.

When participants regrouped for another round, instructor Slezak told them to use evasion or distraction techniques. When the “shooter” tried this time, people poked their heads out of doors, located the threat and scattered. Others threw tennis balls as a way to distract the threatening person. You might not think you’d have a chance against an armed intruder with such simple tactics. But Slezak said even with a trained law enforcement volunteer playing the role of the shooter, it created enough confusion to buy some time for at least some of the potential victims.

“He knew your tactics, he’s a trained professional with a weapon and at seven yards, he still missed,” Slezak said.

Carol Meade, from St. Luke’s Hospital, said the ALICE course gave her a new perspective on how average people can do more than just cower.

“I think we need to learn we can do something. Fighting back, not everybody is willing or able to fight back. But we need to figure out what we can do to empower people to do something and get out safely,” she said.

A number of participants said their school or organization was considering shifting away from the simple “lockdown” response to an active shooter to something more aggressive to buy time until police can arrive. They saw the ALICE method as an option.

The federal Homeland Security office paid for the training. Those who go through the entire course can become instructors at their own business or organization and teach the techniques to others. Linn County Emergency Management director Mike Goldberg said the response indicated a real need. Once notice about the training was posted, every spot was taken in just four hours.

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