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Planning Ahead for Managing Victims and Their Families in Active Shooter Incidents

By Kathryn Turman, Assistant Director, FBI Office of Victim Assistance

The objectives of this article are to prepare police executives to meet victim and family needs, promote a victim assistance response that is coordinated and synchronized, and provide resources to assist in the planning and execution of victim/family management in the aftermath of an active shooter incident.

Active shooter incidents provide law enforcement with a number of crime-specific challenges. Among these significant challenges faced by law enforcement agencies responding to active shooter incidents and other mass casualty crimes is managing victims and their families in the immediate aftermath. Although this aspect of the response is seldom addressed in critical incident planning and exercises, the manner in which victims and families are treated has been shown to play a major role in judging the overall response to these crimes. A victim management plan is especially important to criminal justice officials whose operational and investigative tasks will benefit from the trust, cooperation, and goodwill of victims, families, and eyewitnesses.

Victims and families confront painful challenges and decisions in the immediate aftermath of a violent crime. Some of these issues are predictable, while others are unique to the individual and the situation, but they can all be addressed by a team of agency representatives that anticipates and responds to collective and individual needs of victims.

For example, it was important to the parents of a nine-year-old girl that she be buried wearing the favorite earrings she had on when gunned down in a mass shooting. Because the victim assistance response team had been working on a plan for associating, cleaning, and returning personal effects, they were able to assist the family in retrieving their daughter’s earrings in time for the funeral.

For families of victims murdered in the 2012 Sikh temple shooting in Wisconsin, honoring cultural and religious traditions related to mourning was critical to their healing and stability. Victim assistance professionals worked diligently to accommodate their needs, coordinating with the U.S. Department of State and relevant embassies to facilitate the travel of family members who play a vital role in their traditions.

The father of a six-year-old victim of the shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut had never owned a suit, but he could not imagine attending his child’s funeral wearing anything else. It was important to the father to honor his son with the dignity he felt his only child deserved. A member of the FBI victim assistance team took the father to a local store and purchased a suit for him using federal emergency victim assistance funds. It was a small gesture, but it helped the grieving father get through one of the most painful days of his life.

While each incident will present different circumstances, there are several requirements all victims and families have in common, such as the need for accurate and timely information and the availability of a support system. The challenges of victim and family management are generally predictable and have practical solutions. Preparation and planning can make the difference in meeting these challenges.

The Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) has responded to crimes and disasters that impacted anywhere from a handful to hundreds of victims. Lessons learned have been incorporated into agency response plans, policies, and memoranda of understanding. A few months after the 9/11 attacks, the FBI established the Office for Victim Assistance (FBI OVA) and has since positioned 122 full-time victim specialists in field offices across the United States. The FBI OVA also established an operational victim assistance unit staffed by clinical and medical social workers, a forensic disaster specialist, and an operational psychologist with experience in hostage recovery and reintegration. The work of this unit is supplemented with Victim Assistance Rapid Deployment Teams consisting of FBI victim specialists who have been selected and trained for mass casualty crisis response. These teams have responded to federal crimes, aviation disasters, and supported state, local, and military responses to the shootings at Virginia Tech in Virginia, the American Civic Association in Binghamton, New York; Fort Hood in Texas; the Sikh temple in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Robert Jensen, in Mass Fatality and Casualty Incidents: A Field Guide, defines a successful response as “preserving the dignity of the deceased while meeting the rights and needs of the living, and the requirements of governmental investigations.”1 Operational tasks of law enforcement intersect with victims and their families around collecting and providing information, as well as victim identification, death notification, and management of personal effects. Synchronizing operational tasks and victim liaison and support is essential to both efforts.

The Challenge of Convergence

Families and friends of victims will not wait to receive information but will attempt to get close to the scene of the incident, even if that means traveling long distances. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) plans for an average of six to eight family members per victim. Family members will need a secure and private place to assemble and receive information and will have basic needs that must be met. Victim liaisons and service providers will be critical in supporting families, whether they are gathering near the scene, at a hospital, or residing in another city or state.

Directing and gathering victims and families to a central location facilitates the provision of information and support to victims and simplifies management of these issues for law enforcement. Victim and family assistance centers (FACs) have been established in response to other types of mass casualty incidents, and the concept is easily adaptable to active shooter crimes.

FACs are secure, private, and supportive places for families to wait for news, collect information needed by investigators and medical examiners, and receive updates from the responding agencies. It is helpful to identify potential locations for FACs in advance, considering security, accessibility for families, space for a briefing room, private areas for notification, and a separate area for children. FACs are generally intended to support families of the missing or deceased in the immediate aftermath until all victims have been recovered, accounted for, and identified, and families have been informed. These centers may need to remain open through the period of funerals and burials.

It is important to also consider victims and families who are unable to travel to the center. Phone conference bridges or secure websites are proven mechanisms to ensure all victims and their families are receiving the same information and services. A victim services provider should be assigned to hospitalized victims and their families. FBI victim specialists are located around the United States and have been called upon by local police departments to help with notifications and other assistance to distantly located family members.

An active shooter incident, especially when it evolves with intense media coverage, will result in a massive number of inbound calls from families, friends, and other citizens. Law enforcement agencies should determine in advance which call number will be used or issued to receive calls, how it will be staffed, and what format will be used for collecting missing persons’ information.

Identifying and Notifying Victims

Law enforcement must rapidly and accurately identify victims, including the missing, injured survivors, deceased victims, and the “walking wounded.” This task is complicated by large numbers of affected individuals and the type of victim population (closed vs. open victim population).2 The victim identification process is more likely to be protracted with open populations and when victims’ bodies are disfigured, severely damaged, or fragmented. Additional challenges may include accounting for victims who left the scene and the length of time required to remove the deceased from the scene and process remains for identification and autopsy. All of these issues present challenges for managing the expectations of families, while ensuring accurate forensic identification.

The family expectations can be managed by carefully (and repeatedly, if necessary) describing to family members the importance of processing the scene for forensic and investigative purposes and to ensure accurate identification of victims. Sensitive conversations with waiting families may need to take place to inform them if the victims are significantly disfigured or damaged. Eventually, the number of bodies recovered will begin to align with the number of families who have not located their loved ones. “Provisional” notifications can be made by telling these families what is known to be true at that point in time about the number of deceased victims. Additionally, the families should be informed about what needs to be done by officials to identify the victims and how long the process is estimated to take. It is best to avoid making promises that cannot be kept with regard to the timing of identification and release of victims’ remains. Working collaboratively with the medical examiner to determine the most accurate and efficient identification process will help to avoid confusion and delays. Conducting antemortem data collection interviews with families in the presence of a professionally trained victim support provider may help the family feel they are making a significant contribution, as well as provide vital information for the forensic identification process.

The manner in which families are informed of a death will leave an indelible impression. Death notifications should be made using the tested model of teams comprising a police officer and victim services provider.

Communication and Support

Families want and need information from an official source as soon as it becomes available and before it is shared with the media and public. Incorporating victim liaison and support into the command post will help ensure the flow of information to and from families. The command post should coordinate and communicate with the lead victim assistance agency. Regular briefings from a senior official are a critical tool for keeping families updated and managing expectations.

Victim populations may be diverse, so it is helpful to identify in advance potential populations in the community that may be targeted, along with providing resources for assisting them in the event of an active shooter incident. For example, at least two of the more recent active shooter incidents involved immigrant populations with little or no English language proficiency and limited access to official translators.

Interagency communication is necessary to provide adequate and timely information and support to victims. Victim information should be shared for law enforcement and assistance purposes, as appropriate, while protecting victims and families and adhering to privacy laws. Instead of releasing victim information to a wide range of service agencies, it may be more effective to provide victims with information on available services and related contact information. When in doubt, ask victims and families for their permission to share their information, and document and retain their decisions.

The immediate response is only the beginning of a journey for victims and families who will continue to need support and information, especially if the incident results in an ongoing investigation and potential prosecution. It is important to establish and communicate a formal structure for ongoing communication with victims and families to relay investigative findings and other information, as appropriate.

Coordination of Resources

Managing and supporting victims and families is a resource-intensive effort, but more is not always helpful. Resources should be carefully selected and utilized for effectiveness and the protection of victims and families. Many helpers and donations will arrive at scenes and places where victims and families gather. Many are well-intentioned; however, most will not be needed or helpful, especially when families are in an acute crisis and have difficulty absorbing information and making decisions.

In the immediate aftermath of a crime, the needs of victims and families are basic: information, practical support, privacy, comfort, and a listening ear. Acute distress is a common and normal reaction to sudden, violent trauma and loss, but it does not necessitate mental health counseling, especially in the immediate aftermath. Life is never quite the same, but most people are resilient and will cope over time. Mental health providers can play an invaluable role in helping some victims in the future as they adapt to a “new normal.”

Personal Effects Management

Surviving victims and families of the deceased may want personal effects returned to them. These items usually have significant meaning for family members as they may be the last items their loved ones touched. Some personal effects are easily matched to a particular victim, while other items may require additional steps to definitively link them to individual victims. Processes developed in the aftermath of aviation disasters and terrorist attacks have proven to be highly effective in associating, tracking, cleaning, and returning effects to surviving victims and families of the deceased. The FBI utilizes commercial vendors that specialize in processing personal effects in the aftermath of high-impact incidents to ensure the greatest number of valued personal effects can be returned to families in the most sensitive manner.

Practical Solutions

The elements of a successful victim management response include the right people, the right plan, and the right focus.

The Right People: to manage, coordinate, and deliver information and assistance.

The key to an effective response is designating the right people. A timely and meaningful response will require the combined effort of a team of people representing several disciplines and agencies with knowledge of victims’ issues and the ability to provide relevant and appropriate liaison and services to victims. It will also require individuals who are trained to be flexible and are able to deal with ambiguity.

Not all law enforcement agencies have internal victim assistance personnel and resources. This can be addressed by designating a point of contact/manager to oversee the agency’s response and to plan and coordinate with other partners. Victim services providers in many communities have developed crisis response plans and capabilities, which law enforcement agencies, as the lead responding agency to active shooter crimes, can refer to or incorporate.

Essential agency representatives should form a victim services management team to develop, monitor, and train on the response plan. During and after an incident, this team can manage and coordinate the response to victims, address evolving needs and issues, and inform and advise senior officials of issues as they arise. The management team should have the ability to commit, coordinate, or obtain needed resources. Relationships among providers should be formed and maintained in advance of a critical incident. The time to meet each other and decide what to do and how to do it is not on the scene of a mass casualty incident.

The victim services management team is also the mechanism for coordinating a broader range of organizations and agencies, including resources that may be available through the state crime victims’ compensation agency and federal agencies. Some agencies and organizations will play a critical role in the immediate aftermath, while others may be needed once the initial crisis is over. The team should develop a process for handling spontaneous volunteers and donations.

The Right Plan: integrated into incident plans and response, informed by experience and best practices.

An effective response begins with incorporating victim/family management and support into incident response plans for active shooter and other mass casualty crimes. In planning and exercises for mass casualty incidents, the needs of victims and their families have sometimes been viewed as an afterthought or as something “the Red Cross will handle.” As a result, responding agencies have been under-prepared to manage victims, or there has been a lack of synchronization between the incident response and victim service providers.

A mass casualty victim response plan should ensure that the relevant agencies are integrated and that their legal authorities and requirements are defined, along with specific roles and responsibilities. The lead agency should be identified. Other issues to address in planning include logistics, communication, cooperation, mutual aid arrangements, available resources, and transition to longer-term assistance.

The victim liaison and assistance should be incorporated into the overall response plan and linked to the incident command so that operational and investigative tasks of law enforcement and medical examiners or coroners are addressed and synchronized with victim and family interactions.

The plan should be adaptable, scalable, and flexible (a checklist format may provide the greatest flexibility). It should also be exercised on a regular basis. Detailed plans may look great in a binder, but they must be applicable in an actual crisis.

The Right Focus: addressing victim needs in a timely, compassionate, and professional manner.

The response to victims and families matters. It matters to victims and families, responding agencies, media, other government officials, and the larger community. A successful response to victims and families benefits law enforcement operations and investigations and enhances the perception of the agency. It demonstrates agency commitment to victims and families, establishes trust, and enhances cooperation from victims and the public. This, in turn, will assist with identifying, locating, and communicating with additional victims and witnesses. Information and support to victims help families and other directly affected individuals cope with the worst experience of their lives and begins the process of healing throughout the community.

Federal Resources

The Investigative Assistance for Violent Crimes Act, signed and enacted by the president of the United States on January 14, 2013, authorizes the FBI, at the request of an appropriate state or local enforcement official, to assist in the investigation of violent acts and shootings occurring in a public place, as well as mass killings and attempted mass killings. This authorization has been delegated by the attorney general to the director of the FBI and subsequently to FBI special agents in charge.

FBI Office for Victim Assistance

FBI Office for Victim Assistance

To obtain the publications listed in the article or for more information about the FBI OVA, please contact OVA Assistant Director Kathryn Turman at 202-324-1339 or

Department of Justice Office for Victims of Crime

Details and information on additional resources are available on the OVC website at
The FBI Office for Victim Assistance (FBI OVA) has provided support to a number of communities in the aftermath of active shooter crimes. Support may include consultation with planning consultants, on-scene assistance by a Victim Assistance Rapid Deployment Team, financial assistance for families with emergency needs (travel/lodging, transportation of remains), and assistance to local officials with crime scene cleaning and processing and cleaning of personal effects. The FBI OVA can provide information on using the Virtual Command Post feature of Law Enforcement Online (LEO) to manage and provide information on the victim response. The FBI OVA also developed a number of publications on mass casualty victim assistance that may be helpful:

  • “Mass Casualty Pre-Incident/Incident Checklist”
  • “Crisis Communication with Victims and Families for Senior Executives”
  • “Death Notification Pocket Guide”
  • “Family Assistance Center: Recommended Strategies for Immediate Support”

Department of Justice Office for Victims of Crime

The Office for Victims of Crime (OVC) in the U.S. Department of Justice administers the federal Victims of Crime Act funding, to include “Anti-terrorism and Mass Violence Emergency Assistance” funding grants. States receive annual grants for victim services and crime victim compensation programs but may also apply for additional funding in the aftermath of violence crimes to support assistance to victims and families. Access to a 24/7 call center specializing in victim/family support may be available to local, state, and federal agencies. Funding may also be available to provide assistance for responders. ♦

1Robert A. Jensen, Mass Fatality and Casualty Incidents: A Field Guide (Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press, 2000), v.
2A “closed population” involves a situation in which victims were known or expected to have been at the scene. An “open population” involves a situation in which there are an unknown number of potential victims.

Please cite as:

Kathryn Turman, “Planning Ahead for Managing Victims and Their Families in Active Shooter Incidents,” The Police Chief 80 (December 2013): 58–61.



From The Police Chief, vol. LXXX, no. 12, December 2013. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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