Active Shooting Simulation Helps Reporters Prep for Real-World Scenarios

Jun 24, 2018

Half a dozen PRNDI attendees gather around a table with a game board, dice, and card stacks on top. But they are not playing a game. They are participating in the “Active Shooter Training” session, new to PRNDI this year. Led by NPR Newscast Unit Senior Producer John Stempin and Emily Cureton of Oregon Public Broadcasting, this simulation lets participants to practice newsroom information management during an active shooter situation.

The simulation, Incident Reporting (TM), was created by Stempin and based on a similar role play exercise he designed for PRNDI 2016.

Before the game, participants shared stories about breaking news protocol in their newsrooms, what they hoped to get out of the session, and some past experiences with active shooter situations.

Kate Hinds from WNYC was appointed “News Director” of the group and sat at the head of the table. WNYC runs breaking news simulations about three or four times a year, and her experience in New York affected how she and her “newsroom” reacted to developments during the simulation.

Hinds said she sees Tweets about gunshots in New York’s transit hubs often that usually aren’t real. When the appointed social media reporter in the situation began sharing tweets about an active shooter in “Smalltown,” Hinds exercised that same caution.

In each timed round, the newsroom had to select five salient facts and choose three to put on the air. Nearly immediately, news of a roadblock and a police press briefing in a secured part of town started coming in from the designated government and police reporters. As active shooter locations and information on fatalities became available, the game master put red and purple cubes on the game board map to represent them.

Not only official information was coming in. The group also had to juggle many and quickly changing reports from national media about an active shooter and responses from the president and federal agencies. However, because these reports couldn’t be quickly verified, they were sidelined until the newsroom could get information directly from local law enforcement.

Hinds created an innovation in the simulation—asking the game master to make calls to the hospital, the local police department, and the FBI.

“You blew up the game!” said Cureton in later reflections with the group. “You played completely differently than everyone else.”

At the end of the game, the game master revealed the facts of the situation, and the room was stunned to find that rather than one roving mass shooter, they had two separate shootings—an armed robbery at the liquor store and someone targeting his ex-girlfriend at her school group’s art museum outing—happening simultaneously on a Monday morning. That was only one of six possible endings.

A major takeaway for the group was that social media is important and those sources can be useful if they can be reached on the phone. But the most effective way to get facts quickly and distribute them to listeners involved good old fashioned reporting such as calling officials and sending reporters out in the field.

Participants also shared stories about covering Columbine, the Boston Marathon bombing, and mistakes that were made after Representative Gabrielle Giffords was shot.

At the end of the session, Stempin went over best practices during an active shooter incident and other useful skills such as checking a photo using Google Images and geofencing a Twitter feed.

Stempin is currently in talks with consultants about taking the game around to newsrooms, but said it is still early. The session at PRNDI was his dry run to see if it actually works.

“I’ve come to the conclusion that it does,” he said.