AUSTIN (KXAN) — The words “active attack” have come across updates from both the Austin Police Department and Austin-Travis County EMS lately, and while the phrase can stoke fear of worst-case scenarios, emergency responders addressed what it means Thursday.

During a media briefing following a shooting Thursday in southwest Austin, both APD and ATCEMS representatives explained what the phrase means and how first responders react to calls of that nature.

“It’s a pre-planned response that we and our public safety partners have so we have appropriate resources in place should a need arise,” said Capt. Christa Stedman, ATCEMS deputy public information officer. She explained that any incident labeled an “active attack” is an automatic dispatch of 15 units — the five closest ambulances, the five closest district commanders and five of the closest single-provider response units.

Alexandra Parker, a public information officer with APD, said for officers, it means all available units in the sector will respond, plus units from neighboring sectors, lieutenants and sergeants when there’s a lot of uncertainty about a situation.

APD and ATCEMS are already spread thin, and when active attacks are called now, the pull on resources is felt even more than when staffing levels were higher, they said. Parker said that strain is real, but it’s something they have to do.

“It absolutely is (a strain on resources), but we’ll do it every time,” she said. “Whoever needs us, that’s where we want to be. We’re prioritizing, and we’re certainly shorthanded, but we’re doing the best that we can.”

What causes the call?

In June following a shooting on Sixth Street in Austin that resulted in one death and 14 injuries, ATCEMS posted a detailed description on Facebook of what constitutes an “active attack” call. The post said it’s a three-pronged directive for emergency responders to do the following:

  • Stop the killing, the job of law enforcement
  • Stop the dying, the job of medics with both EMS and the fire department
  • Rapid casualty evacuation, the job of EMS

“An active attack incident is defined as an individual(s) who is actively engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a populated or confined space,” the post said. “In most cases, active attackers use a firearm(s) and display no pattern or method for selection of their victims.”

More specifically, an active attack can be called when a situation has the potential to become a mass casualty incident where resources get overwhelmed by the number of patients and the severity of their injuries. In the case of the shooting on Sixth Street, 911 calls began coming into dispatchers at 1:25 a.m. Six minutes later, the incident was escalated to an active attack.

“Preparation is the key,” the post continued. “It is commonly accepted that the way an agency sets up such an event in the first 5 minutes of that incident will determine the course and outcome of the event for the next 5 hours.”

Recent active attack calls

“Active attack” has been used to describe a number of incidents recently. Along with Thursday’s shooting in southwest Austin, it was also used to describe an incident Sept. 13 at LBJ High School in east Austin. In that case, there was a report of a “suspicious person” walking around the area of campus. No one was found, no shots were fired and the campus was deemed safe about an hour after the school was placed in “secure” mode.

Austin Independent School District Police Chief Ashley Gonzalez said while the situation turned out for the better, he said law enforcement takes reports like that very seriously.

“This is what we’re trained for — worst-case scenario,” he said. “We’re thankful that no one was hurt.”

A shooting in April that killed three people near Great Hills Trail in northwest Austin was dispatched as an active attack. Law enforcement eventually caught the shooting suspect, Stephen Broderick, after a 20-hour manhunt.

How emergency responders train for active attack situations

Since April, APD and ATCEMS, along with other area emergency crews, did active attack training both downtown and at Camp Mabry.

The Camp Mabry training includes military personnel, the Texas Department of Public Safety and other emergency outlets in the area. It happens on a yearly basis.

In July, another active attack training took place downtown. At the time, APD Commander Jeff Greenwalt said several first responders at the scene of the Sixth Street shooting received similar training.

“There are people who are alive because of that training,” he said.

Following the Sixth Street shooting, ATCEMS requested $1.2 million for more active attack training along with upgraded ballistic vests.