Are You Prepared for a Workplace Shooter?


An armed individual targeting people in the workplace is a horrible nightmare that has too often become a reality. Is your organization prepared?

But even the best, most proactive security program can’t anticipate every possible threat.

“It’s a problem because people can be triggered quickly,” Greg Crane, president of the ALICE Training Institute in Medina, Ohio, told Bloomberg Law. In many cases, the workplace shooter is a current or former employee, so “they’re one of our own, and as such, have everything they need to bypass security. If a bad guy wants in, he will get in. Public and private access buildings really aren’t built to keep people out.”

Security professionals agree it’s best not to passively wait for police, because, even assuming the quickest possible response by local law enforcement, a shooter with a powerful gun can dispense death and grievous injury on a terrible scale before he is stopped.

Run-Hide-Fight

“Run-hide-fight is currently taught,” Jeff Sweetin, chief operating officer at private security company Athos Group LLC, told Bloomberg Law. “Don’t hide under your desk and call 911, that’s what gets people killed.”

To prepare for the unlikely event of such an attack, employees must get proper training. “Do live drills that incorporate simulated gunfire—you want to create a mental map of how to respond under stress,” John Sakoian, president of Command Excellence LLC and ACTION Training, told Bloomberg Law. “The human reaction is to fight, to flee, or to freeze—and a lot of people do the latter because we’re a spectator society. You want to break that freezing reaction.”

Some companies don’t want to pursue such proactive training for fear of frightening employees. But, Sweetin said, “the only people you’re likely to frighten with training are leadership—most people don’t have locked suites, and understand that it is a low-probability, high-consequence event. I support training that is realistically presented, and not overly alarmist.”

It is possible to go too far with training, Sweetin acknowledged. “Some former Special Forces guys are trying to train [ordinary employees] like SWAT teams, but that’s not appropriate for someone who just doesn’t want to get shot in their office. Train cautiously, know your audience, and maintain the support of the C-suite.”

The Department of Homeland Security is trying to strike the appropriate balance between complacency and alarmism in its training videos, Matthew Doherty, senior vice president of security risk management for Chicago-based security firm Hillard Heintze, told Bloomberg Law. The agency’s new video “does not portray an active shooter, but you hear a shot going off. It shows what to do, for example, to help a co-worker in a wheelchair.”

Plan and Coordinate

The groundwork for a successful defense must be laid long before anything happens. “We write plans in coordination with first responders and law enforcement,” Doherty said. “They should have the floor plan of the building. In many cities, you can share those plans electronically. You should know where access to the [security] cameras is—you can provide the IP address of cameras to law enforcement.”

One example of this was the Washington Navy Yard shooting on Sept. 16, 2013, when a government contractor killed 12 people, Doherty said. “The security guards locked themselves in a command post, and police weren’t aware there was camera access there.”

A gruesome detail from that same incident, where “police had to remove an access card from a dead employee’s body,” shows that “you’re remiss if you are not coordinating with the local police.” For that reason, employers should have a “go kit” for first responders, including a universal access card, floor plans, and an emergency contact list, he said.

Also essential, Doherty said, is an “incident command system for active shooters” that should be a part of the National Incident Management System. This helps police with prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery, and helps police know who’s in charge (which may or may not be the CEO), who is the public information officer, and who is the logistics officer in charge of providing essentials like water and a family reunification site.

An instant communication system also must be in place to alert all employees to what is happening, according to Michael Corcoran, founder and president of the Workthreat Group LLC, of Newport Beach, Calif. He said it should be able to “hit all employee devices at once (text, email, phones, etc.) and give location of the situation so people can decide if they have the time to escape, or will they have to shelter in place.”

Take Back Control

Crane said it’s vital during an active shooting incident to “fortify, barricade, create a secure area, or take back control.” The potential victims always have the advantage of numbers—in 98 percent of the active shooter incidents since the University of Texas Clock Tower incident on Aug. 1, 1966, there has been a lone shooter, which means that “we, the good guys, greatly outnumber him. So we have to shorten the time he’s in control,” Crane said.

At Virginia Tech on April 16, 2007, the perpetrator “reloaded his weapon 17 times, though he was outnumbered 100 to 1,” Crane said. “It’s not the victims’ fault—they don’t know what they don’t know.” Proactive defense is “easy” physically, he added, “but mentally it’s tough. It requires training, not just watching a video—training to get knowledge and confidence in one’s skill set.”

Kathleen L. Kiernan, founder and CEO of the Alexandria, Va.-based security consultancy Kiernan Group Holdings Inc., sounded a similar note. “The resiliency of a company in a threatening situation [is] dependent on the extent to which its employees are prepared, confident, and capable of reacting appropriately and effectively to a variety of violent threats,” she told Bloomberg Law. “Security sense is common sense applied regularly.”

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