Workplace Mass Shootings:Prevention Tactics

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By Martin Berman-Gorvine

Oct. 27 — Workplace mass shootings continue to occur with dismaying regularity, and security consultants say planning ahead to prevent and counteract them is essential.

Emergency management in general has four components: “prevention, preparedness, response and recovery,” Matthew Doherty, senior vice president of security risk management for Chicago-based security firm Hillard Heintze, told Bloomberg BNA Oct. 27. The first element is the most important, he said.

Active shooters in most cases are not committing “a random, impulsive act,” he said. “There is some connection to the building or the company.” The men (usually) who commit mass shootings may feel aggrieved due to being fired or not being hired, being denied a promotion, or because they are the ex-spouse or boyfriend of someone who works for the company, Doherty said.

But except in that last category of domestic violence, “rarely do attackers make a direct threat,” Doherty said. Those who do make direct threats should of course be dealt with just as directly, he said, but otherwise employers need to look out for less direct “behavioral warning signs,” such as someone with a history of violent or bullying behavior, excessive displays of anger, harboring grudges and even making excuses or blaming others. If unchecked, such behaviors can “escalate” to actual violence, he said.

“It’s critically important to train employees about warning signs and behaviors, who to report it to,” and what the people who receive the information need to do with it, Doherty said. To that end, all organizations should set up interdisciplinary threat assessment teams, except for employers that are so small they need to outsource the task, he said. The teams should include legal, HR, security and management representatives to gain a complete picture of potential threats, Doherty said.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the American Society for Industrial Security recommend these interdisciplinary teams as a best practice, and state laws passed after mass-shooting tragedies at universities in Illinois and Virginia mandate them at public universities.

On the technical side, employers should train security on how to deal with a person with a restraining order against him; “have a well-regulated visitor management system where the lobby is secured"; have a panic button for the receptionist or greeter; train and drill staff on primary and alternate emergency escape routes; and make sure that systems like access cards are being used properly, Doherty said.

Half of attackers plan the event for about two weeks, which offers “a narrow window to stop it,” John Sakoian, president of Command Excellence™ LLC and ACTION™ Training, said. “Situational awareness” can help catch potential perpetrators in the act of scoping out a building or even planting explosive devices, he said.

When Prevention Fails

The FBI and the New York Police Department have found that U.S. active shooter incidents have tripled in the last 14 years, with 1,043 casualties: 486 killed and 557 wounded, Sakoian said. Nearly half (49 percent) of incidents took place in a commercial workplace, he said.

The incidents are over very quickly, usually in less than eight minutes, he said. Six in 10 incidents “are over before police arrive, 86 percent end violently,” with 40 percent ending with the shooters committing suicide, and 46 percent ending with the shooter being “taken out.” Often it is the shooter’s targets who overcome him, because police have not yet arrived, Sakoian said.

He said that 98 percent of active shooter attackers act alone, 96 percent are male and 26 percent kill or assault a family member first. Moreover, he said, 36 percent of perpetrators carry multiple weapons and only 1 percent flee and 14 percent surrender. Thus, he said, organizations need an “active strategy.”

When an incident starts, people should take cover and call 911, Sakoian said. When calling 911, it’s essential to “be clear and articulate, identifying yourself” and the type of threat. Whoever has been designated in advance and is available when the incident starts should keep law enforcement and other employees informed with updates, using video surveillance, PA systems, phone, text, internet, etc., Sakoian said.

“Develop the skill and the will to survive” and fight back if necessary, Sakoian said. “Unfortunately because we are a spectator society, we have a tendency to freeze and be spectators” rather than fight back or flee, he said.

But simple steps such as turning off the lights and locking the door to a room where people are taking shelter can save lives, he said; there is no incident on record of an attacker shooting his way into such a locked room. “Active shooters take the path of least resistance into crowded areas,” Sakoian said. For that reason, too, the organization’s plan should not call for having employees gather in a parking lot, as they might during a fire drill, because of the threat of a vehicle-borne explosive device, he said.

Sakoian said the steps to follow during a mass workplace shooting are:

  •  Call 911 giving clear information about the location and events.
  •  Establish command, with the company leadership identified. Shut down the HVAC system if the attacker is releasing hazardous materials.
  •  Communicate by identifying danger areas and giving clear direction to your people and your resources. Avoid flooding people into choke points.
  •  Control: Be decisive, delegate tasks, assign liaisons with law enforcement.
  •  Contain the threat by securing a perimeter and isolating the threat.
  •  Coordinate “a resolution plan with first responders.” Do not run forward to embrace police with drawn guns, and move slowly and follow instructions when they show up.
  •  Deal with casualties and reunification with loved ones.
  •  Ensure continuity of operations.

“You have to know when to run, when to hide, when to fight,” Sakoian said. “You need to have an expert to know history, debriefs of prior incidents.”

Sakoian was speaking Oct. 25 in a webinar sponsored by Chief Learning Officer magazine.

To contact the reporter on this story: Martin Berman-Gorvine in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Tony Harris at

For More Information

The Department of Homeland Security’s resource page on active shooter preparedness can be seen at

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