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Preparing for the Worst in the Work Place - Active Shooters

Steve Tidwell and Steven Szaroleta Aug. 7, 2014

Recently, an armed patient entered a hospital outside of Philadelphia, PA where he shot and killed a caseworker and wounded a hospital physician. This tragedy raises the question: how would your employees react if an active shooter were to enter the workplace?

Due to the global media exposure of recent tragic events, active shooters have become a universal concern for all organizations. Providing a safe and secure work environment is a paramount responsibility for businesses, educational institutions, and health care facilities of all sizes and geographies. Unfortunately, due to the evolving nature of active shooter situations, preparing for an active shooter can be extremely challenging. An organization, however, can take steps to prepare by having in place:

  1. an action plan,
  2. relevant educational programs, and
  3. preparation and training exercises to help individuals react appropriately in the event of an active shooter.

Before taking steps to prepare an organization for an active shooter event, you first should understand the potential impacts of such an event.

An active shooter incident is one of the most extreme forms of workplace violence. Employee assistance efforts for survivors and making the work environment "livable" again, by re-establishing an atmosphere of security and safety for employees, will be among the challenges faced by the organization.

The impact of an active shooter incident on any business operations are profound. For example, the entire theatre complex in Aurora, Colorado, that was the site of an active shooter incident in 2012 was closed for six months and required extensive remodeling. The effects of an active shooter can be felt on an even larger business spectrum, including worker compensation costs. According to a 2013 article published by Business Insurance, "Insurance Policyholders across Connecticut…are paying higher workers comp rates this year due in part to a 2010 mass shooting that is expected to generate about $7 million in total workers comp costs, according to Boca Raton, Fla.-based NCCI Holdings Inc. In that Manchester, Conn., incident, a worker accused of theft at a beer distributor opened fire with two pistols, killing eight co-workers and seriously wounding two others before killing himself."

Once an organization understands the magnitude of the impacts of an active shooter incident, it can take steps to prepare for such an event. The first step is to understand as much as possible about past incidents, including the locations, threats and responses.

According to a 2013 study titled "Active Shooter Events from 2000 to 2012" published by Texas State University, businesses (e.g., retail stores, office buildings, factories, and warehouses) are the most frequently attacked locations in the United States, representing approximately 40 percent of active shooter incidents.

In 2014 alone, active shootings in the United States have taken place in a variety of business workplaces:

Organizations also should understand how the threat of an active shooter can present itself. Mass casualty active shooter incidents have been a tragic part of American society for some time. With the advent of the internet, smart phones and constant news coverage, they may seem to be even more prevalent today. A first step for preparing your employees and organization should include providing the means for employees to speak up if they ever feel threatened, and encouraging them to do so. Such threats may be a precursor to actual violence.

One way that a threat can present itself is based on a negative change in the relationship between the shooter and the organization. In many cases, a disgruntled employee, client or customer, or an individual involved in a relationship with someone at the business, will decide to take action regarding the problem, grievance, or perceived affront.

A second way that a threat can present itself is through a shooter’s eccentric ideology. In recent years, active shooters targeted locations and businesses that served as a platform or stage for the shooter’s ideology. These types of incidents can involve significant planning and preparation and use of multiple weapons, including improvised explosive devices. Examples of the "ideological" type of shootings are the tragedies at the Aurora Colorado Century Theater, the Nairobi Westgate Mall, and the Utoya Island Children’s Camp in Norway.

Understanding the initial law enforcement response is informative in making preparations. Before the Columbine incident in 1999, standard procedure called for law enforcement’s initial responders to contain the scene and establish a perimeter. No direct action was to be taken until specialized units, SWAT or Emergency Response Teams arrived. The unintended consequence of this protocol was to provide the shooters with significant additional time to conduct their assaults.

Post-Columbine, protocols and training have prepared initial responders to enter the facility and engage the shooters as soon as practical. Given the changing dynamics of an incident, as law enforcement responders arrive and engage, providing informative training for an organization’s personnel regarding how the officers will be reacting under the new protocols is crucial. They will need to understand what law enforcement will be doing and how it should affect their actions and behavior. Knowing the law enforcement response protocols also can help inform the organization’s overall preparations for such an event.

Understanding the various facets of previous incidents is only part of preparing adequately for an active shooter incident. The other critical factors, as previously mentioned, are developing an action plan, establishing relevant education programs, and conducting preparation and training exercises. This piece of the equation should be unique to each organization, assessed on an annual basis, and then evaluated by an independent expert in the field to attain maximum effectiveness.

Action Plan
In preparing for an active shooter incident, as part of a crisis response and mitigation function, an organization should adjust its business recovery and continuity plans. A shooting incident will not only impact an organization’s physical facilities and work environment, but its work force, clients and customers. Planning for business recovery and continuity relative to a shooting incident should consider:

Starting with the basics and building from there is a logical and cost-effective way for an organization to begin. An organization can build on the basics already in place within its crisis management, safety and security, and business recovery and continuity protocols and plans. As in all matters pertaining to the well-being of the company and its employees, engaging leadership from all levels of management is needed for an effective action plan. Some basics to consider are:

Relevant Education Programs
Significant educational resources are available to organizations to help prepare for active shooter incidents. Major industry associations, state business associations, and numerous other entities have published general and industry-specific guidelines for preparing for an active shooter incident.

At the local level, police, sheriff, fire and EMS members have undertaken protocols for the preparation and training to respond to active shooters. Many of these agencies have resources available for businesses and the general public. For example, In 2012, the Houston Mayor's Office of Public Safety and Homeland Security Department produced and released an educational video titled "Run. Hide. Fight. Surviving an Active Shooter." It is a meaningful educational resource for businesses and individuals. Numerous versions of employee quick reference guides also are available, including this one from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

At the federal level, a Presidential Executive order and various pieces of legislation provide for a concerted national strategy and plan regarding active shooter incidents. The strategy requires a collaborative effort by the FBI, Department of Homeland Security (DHS), and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) as it relates to, among other factors, training and educational resources for public safety agencies, religious organizations, schools and businesses. The joint DHS/FBI Countering Violent Extremism and Active Shooter Web Portal (CVEAS) provides relevant resources and information available to business executives, and additional information is available at the FBI and DHS websites.

Preparation & Training Exercises
Training efforts that include group/unit discussions, group/unit planning, and when possible, actual exercises for an active shooter incident are important components in the preparation of an organization. In preparing for an active shooter incident, it is vital that all levels of the company participate.

In the case of the Columbia, Maryland Mall shooting, before the incident, the county police department, fire department, mall ownership, and mall stores had recently conducted an active shooter exercise. Numerous media reports discussed the mall owners and individual stores’ successful application during the incident of the procedures that had been practiced during the exercise.


Organizations must take basic measures to protect themselves and their personnel from the threat of active shooter incidents. The essentials of such protection include having an organizational action plan, educating personnel on the action plan, and preparing them for such scenarios through training. In addition, a large number of resources are available to assist in this effort. While some active shooters cannot be detected until they have embarked upon their course of destruction, helping personnel to avoid becoming victims is not only the right thing to do, it also makes sound business sense.