Active Shooter Incidents in the Workplace

Following the San Berdardino shootings in early December, many workplaces increased security and started to take a long, hard look at their existing preparation for an active shooter incident. While no one wants to prepare for such an incident, being prepared has proven a valuable strategy for preventing active shooter incidents, ending them as quickly as possible, and ultimately saving lives. Indeed, this is precisely why school boards across the nation require students to engage in lockdown drills at least once a year to prepare for such worse-case scenarios. Despite the fact that American children are no stranger to lockdown drills, however, few of their parents have ever experienced such a drill and in fact, most work in workplaces with no clearly defined plan for dealing with an active shooter incident or in workplaces with emergency plans that have never been properly shared with employees.

Active Shooter Incidents in the Workplace

To be clear, most employers are not required to have a plan for dealing with active shooter incidents, but they are required by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to have an emergency plan. For organizations with ten or fewer employees, employers may communicate the emergency plan orally. Where there are more than ten employees, however, the employer must communicate the plan in writing and post the plan in the workplace where it is accessible to employees. These somewhat vague guidelines mean that even as many individual Americans feel compelled to arm themselves, including in the workplace, few workplaces have a clear plan on how they would handle an active shooter incident in the event that one occurred and even fewer have prepared employees for such a possibility. Today’s post considers the actual probability of facing an active shooter incident in the workplace, employer’s obligations to take steps to protect workers, and how to develop a proactive training plan to prepare for something that one hopes will never happen.

Are We Really At Risk?

Statistically speaking, one is at very low risk of ever finding themselves confronted with an active shooter in the workplace. That said, it is important to acknowledge that in the United States, workers are more likely to find themselves confronted with such a situation than they are nearly anywhere else in the world (excluding, of course, active war zones). A 2014 study by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) reports that:

  • 160 active shooter incidents occurred between 2000 and 2013; these incidents left 486 dead and 557 wounded.
  • In the United States, there are 11.4 active shooter incidents annually, and there is an increasing trend.
  • Active shootings happen across the United States (between 2000 and 2013, they occurred 40 out of 50 states and in the District of Columbia).

The same study reports that some locations do appear to be more prone to active shooter incidents that others and these include sites of commerce open to the pedestrian traffic and schools (both PreK-12 and postsecondary).

  • Sites of commerce: 45.6% (Open to the pedestrian traffic: 27.5; Not open to pedestrian traffic: 14.4; and Malls: 3.8%)
  • Educational facilities: 24.4 (PreK-12: 16.9 and Postsecondary: 7.5)
  • Government: 10% (Military: 3.1% and Other: 6.9%)
  • Open spaces: 9.4%
  • Houses of worship: 3.8%
  • Residences: 4.4%
  • Healthcare facilities: 2.5%

How to Prepare and Protect Workers from Active Shooter Incidents: The U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Perspective

In most contexts, employers are not obligated to have a plan nor to train their staff to respond specifically to active shooter incidents. However, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s publication Active Shooter: How to Respond does provide clear recommendations on how best to prepare for such an event. Among other recommendations, they advise the following:

  • Create an Emergency Action Plan (EAP) and carry out training exercises to prepare employees to effectively respond and help minimize deaths in the event of an active shooter incident. The EAP should at the very least include: 1.) A method for reporting emergencies; 2.) An evacuation policy; 3.) Emergency escape procedures and route assignments; 4.) Contact information for and responsibilities of individuals to be contacted under the EAP; 5.) Information about local area hospitals (with names and telephone numbers); and 6.) An emergency notification system.
  • Conduct a mock active shooter training exercise (notably, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security advises contacting local law enforcement for resources on how to design an appropriate training exercise). Among other key points, the training exercise should include: 1.) Training to recognize the sound of gunshots; 2.) Training on how to react quickly when gunshots are heard and/or when there is a shooting; and 3.) Details on evacuation areas and places to hide in the workplace.
  • Be prepared! The S. Department of Homeland Security advises that workplaces take necessary precautions (e.g., by having at least two clearly marked and known evacuation routes). They also recommend inviting local emergency responders, SWAT teams and K-9 teams to participate in training exercises to better prepare staff to act if and when an active shooter incident occurs.
  • Take preventative steps (e.g., foster a respectful workplace, be aware of indications of potential workplace violence, and take action to prevent violence from escalating).

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How to Approach Emergency Training in the Workplace

While the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s recommendation are astute, rolling out training for a worse-case scenario, such as an active shooter incident, is by no means an everyday event. In short, you are asking your employees to imagine the unimaginable—to put themselves into a situation in which they never hope to end up.

It is equally important to bear in mind that different people may respond to the training in different ways. Colleagues who are veterans may be triggered by the training as it brings them back to their time in active duty. In today’s multicultural workforce, you may also have colleagues from around the world who have lived, worked or fought in other sites of conflict prior to immigrating. Finally, since the topics of gun violence and gun control are highly controversial, there is also a risk that attempts to prepare for an active shooter incident may open up debates in the workplace that result in dividing workers along their political stances on gun control.

In order to prepare for emergency training in your workplace, it is useful to take the following steps:

  • If you have any veterans on staff, ask them how they wish to participate (e.g., they may want to opt out or on the contrary, they may wish to be more actively involved in the training due to their special skills and training).
  • Give ample advance warning that an emergency training has been scheduled; if anyone wishes to opt out for any reason, create a mechanism through which this is possible but ensure they still have basic information, such as evacuation routes.
  • Prior to and immediately following the emergency training, provide optional facilitated sessions; employ a trained counselor to carry out the sessions.
  • Provide employees with the option of talking to a counselor one-on-one at any point prior to, during or following the emergency training; ensure this can be done in an anonymous manner if needed.

While few employers are legally obliged to carry out training of this nature, preparing workers for the possibility of an active shooter incident is highly recommended. Just as important, of course, is preparing workers for the training itself. This requires  training, insight and of course, an attentiveness to soft skills, such as trust and empathy, too. For more, see eLeap’s recommended training video, Active Shooter and Workplace Violence.

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