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Active Shooter Implications for Schools and Worksites

Most schools and worksites have an emergency action plan, or at the very least, a protocol with step-by-step actions to be followed in the event of a fire, inclement weather, or other anticipated incidents. These plans specify direct and repeatable sequences that should best protect those at the site. The steps frequently are made into checklists that can be posted, distributed, and tested in drills or exercises.

Administrators constructing this sort of emergency action plan can provide an effective response to a given situation that is repeatable and it is relatively easy to train employees and conduct tests. Whereas a set sequence of steps works in nearly every situation for a fire event, the response to an active shooter situation decidedly does not fit into the same pattern—an active shooter incident is fluid and requires ongoing consideration of options. An active shooter scenario contains so many unknown factors that a comprehensive plan to be followed in all cases is difficult to draft and implement.


Unknowns of an Active Shooter Scenario

The actions of the intruders will serve as a determining factor in what the victims can and should do in response. For example, improvised explosive devices (IEDs) are introduced by the intruders, and a victim in hiding could still be very much in peril from the attack.

Similarly, an armed intruder who is focused solely on locating a supervisor or love interest may or may not pose a serious threat to anyone else in the vicinity. The desire to secure hostages for publicity or bargaining purposes can also become an important element to consider in constructing a response at the time of an intrusion. 

There are several factors that can require variance from a predetermined protocol. First, the protagonists. The number of protagonists can dramatically change what would be an appropriate response to an active shooter scenario. Two or more assailants can impact the ability of individuals to access possible escape routes. An opportunity to escape when a single assailant is reloading or somehow incapacitated may not exist if there are multiple intruders. 


Second, the entry. The manner of entry can determine and shape the response by victims. An assailant entering by the front door necessitates alternative routes for employees at a worksite; entry through a secondary entrance may bypass the site’s gatekeeper and introduce the shooter unannounced into a setting, which adds to the panic and confusion of the situation.

Third, the intent. The intent of the intruder can have a significant impact on those who are present at the location. In a situation where an intruder is equipped with multiple weapons and a large amount of ammunition, a high number of casualties may be the goal and populated assembly areas emerge as target zones. When a single individual or group is targeted, the intruder will likely move to where that person is expected to be at that time, e.g., during the lunch period or in a designated office.

Fourth, the duration. The duration of the event must also be considered when formulating a response. Statistics have shown that most active shooter incidents are over within a few minutes, but there also are events that turn into hostage situations, or in remote locations where the emergency response could to take several minutes. In those situations, victims must be prepared to fend for themselves for a longer period than those who will see law enforcement personnel on site within the first minute.


What You Can Do

The traditional active shooter training courses rely on a variation of a common theme—there are three general responses to an intrusion: run, hide or fight. But in reality, this boils down to two options for victims: remain on site or leave the premises. Each of these options has innumerable permutations that should be included in both the formulation of a plan and any subsequent training. 

When remaining on site, find a safe place. It is desirable to make it to a safe place until help arrives and the threat is neutralized. Many schools and worksites have developed and identified “safe rooms”—locations where individuals can shelter until the authorities arrive. These rooms generally have minimal interior-facing glass, and a solid core door that can be locked from the inside. 

Also, hide. If a safe room is not available, getting out of the line of vision of the intruder is of paramount importance. This can involve hiding under a desk, around a corner, or some other action to become less visible. This action may be temporary and used merely to gain time to access a safe room or leave the premises when the opportunity presents itself. When sheltering in place during an attack, it is desirable to remain safe without drawing the attention of the assailant(s). This can best be achieved by shutting off the lights, locking doors to the extent possible, and silencing cell phone ringers.

Fight back as last resort: If there is inadequate cover and death or serious injury is imminent, fighting back emerges as a course of action. Confronting an armed assailant should clearly be a last resort, but it may also be the only option for survival. Most training covers making use of available items as weapons, including chairs, scissors, staplers, etc. Some schools and worksites have addressed this option by prepositioning baseball and softball bats, and issuing wasp spray due to its projected spray pattern.

One very important factor is the emphasis on timing and application. If an opportunity to attack emerges, perhaps during a period of reloading, the likelihood of successful action by a victim improves; similarly, the goal should be to incapacitate the assailant only long enough to escape, rather than to overpower into submission.

Exiting the building or area of an attack should be a high priority in any plan, providing it can be done without exposing the occupants to additional danger. In the past, many plans called for an immediate lockdown of the entire facility, and followed a single plan of action for a given threat. Since then, however, administrators have learned that distancing employees or school children from the threat can be an important and viable option. In larger structures where the threat is known to be at a certain location, consider vacating the premises if possible without additional exposure to the assailants. 


Premium on Information

The fluid nature of an active shooter situation places a premium on information. Leaving the relative security of a safe room to evacuate the building could result in entering a hot corridor and facing immediate consequences. This decision can be aided by the sharing of real-time information on the status and location of the intruder(s).

For example, a PA system that covers the entire building can be used to announce the situation and state where the intruder is located. With that information, others in the same structure can now determine if the best course of action is to remain in place and shelter, or to evacuate.

Alternate access to the PA system then emerges as an important element in the response plan. If there is a single access point, at the school office for example, and that is the entry point for an intruder, the PA system could be rendered inoperable for the duration of the event.

It is for these reasons that the formulation of an active shooter plan first requires the determination of whether others are going to be empowered and expected to make decisions, or a set protocol will be followed.

A plan that empowers subordinates to make informed decisions regarding what action to take in an emergency situation can be a source of considerable anxiety for administrators, and for employees who are suddenly tasked with making life and death decisions for themselves and others. Adherence to a set protocol involving a checklist of actions to be taken is easy to endorse and execute; making important decisions only after assessing a number of factors on the spot is a far different process.

Once that decision has been made, the plan can then proceed with steps that call for evaluation of factors before determining whether to remain on site or evacuate the premises. Overall preparedness and constructing a response in advance that brings into consideration the elements that can be anticipated are very important. 


Phil Pitzen, Ed.D., is an Adjunct Professor at Kaplan University’s School of Public Safety in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

Published in Law and Order, Oct 2015

Rating : Not Yet Rated

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