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Employers intensify preparation for active shooter incidents

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Active shooter incidents have become a major workplace safety concern and employers need to prepare their workplaces and employees to navigate such incidents, according to law enforcement officials. 

The Washington Navy Yard shooting in 2013 in which 12 people were killed and three injured demonstrated the challenges law enforcement have in dealing with active shooter incidents because responding officers could only access certain parts of the building, Anthony Trevino, assistant chief of the San Antonio Police Department, told attendees of the American Society of Safety Professionals annual conference in San Antonio on Wednesday.

“That really delayed the process of being able to get at the actor and put down the threat,” he said.

But employers can help improve the law enforcement response to such incidents by training their employees in advance, officials say.

“When we do (safety) exercises, we always say the facilities person or the janitor is often the most important person and they should be trained – obviously they have to be safe – to get to the front of the building so they can meet law enforcement and fire service when they’re coming in, have those plans, have those keycards and integrate into our command and help us make our way through the building,” said Christopher Combs, special agent in charge of the FBI’s San Antonio division.

Employers should advise their employees to emerge from the workplace with their hands up in the air in active shooter situations, so law enforcement officers know they are not a threat, Mr. Trevino said.

“Try to put yourself in the perspective of the police officer that hears that call come over the radio and is rushing into a facility where everybody is running out,” he said. “There’s no shirt that says good guy, bad guy. Tell your folks to do everything possible to show us they are not a threat.”

Employees should be advised not to hold their phones in their hands as law enforcement want to ensure they do not have weapons, Mr. Combs said.  

Companies should also have a plan in place to deal with the potential business interruption impact if law enforcement needs to take over their business as a crime scene for an extended period of time, Mr. Combs said.

“In a number of the events that I’ve been on, there’s been some difficult discussions with CEOs to say ‘hey, this facility is going to be out of service for you for a week while we process the crime scene’,” he said. “If it’s a critical infrastructure or a critical piece of your business, you need to have a plan to move that piece out because it does take time after the event is over to process (the scene) and make sure it safe, make sure there’s no explosives. It takes a considerable amount of time, and I think sometimes companies don’t think about that and they get caught in a lurch.”

Shifts in office design, including the use of glass doors or open space concepts, have raised concerns about the safety of employees in active shooter situations. 

“I think run, hide, fight is a great slogan that everyone needs to practice, and you have to think about it beforehand,” Mr. Combs said. “Even in a business where it’s open space or glass, there’s always someplace you can hide. The fight part of that is somewhat controversial. A lot of people say ‘I can’t tell my employees to fight. There’s a liability there.’ It’s a little dramatic, but I used to say to people you can run, hide, fight or you can run, hide, die because what we’ve seen consistently is when that bad guy gets into a confined space and there are people in there, the people that just kind of curl up die.”

Safety and security professionals should start conversations with law enforcement prior to any incidents, ask them for advice on how to prepare for active shooter situations and ask if they can assess their facilities and layouts to offer advice on how to secure their premises, Mr. Trevino said.

“The time to form a relationship is not in the middle of a crisis,” he said.

Companies should also contact law enforcement if they are concerned about potential employees who might pose a threat to their workplaces, even if they are unsure, Mr. Combs said.

“It is critical that you make that phone call and let law enforcement do its job and try to figure it out,” he said.

Employers and employees should watch for “dramatic” behavioral changes such as, for example, a fellow employee starting to talk about guns or other weapons or expressing an “abnormal fascination” with previous active shooter events, Mr. Combs said.

“Even in the world of terrorism, a lot of people have been found because while they’re at work, they’re viewing these propaganda videos from ISIL or Al Qaeda,” he said. “I don’t think you have to be an FBI agent to realize that if the guy next to you is watching beheading videos, that’s not a good sign.”

Employers who are concerned about certain employees should be careful not to ask questions that will put the employees on the defensive such as “why are you doing this,” but should ask questions designed to elicit information, said John Reininger, licensed psychotherapist in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, who does trauma, grief and clinical incident debriefing.

“Try to make it as least defensive a conversation as possible,” he said.

One thing employers don’t want to do when it comes to concerning employees is fire them, Mr. Combs said.

“Don’t think just firing them is the answer because they can still come back,” he said. “The answer is not to fire the individual who’s concerning. The answer is to get help to them because if you fire them now, there’s no safety net at all and they are going to come down in two weeks and (be) an active shooter.”

Some private companies have engaged in “ingenious efforts” to mitigate such risks, including one employer that sent an unhappy employee to culinary school at the employer’s expense, Mr. Combs said.  

“It cost the company about $8,000, but boy would you rather spend $8,000 and not worry about that or fire a guy and god forbid he comes back with a weapon,” he said.