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Active shooter preparedness: Best practices and recommendations

In most cases, active shooter incidents are predatory in nature, involving planning and preparation–they are not impulsive. They often begin with a personal grievance, real or imagined, and are the endpoint of a smoldering crisis, rather than a sudden crisis in which the perpetrator simply snaps.

It is difficult to imagine a better example of a smoldering crisis than a pandemic. This catastrophic event, now having taken the lives of more than 3 million people worldwide, wreaked havoc on our collective physical and mental health, personal and professional relationships, personal finances, and the global economy, since early 2020. It has resulted in psychologically destabilizing levels of fear, anxiety, and grief, and we are just beginning to see the frightening effects of these pent-up emotions as they play out in real-world violence in both public spaces and private campuses.

There have been significant changes to the landscape over the course of the pandemic, marked by increased stressors and decreased availability of buffers or violence-interrupters like social programs and support services. As the number of new mental health complaints is ticking up, new gun sales have soared, and tolerance seems to be wearing thin. Pandemic fatigue, we have discovered, is a real thing, and it is taking lives by way of increased rates in suicide and violent crime.

As leaders in all types of organizations contemplate the potential challenges of returning to work, it will be important to be mindful of the perennial threat of the active shooter. Employees will be concerned about what measures will be in place to protect them from the risk of COVID-19, and as the prevalence of news stories featuring active shooter incidents increases, they will be equally concerned about how they will be protected from violence. As people gradually emerge from the relative safety of working from home, the world may seem threatening and scary.

1. Have communication tools at the ready

Most active shooter events occur in approximately five minutes, says Steven Crimando, founder of operational risk management and consultancy Behavioral Science Applications. Organizations must already have the tools and plans in place to respond as quickly as possible in that short timespan.

Moreover, respondents to the 2020 survey we developed with ASIS demand a rapid response: Almost 61 percent said they want to be notified within seconds of an active assailant on the premise. Automating at least one part of your communications plan will help meet that need, so invest in a centralized critical event management (CEM) platform. “What we are trying to do here is not only meet the resilience challenges, but also beat them by using technology,” said Annie Asrari, senior director of product management at Everbridge, at a recent webinar on holistic approaches to active shooter preparedness.

With the right CEM platform, you can prepare a communication template for an active shooter situation, such as teeing up social media posts or scripts for customer service call centers. Then, if and when an incident arises, “all you have to do is push an activation button and have all of these notifications go out to the right stakeholders to ensure secure collaboration channels,” says Asrari.

2. Guarantee situational awareness

Thinking again about the speed of an active shooter event and the emotions it evinces, key to your response is having situational awareness and knowing just where employees, vendors, and visitors are during the event. In a corporate setting, for example, where people are required to use badges for entry to specific floors or buildings, it’s easy to track their location.

Keep in mind, though, that where and when people are at your facilities or grounds may change during the pandemic. Some sections of your campus or buildings may now be closed, and your on-site staffing levels may have been reduced, with some employees working from home, furloughed, or laid off. The same may be true for the vendors or partners you’re counting on for support during an active shooter scenario. Update your staff and stakeholder data to reflect any changes and remember to repeat this step once the pandemic ends and staffing levels recalibrate.

3. Establish community contacts

All critical events are a matter of public safety, a responsibility shared with law enforcement, local officials, and community groups. Create connections with these groups ahead of time. They may have standing resources, policies, and procedures that enhance or dispel yours, saving you time and, in some cases, allowing you to get rid of a tool, which saves on costs.

4. Offer regular training sessions

We were heartened to see that the number of respondents to the ASIS survey who have conducted active shooter preparedness climbed 24% since the last survey in 2018. Training sessions can educate staff on protocols to follow during the incident, such as engagement strategies that redirect perpetrators and save lives. Trainings can also teach them the behavioral indicators that signal who may be headed down a violent pathway and who may be identified well before any dangerous acts can be committed.

5. Conduct drills

Providing training and having the right tools in place are a definite must for active shooter preparedness, but you need to also test your people, processes, and technologies regularly to ensure their adequacy during an event. Conduct annual drills (and more often if possible) and address any weaknesses or roadblocks that come up during these sessions. For example, during the Boston Marathon bombing in 2013, cell service became unavailable. Do you have a backup communications plan?

“You cannot rely on just one modality,” says Asrari, “because one modality can absolutely fail during a major crisis.”

So, look into multiple delivery methods, such as phone, SMS, or desktop alerts. And for organizations with floor managers at a manufacturing facility or that have campuses where visitors or students congregate outside, consider installing digital signage, sirens, or a PA system if none are already in place. Remember, too, that each person has a preferred communication channel so having multiple ways of alerting stakeholders of the threat allows you to reach as many affected parties as possible.

And recall once again current circumstances. The pandemic may have pushed you to redesign office and facility layouts to account for social distancing, or you may have closed certain rooms or buildings. These changes may temporarily affect emergency routes and the personnel tasked with responding during such critical events. Be sure to revise them after the global health crisis has passed. And if the pandemic prevents you from fully enacting your drills, consider conducting a tabletop exercise.

An all-in-one solution like an Everbridge CEM can help you follow through on each of these best practices.

Businesses interested in ways to streamline communication to manage incidents, keep employees informed, and improve outcomes can learn more by downloading the Active Shooter Preparedness white paper.

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