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Planning for Active Shooter Situations, Workplace Violence 

By Ben Brown, NCLM Advocacy Communication Associate

It’s hard to comprehend horrors like those seen at Columbine High School, Sandy Hook Elementary, the movie theater in Aurora, Colo., or, more recently, the social-services center in San Bernardino, Calif.

But active shooter events – while we hope never to see them at home – aren’t fading out. And it’s imperative that workplaces plan for the unthinkable.

That was the takeaway at a recent League presentation to municipal officials that focused on the three primary human responses to crises – fight, flight or freeze – and how preparedness can influence them.

It’s the freeze – a paralyzing state of disbelief, most vulnerable to victimization – that preparedness may help to avoid, said League Public Safety and Risk Management Consultant Tom Anderson.

"We’re looking to have a trained response," he said.

That’s crucial, because many active shooter situations play out quickly, according to Anderson, who presented at League Risk Management Services regional meetings held around the state, including April 8 in Raleigh. Anderson’s presentations are part of the League’s insurance pool offerings designed to go beyond insurance and help members manage risk and liability.

Active shooters almost never take hostages, he said, and they generally don’t negotiate. They simply want to claim as many victims as they can in the shortest amount of time – and they often plan carefully.

Victims can’t anticipate surprise, but there are potential life-saving options that supervisors and employees should know.

The first objective for anyone in an active shooter situation: run. Get out of the building or area immediately, if possible. Don’t worry about valuables. "You can’t hesitate, even for one second," said Anderson.

It helps to know the layout of your building to find escape routes, but if an exit isn’t immediately possible, hide. Find a place to flee, if not to lay low, then to buy time for an escape. Run into an office or closet, turn off the lights, lock the door, barricade it and silence cell phones. If possible, quietly dial 911.

If running or hiding is off the table, and the shooter is engaging you, fight. That’s a last resort. Use whatever is handy – chairs, books, fire extinguishers. "Do not just sit there," Anderson said. "He’s not there to take hostages…. He’s there to take lives."

There were at least 160 active shooter situations between 2000 and 2013, according to the FBI. Casualties exceeded 1,000, with nearly 500 deaths. The numbers have since risen.

"This is not something that’s going away," Anderson told the group. "And none of us are immune to it." Being prepared with an immediate response plan when seconds matter most can be enough to change the shooters’ expected outcome.

If it happens, ideally these bits of know-how will make a difference. To hammer the message home, an Internet search for "run hide fight" will turn up a video produced by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security on the topic.

But active shootings aren’t the only deadly forms of workplace violence. 

While homicide is the fourth-leading cause of occupational death, it can target single individuals. Anderson told the group that spotting red flags in advance and knowing how to de-escalate tension with a troubled employee can make all the difference in the world.

Individuals worth watching might exhibit indicators like inconsistent attendance, decreased productivity, slack hygiene, changed behavior or apparent substance abuse.

Any number of factors might lead one to violence. Layoffs, a bad evaluation, a supervisor not recognizing the employee’s work, and a hypercompetitive nature can all contribute. If a flare-up occurs, Anderson recommends a gentle response. Be patient with the individual, speak softly and show "an overabundance of respect" to cool the situation. Allow him or her to vent. With proper training, a fellow employee will know to call the police, as violence in the workplace should be met with a zero-tolerance policy.

To calm and reassure innocent employees after any such episode, it’s important that supervisors bring in counselors quickly, Anderson added. They can help to soften trauma and improve coping with what could shake the psyche of a team environment.