It’s an uncomfortable topic to address, and this is certainly a change in tone for the War Room. But unfortunately, it’s 2016, and this is the world in which we live. Active Shooter events are now a significant factor in the consideration of organizational security policies and procedures and are steadily increasing in frequency year to year. According to a 2014 study by the FBI:
…the first seven years of the study show an average of 6.4 incidents annually, while the last seven years show 16.4 incidents annually…The largest percentage of incidents—45.6 percent—took place in a commercial environment (73 incidents), followed by 24.3 percent that took place in an educational environment (39 incidents).
I will admit that a number of people close to me work in education, and I have children of my own, so the second half of that statistic hits pretty close to home. At RSM, my fellow teammates and I play the roles of the bad guys. We spend our days plotting and executing attacks, both physical and network-based, against target organizations who hope that we’ll find the holes in their security programs before the real bad guys do. While the work is fun and rewarding, in light of the current state of workplace violence in this country, it also paints us a sobering picture as to just how easy it can be to carry out these kinds of attacks when organizations and individuals are unprepared.
Make no mistake, policies and procedures are a very important part of a successful, comprehensive security program. But words on paper aren’t going to save anyone in an Active Shooter incident. Only training and personal preparedness can ensure your survival or the survival of those closest to you. And so my goal for this posting is to cover just that: how to prepare for the worst.
Before I begin, I should clarify that this blog is not specific to the education sector. The tools and practices presented here can be just as easily applied to an office or cubicle farm as they can to a classroom environment.
The worst possible thing an organization and its employees can do in the face of the current climate of workplace violence is to ignore the possibility that they themselves could become a target. This is a problem we consistently face on the cyber security side of the house as well.
“That won’t happen here” … “We won’t be a target.”
Ignoring the possibility in cyber can cost an organization significant sums of money and reputation. But ignoring the possibility of violence can cost lives. It’s the responsibility of an organization to ensure its employees are trained on company policy and procedures in dealing with workplace violence and, specifically, Active Shooters. But we as individuals can, and should, do much more.
Assemble a Kit
I recently put together Active Shooter response kits for myself as well as the members of my family that work in education. The kits are a simple collection of tools that can be used to escape a danger area, harden a locked-down room, or deter a would-be attacker. I’m going to share the list of tools here along with a brief explanation for each component. Many of the items are meant to serve more than one purpose, a fact which will be highlighted in the Run, Hide, Fight section further below.
- Backpack: A tactical backpack covered in MOLLE (Moduler Lightweight Load-carry Equipment) webbing stands out, and I would prefer the kit to be as nondescript as possible. A simple, $20 option from Amazon gets the job done and doesn’t draw any undue attention.
- IFAK: Non-military readers may not be familiar with this term. IFAK stands for “Individual First Aid Kit.” The reason why I recommend an IFAK over a regular First Aid Kit is that you’re going to get a lot of useless items (in terms of responding specifically to an Active Shooter) in the latter. For example, bee sting relief pads and even small Band-Aids aren’t going to be of much help. Most civilian IFAKs will only come with one or two of each item, so you may have to purchase additional components to fill out the set. Learn how to properly use all of the items in the IFAK, and be cognizant of the fact that items in the kit will expire and so will have to be replaced periodically. A decent IFAK will have the following:
- Mini sledge: A mini sledge is a cheap tool and can serve multiple purposes during an Active Shooter incident. If you’re trapped in an office or classroom, you can use a sledge to break out a window in order to create an escape path (remember to break all four corners and then smash the middle). In the unfortunate event you are forced to defend yourself, a hammer makes a good weapon. It’s also worth noting that in facilities where self-defense weapons options may be limited (schools or gun-free zones), mini sledges (or even mini crowbars) are likely not prohibited by policy. Obviously, if you’re unsure, it’s worth verifying before getting yourself into trouble.
- Flashlight: This item is for more general preparedness than anything else. If the power goes out and you happen to work in the basement, you’re going to need some light. Be sure to pack some spare batteries as well.
- 550 Cord: Also known as “parachute cord,” this item has a million uses and deserves a spot in any preparedness kit.
- Door Jam: There are cheaper, injection molded options available on Amazon, but I purchased a few of these from CorporateTravelSafety and have been pretty satisfied. Obviously, if the door to your office or classroom opens outward, this particular item won’t be of much help.
- Phone charger: While most Active Shooter events last roughly ten minutes, there have been cases where the incident persists for a significant period of time. The events at Columbine, for example, lasted nearly four hours from first shots to all-clear. A charged phone will ensure constant communications with the outside world, and the charger itself takes up little space. It’s very important that you resist the urge to remove the charger from your kit if you have a dead battery on a normal day. Only ever remove items from your Kit in an emergency situation (or for monthly/quarterly checks which you’re definitely going to want to do).
- Small Fire Extinguisher: Active shooter events occasionally result in fires. If you don’t have an extinguisher in your office or classroom (or even if you do), this item will fit nicely in your Kit and can be used to put out smaller fires in a pinch. Also, if you’ve never been sprayed in the face with a standard ABC fire extinguisher (I don’t recommend it), you may not realize at how effective a deterrent they can be. A spray of powder into the face of an Active Shooter (when there’s no other way out), may give you the split second you need to disarm, evade, or subdue the attacker. Like the IFAK, be sure to check the extinguisher regularly to ensure it is maintaining its pressure. Replace as necessary.
- Ballistic Material: If you’ve got some budget available, you may consider lining the inside of the backpack with ballistic material. A solid textbook or two will do just as well, but the ballistic material will take up significantly less space. Should you have the opportunity to run, the armored backpack can provide an extra layer of protection. It’s not a sure thing, but remember that this is about survival. If you’re involved in an Active Shooter event, you may be shot, clear and simple. Kevlar isn’t magic, and it has definite limits, but every bit of preparedness can help.
- Escape Ladder: If your work space sits on the second or third story, keeping one of these nearby can create a quick exit for a large number of people. They’re pretty inexpensive too, though the ladder will probably have to be stored separate from the Kit.
- Map of the Facility: And make sure it includes marked exit routes. If you don’t have an official map, draw one, and laminate it if you can in case the sprinklers go off during the event.
Awareness of Your Surroundings
How well do you know your office? What follows is a series of basic questions you should be able to answer about your place of work. They’re also questions to keep in mind while you’re out on the town, in a restaurant, or at the movies. They are in no particular order:
- Where are the three nearest exits? In the event of an Active Shooter, your nearest exit may be cut off, and you have to be aware of the other potential points of egress.
- Does the door to your office or classroom swing inwards or outwards? This is very important to know if you are forced to barricade your position as an outward-swinging door can limit your options in some cases.
- Can the windows be opened by hand? If not, that is why you have your mini sledge hammer (assuming you aren’t too high off of the ground).
- Where is the nearest landline telephone? In crisis situations, cell networks can get bogged down pretty quickly.
- Does the door have a deadbolt? In-handle locks are worthless. A deadbolt, while not perfect, can delay an Active Shooter for an extended period of time and may deter them completely.
- From what materials are the doors, door frames, and walls built? A sheet rock wall isn’t going to stop a spray of bullets. Neither will a glass door. Here is an important lesson learned from the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 (PoliceOne.com):
Students barricaded themselves against [the shooter] from inside the classrooms. Those who managed to use their hands and feet to barricade the door around the periphery survived. ([The shooter] attempted to shove the door open and shoot around [the] door handle, but soon gave up.) In other classrooms, those who instead braced their bodies against the door were shot dead.
The most important part of being personally prepared for an Active Shooter event is knowing what to do (and how to use your Kit). The best options for survival are very straight forward. You can run; you can hide; and you can fight.
Run, Hide, Fight
In 2012, Ready Houston, an organization that provides emergency preparedness information for citizens of Southeast Texas, developed and began to promote “Run, Hide, Fight” as a response measure for Active Shooter incidents. It has since been adopted as a defacto training standard by the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI, and ASIS International. If you have not seen Ready Houston’s original video, I highly recommend a viewing.
WARNING: The contents are intense. But don’t let that deter you or your organization from making use of it in training sessions. I’m not recommending you show it to middle school students, but it’s great for a corporate environment (or school faculty). Active Shooter response training should be powerful, and it should provoke an emotional response strong enough that the training sticks with you and your staff. Sugar coating this stuff will only hurt its effectiveness.
It’s very important to note a couple of things: Run, Hide, and Fight are neither steps in a process nor are they listed by priority. Each Active Shooter event is unique, and moreover, by their nature, these incidents are incredibly dynamic. You have to be ready to change tactics at any given moment. This is one hundred percent about survival. You have to be willing to do whatever it takes to get home to your family, period.
A moving target is more difficult to hit than a stationary one.
I get frustrated when I encounter organizations that default to a “lockdown” or “duck-and-cover” response policy for all emergency events, including Active Shooters. Don’t let policy get in the way of common sense. Barricading oneself into a space can be a valuable tactic but only under the right set of circumstances. If I’m a teacher, and my classroom sits next to an exit, during an Active Shooter event, assuming the shooter isn’t right outside my classroom, I’m directing my students outside and away from the building.
And here is the one complaint I have regarding the Ready Houston training video. During the scenario, the employees are shown stopping once they’ve gotten outside the building. Don’t do that. If you are able to get outside, just keep running. Run until you’re out of site of the facility. Take everyone you can with you, but don’t waste any time dragging resisters along. It sounds callous, but if you slow down, you put your own life at risk..
When forced into a situation where there is no escape during an Active Shooter event, there are steps you can take to more securely harden your immediate surroundings:
- Wrap the arm of an outward-swinging door with a belt (or 550 cord) to prevent it from opening. When done correctly, this is incredibly effective.
- If you are short on heavy furniture to barricade an inward swinging door, don’t sit in front of it. Instead, wrap the top handle of your Kit backpack around the door knob, stand against the wall to the latch side of the door, and pull the backpack towards you. It will be very difficult to force the door open from the outside, and you’ve removed yourself from the obvious and immediate line of fire. Products like this are also an option (I haven’t had the opportunity to get my hands on one, so I can’t vouch for their effectiveness).
- In a cubicle environment, there’s not much available in terms of protection. If possible, keep boxes of copy paper under your desk. If you’re forced to hide, keep the boxes of paper between you and the shooter as long as you can. Paper of sufficient thickness can stop (or redirect) gun fire very effectively.
- Once your position is secure, search out other escape routes. If you have windows, and you’re on a lower floor, break them open and employ your escape ladder to get to safety.
- Gather up items to throw at the attacker or strike out with should they bypass your barriers and protective measures.
If you work in a campus environment and are alerted to the presence of a shooter within another nearby building, employ lock-down procedures to secure your own facility. In this case, you’d likely be at greater risk running across campus rather than staying put.
It’s not an idea with which we ever want to be confronted, but during the course of an Active Shooter event, you may be faced with the simple choice to either fight back or accept death.
Remember the weapons you have in your kit: sledge or crow bar, heavy flashlight, fire extinguisher…
In fact, there are potential weapons all around you: chairs, scissors, heavy manuals or textbooks…
I won’t address the pros and cons of CCWs here because they are not the focus of the post. Your number one priority should be removing yourself from harm’s way as effectively as possible. Whether that means escape, lock-down, or defending your life with a weapon is a point-in-time decision. Don’t lose sight of that for a second.
I do recommend familiarizing yourself with basic self-defense and take-down techniques. It doesn’t take an expert to make a difference. After the shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords, a 61 year old woman disarmed the shooter after he had been knocked to the ground by two other men. If you are able to subdue an Active Shooter, you should be comfortable keeping them controlled and on the ground until law enforcement arrives.
And as the police and first responders approach, whatever weapons you are holding should be dropped immediately to the floor. Hands in the air, and follow the directions of the responding officers.
I want to close with a point that’s potentially uncomfortable for some readers. No matter how adamantly anti-gun you might be, if you are completely unfamiliar with firearms, you are at a distinct disadvantage during any Active Shooter situation:
First shots are fired:
- What does a gun shot actually sound like?
- Could you distinguish the sound of a fire cracker from a handgun, high powered rifle, or a shotgun?
Subduing a suspect:
- How do you enable the safety of an AR-15?
- Can you clear a firearm (drop magazine and empty the chamber) with certainty?
If you’ve never laid hands on a firearm, you should do so, under the direction of a trained expert. If nothing else, you should be able to answer the questions listed above to a comfortable degree. I’m not saying you have to enjoy the experience or become an expert yourself, but having the appropriate knowledge could mean the difference between life and death for you, your coworkers, or your loved ones.