If it seems that tragedies like the shooting at The Mall in Columbia last month are becoming more frequent, it's because they are. That's what a new study published in the FBI's Law Enforcement Bulletin last month concluded. It found that since 2009, active shooter events have more than tripled in frequency, and the numbers of people killed or injured have risen sharply too.
How should society respond to such a trend? Certainly it should seek ways to prevent such tragedies before they occur, but it should also look for ways to limit casualties when they do. Nothing is more effective in limiting the loss of life than proper training.
Police departments have known this for years. Following the shooting at Columbine High School in 1999, when officers arrived quickly but did not enter the building for hours, law enforcement agencies changed how they train to respond to such events. Such training helped Howard County Police to quickly enter the Columbia mall last month to secure the building. Shopkeepers had already been trained on what to do in the case of such an event. Though it is too early to tell what difference this made in the Columbia mall, in general, such training can make the difference between life and death.
Businesses should take heed. About 40 percent of active shooter incidents occur in places of business, yet most companies have not prepared their employees for that possibility. This needs to change; businesses are legally and morally obligated to provide a safe and secure workplace environment, and active shooter training should be a part of that.
The training is not complicated. It boils down to three basic measures: run, hide or fight. If the location of the shooter is known and there is a clear path of escape, the best option is usually to flee the premises. In high rises with limited escape paths or other situations where a clear exit is not available, the best option is often to hide, barricade and prepare to fight. Fighting is a last resort, but it may be the only remaining option for survival. If a shooter should get past the locked and barricaded door, the people inside should be prepared to forcibly subdue their attacker. Teamwork, improvised weapons, proper positioning, and the element of surprise can greatly increase the chances of success. It is far from hopeless; unarmed civilians have successfully ended active shooter incidents before police arrival in a significant number of cases.
Regardless of whether they run, hide or fight their way to safety, survivors of an active shooter event should call 911 as soon as they are in a safe place. They should not assume someone has already called. When law enforcement arrives, they will be aggressively looking for the shooter. Innocent individuals should remain as calm as possible, not make any sudden movements while in view of police, display their empty hands at all times and follow instructions from the responders.
This advice may seem a bit obvious — and for someone who is far removed from the crisis, it is. But without training or experience, most people are unable to think quickly and effectively when confronted with immediate danger. Their bodies flood with hormones that prepare them to meet a physical threat but slow the higher-level thought processes needed to analyze and plan. The result is that in emergencies involving a group of people, about 10 percent will be prepared and act quickly and decisively, about 10 percent will panic or freeze, and the rest will become passive unless driven to action by someone who takes leadership.
Prior training is the most critical factor in determining an individual's response. A trained person is far more likely to take immediate, effective action to survive during the critical first few seconds or minutes of an emergency. This often separates those who live and those who die in survivable situations.
Just as periodic fire drills help keep employees safe in the unlikely event of a fire, some basic training on surviving active shooter events can save lives in the unlikely event that someone opens fire in the workplace. There are abundant resources available from the Department of Homeland Security, the FBI and many local law enforcement agencies. We owe it to ourselves, our employees and our communities to be better prepared to deal with this foreseeable emergency.
Jack Vaughan is a senior executive adviser and Ed Kardauskas is a senior consultant with Control Risks, a global risk consultancy that helps organizations manage political, integrity and security risks. Their emails are Jack.Vaughan@controlrisks.com and Edmund.Kardauskas@controlrisks.com.
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