Active Shooter Situations in the Workplace: Surviving the First Five Minutes

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Have you ever been shot at with a firearm?

Did it happen outside or in a confined space, such as a building?

If it happened inside four walls, the experience is not one you will soon forget. The noise, confusion, denial, panic and slow reaction time shared by victims of active shooters can diminish your chances of survival. And survival is your prime motivation.

You may not realize it, but, during an active shooter event, both law enforcement and students/employees remain at risk during an evacuation when the shooter has not yet been clearly identified. Marking or disabling an active shooter helps police keep everyone safer.

As security solution providers, we generally don’t offer a way for an innocent person — under threat of clear and present danger — to defend themselves against an attack in the first five minutes. We generally focus on detect, deter, delay and document criminal events. Is it time to consider new approaches to changing trends?

Active shooter trends have changed over the last 25 years. In the past, many perpetrators would surrender to police. That is not the case today. Today, shooters have one objective: a high body count. That reality shifts our focus to survival and non-lethal tools that may be available to protect the innocent and the untrained.

The saying that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is with a good guy with a gun” is true in most cases. Most often, those would be law-enforcement personnel. For everyone else, buying time for first responders may be accomplished by less-than-lethal (LTL) solutions. Let’s look at a few.

LTL solutions include the following:

Taser guns: These deliver an electrical charge to disrupt the central nervous system. They’re legal but regulated by local/state laws. They require hands-on training; they’re economical; and they typically provide one or two shots before reloading, which takes some time. You must be an accurate shot, and a taser may not work as effectively through heavy clothing. They have a typical range of about 15 to 25 feet and allow engagement of a threat from a safer distance. Key questions include the following: Who is authorized to use them? Where are they safely stored? Would they be readily available during an attack? They also require charging.

Stun guns: These have a similar profile as taser guns but with this key exception: You must be within arm’s length of the attacker, which dramatically increases your chance of injury or death. While both tasers and stun guns are characterized as “non-lethal,” if the attacker has medical conditions, the use of these weapons can result in a fatality.

Pepper spray: This is a popular personal defense tool. It has six to eight feet of range; it’s easy to use without training; it’s economical; and it’s portable. Spray is subject to airflow and wind direction, and it’s also harder to clean up if used in doors. In addition, it may impact those with breathing challenges, such as asthma. The impact of a direct facial shot is disrupted vision and painful breathing. This can buy innocent people time to retreat.

Military gel: This is a much stronger version. It shoots in a visible stream (think of Silly String), makes better contact, has a range of 20 to 25 feet, has a capacity of 15 to 25 short burst shots, requires virtually no training, is in a larger hand container (think something like a small fire extinguisher) and is economical to deploy at scale. When this method is baked into an integrated security solution, you gain a much more complete active shooter defensive solution. Threat Extinguisher is one option for this. Its patented solution easily integrates with other systems, is manufactured in the U.S. and has a nine-year track record in schools, houses of worship and corporate/industrial facilities.

LTL pistol/launcher: Byrna manufactures a variety of choices of handguns (launchers) that use CO2 cartridges to dispense several less-lethal loads. This approach requires significant practice/training for proficiency, costs about as much as a decent handgun, and looks and carries like a standard handgun. Pointing what appears to be a handgun at someone with a real weapon could end badly.

Bucket of rocks: In 2018, Reuters reported that a rural PA school district equipped all 200 classrooms with a bucket of rocks as a “last line of defense” against active shooters. Low tech, low cost and easy to use; however, never bring a rock to a gun fight unless Nolan Ryan’s grandson is in your classroom!

New Approaches for Survival in Active Shooter Situations

The fundamentals of good physical security design include perimeter security, video surveillance, weapons detection, access control and lockdown, electronic security alarms, strong physical structural integrity, a good crisis event plan, communication and community engagement with law enforcement/medical first responders.

A high-quality physical security program is about layering these different solutions based on threat potential, target value, probability and severity of impact. This approach deters, delays, notifies and denies/slows ingress paths. Our focus is on the five minutes between the first shots fired and neutralizing the threat.

Violent attacks, while still rare, have trended upward between 2015 and 2020, according to current FBI statistics. They can be purely physical, with an edged weapon/blunt object or with a firearm. While guns get the headlines, between 15% and 18% of attacks use non-firearm weapons. In 2021, 29 shooters were neutralized by police, armed citizens or by their own hand, whereas 30 were apprehended by police.

The traditional recommendation of run, hide, fight during an active shooter or armed assault appears to be shifting. Now, there is a greater emphasis on the fight or defensive actions.

Here are three key elements for surviving a violent attack:

  • Survival depends on simplicity of action over complexity.
  • Hesitation kills in a life-or-death situation; be prepared to act with intuitive response, courage and commitment.
  • An LTL response minimizes some of the moral hesitation of pulling a trigger, and it may help win over political and funding battles.
Active Shooter

Adobe Stock image by Sophon_Nawit

Three Fundamental Active Shooter Survival Concepts

Three fundamental concepts to consider:

  • Alert the people in the facility by integrating unique local audible annunciation and silent mass-notification systems.
  • Notify first responders and stakeholders with a customizable and compatible mass-notification process. This could be simple dry contact or network Wi-Fi connectivity.
  • Defend with an intuitive, integrated, easy-to-use LTL solution.

To show these ideas in action, I’ll share three stories. The first involves a unique education facility; the second focuses on a manufacturing site; the last involves a systems integrator involved with installations and customers.

An Educator’s Perspective

Backstory: Tri Star Career Compact (TSCC), located in Celina, Ohio, is composed of nine school districts in Mercer County and Auglaize County. The collaboration of educators, school district supervisors, local businesses, taxpayers and politicians, it is an example of, “If you can visualize it and communicate it effectively, you can accomplish it.”

The nine school districts have developed a curriculum of programs for junior and senior students who have an interest in a technical career field. TSCC’s director, Tim Buschur, was gracious with his time, insights and vision for a safer education experience that exceeds the combined communities’ expectations. This state-of-the-art building houses technical career hands-on and classroom education, while deftly integrating each school district’s unique colors and logos to build a solid community culture.

A quote from Buschur to the architect selected to design the facility — “If you make it look like a school, you are fired” — helps explain his vision. The architect got the message loud and clear. This facility has a high-tech corporate look and state-of-the-art smart building features! This footprint includes traditional security/safety systems.

Goal: To innovatively address an active shooter threat in a facility with variable ambient noise levels. The new solution should help empower associates, students and visitors, while providing greater security and peace of mind. This empowering defensive approach reflects the school’s “vibe,” culture and mission of training a resilient workforce to support local businesses.

Challenge: The TSCC facility has diverse, hands-on education labs — cybersecurity, healthcare, hospitality, carpentry, machine shop and mechanical repair. Some of them have high levels of ambient noise that would make emergency notifications difficult.

Solution: After extensive research, Buschur and his team chose an integrated, military-style pepper gel solution — specifically, Threat Extinguisher (TE). The team chose to install a device in every classroom, which integrated seamlessly into the other installed physical security systems. They recently upgraded the solution with a unique alert system (adapted train airhorns) to address high ambient-noise levels in the machine, mechanical and woodworking shops. Trust me: When you hear a train airhorn inside a building, you intuitively recognize a clear and present danger.

In the Customer’s Words: Brian Stetler, assistant director: “I would highly recommend Threat Extinguisher. They are good to work with and professional. If we have a problem, we call them up and they’re here immediately. For us, we just made an investment in our safety. And, in today’s world, that’s a positive for us.”

Buschur: “It’s just nice knowing we have that sense of security. And the community feedback has been very positive, in that they think it’s one of the best investments we’ve made.” 

A Manufacturer’s Perspective

Backstory: Mansfield Engineered Components (MEC), part of The Sabath Group, is an 80-year-old, family-owned business in Mansfield, Ohio. It is a custom engineer and manufacturer of premier hinge hardware for global appliance manufacturers.

Its 180,000-square-foot facility houses administration, engineering, manufacturing and logistical functions, and it produces 250,000 specialty hinges per week. Jim Bragg is the quality control manager who spearheaded the adoption, installation, training and safety process for MEC’s workplace violence mitigation program, which leverages the TE solution.

This program was done exceptionally well, putting great emphasis on a high-quality training process, support from senior management, employee communications/training and early collaboration with the Mansfield Police Department to ensure logical placement of TE devices.

Goal: Provide a safer environment for associates, customers, suppliers and visitors.

Challenge: A former employee, who was released from employment for having harassed an employee, showed up at work carrying a box. After joining employees at the smoking lamp, he walked back into the facility with the group. What was in the box? There was enough concern for Bragg to take action to protect employees before a serious event resulted in unthinkable consequences.

Solution: In 2018, MEC chose TE after meeting the solution provider at the Richland County Safety Fair. The company installed 10 units, strategically placing them in the engineering, administration and manufacturing areas. Bragg enlisted the help of the Mansfield Police Department to decide on placement and practical evacuation planning.

In the Customer’s Words: Bragg: “We are absolutely satisfied with our decision. Short of having armed guards or allowing employees to be armed, this is the best way to care for and protect our employees.” He added, “Be very careful not to become complacent with an it-won’t-happen-here mindset.”

An Integrator’s Perspective

Backstory: Schmidt Security Pro (SSP), a PSA Security Network member, was founded in 1976 by former Mansfield police detective W. William Schmidt. SSP provides product and service lines that include security officers, electronic burglar alarms, medical alert systems, access control systems, video systems, fire alarm services and unique integrated solutions.

SSP sold over 100 TE systems by introducing the solution to its commercial and residential customers. SSP was successfully involved with both the TSCC and MEC installations described earlier.

Goal: Maintain a regional leadership role by discovering new technologies to keep customers safe. Be innovative in delivering customers new value in new ways.

Challenge: As with all systems integrators, SSP’s challenge has been to make time to effectively focus on a new product line and educate customers about the advantages of the TE solution. The simplicity of the product concept, installation and support have made these challenges easier to overcome.

In the Customer’s Words: I asked how SSP’s customers received and accepted this security solution.

Ken Zahn, COO: “Initially, customers were reluctant to pull the trigger on a product they had not seen because it wasn’t ‘mainstream.’ It was an unfamiliar security solution no one else was doing. Once they were able to understand the simplicity and its effectiveness, it was a no-brainer. We saw buy in and top-down acceptance. In other words, once a facility president or school principal bought in, everyone fell in line. Typically, the owners and administrators did so to protect their staff, which was very well received. As one of our customers stated, ‘Knowing our owner truly cared about our well-being speaks volumes.’”

Brian Schmidt, president: “The TE team have been very easy to work with and very responsive. I’d recommend it to other integrators looking for an additional offering for their customers that is a relatively simple installation. Since it’s an additional service offering, it’s also a way to increase RMR. It integrates very simply with any hardwired or wireless intrusion security panel. This makes it easy to add TE units to an existing system or to design and deploy a dedicated TE wireless system for an organization.”

A Security Consultant’s Perspective

System integrators typically come in two flavors: (a) those who proactively bring new solutions to solve customers’ challenges to keep them safe, and (b) those who wait for the customer to tell them what they want.

As Steve Jobs famously observed, “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Remember the iPhone? Do you still use a flip phone these days?

I have been involved in workplace violence mitigation since 1988 when my defense contractor customer in California experienced a horrific active shooter event. It taught me valuable lessons. Traditional physical security, including access control, video surveillance, intrusion alarms, SOC-controlled mantraps and manned security forces, were not effective with a well-armed, motivated and determined attacker. The most valuable lesson I learned was to ask the right questions, which include, “What if?” and “Then what?”

When evaluating a technology solution, make sure to ask all the following questions:

  • How long has it been on the market?
  • How many have been installed, and where?
  • Is the solution simple to grasp and explain or complex?
  • Will the manufacturer allow you access to installed customers?
  • How easily will the technology integrate with existing security layers?
  • Is the cost/benefit ratio strong or weak?
  • Is the customer training curve simple or complex?
  • Is your technician training curve simple or complex?
  • What does local law enforcement think of the solution?

Protecting your customer during an active shooter or armed assault means you must ask some pretty tough questions. You must think in terms of the five-minute window of pure chaos.

Although there is complexity in this security scenario, break down the conversation into manageable, simplified steps to help your customer understand their risk, process, tools, procedures, community coordination and communications. This will help them effectively manage an event and its aftermath.

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