Active shooter drills seem more necessary than ever, but they are immense undertakings and require substantial attention to detail if they are to yield value that matches the effort and resources required to conduct them. Of course, done right, they can prove to be lifesaving in a crisis. The Department of Homeland Security advises that “the most effective way to train your staff to respond to an active shooter situation is to conduct mock active shooter training exercises.”
Drills are particularly useful in revealing gaps that are hard to identify in any other way. For example, one university that recently practiced its emergency response plan with respect to a school shooting event “found that the health science building is really a dead zone, our radios didn’t work very well.”
That’s the kind of lesson that a tabletop active shooter drill won’t reveal. Still, tabletop exercises are valuable for companies to prepare for an active shooter event, yet they involve few resources and only members of the emergency management team.
Much can be learned from gathering key crisis personnel in a conference room setting to discuss each individual’s responsibilities under a range of different active shooter/workplace violence scenarios, such as an armed disgruntled ex-employee, a domestic violence-related incident, a shoplifting detention turned violent, or a store robbery. Moreover, it’s a cost-effective and efficient way to identify areas of overlap and confusion before conducting more demanding training activities. By including a complete range of violent events in crisis scenarios, retailers can have confidence that all potential events receive at least some practical crisis planning consideration.
To identify scenarios, experts suggest using your own history. A company’s own experiences typically provide the best fodder for tabletop training exercises, as real emergency situations provide an established fact pattern that companies can use as the basis for tabletop exercises that yield lessons that can be extended to all locations. Abbott Laboratories, for example, has twenty senior executives meet four times a year to train and run disaster scenarios.
Because drills are disruptive and complicated, it’s probably wise to first conduct tabletop exercises before graduating to drills involving mock victims and outside agencies. For example, Hamilton College in New York conducted three tabletop exercises before moving to the next level.
There are also other activities that can help retail organizations prepare for an active shooter event short of full-scale active shooter drills. These include:
Orientation and education sessions for individuals who have responsibilities in the event of a workplace violence emergency. Conduct short but regularly scheduled meetings to provide information, answer questions, and identify needs and concerns. In this type of session, you can cover general information on:
- Individual roles and responsibilities,
- Information about threats, hazards, and protective actions,
- Notification, warning, and communication procedures,
- Means for locating family members in an emergency,
- Emergency response procedures, and
- Evacuation, shelter, and accountability procedures.
Conduct walk-through drills. In these exercises, the emergency management team and response teams actually perform their emergency response functions. While they involve more individuals and are more thorough than tabletop exercises, they improve the skills of those who actually carry out the emergency plan—without major business disruption.
Conduct functional drills. These drills test specific crisis response functions, such as medical response, emergency notifications, warning and communications procedures, and equipment. Personnel involved in the specific tests then evaluate the system and identify problem areas. By testing different functions at different times, companies can reduce the disruption to the business as a whole while improving emergency preparedness.
Conduct evacuation drills. If companies test the other aspects of their response to a workplace violence emergency, they can limit the scope of evacuation drills to simply making sure personnel walk the correct evacuation route to the right designated area. Because a wide variety of emergencies may require a workplace evacuation—tornado, chemical spill, workplace violence, and so on—companies should identify when and how employees are to respond to different types of emergencies. How companies want workers to evacuate under an active shooter event may be different from the procedure for other emergency events—use of a safe room, for example, rather than evacuating to an outside assembly area.
Full-scale training exercises are valuable in preparing for an active shooter, but so are tabletop exercises, employee emergency awareness training, and a host of other activities that do not require significant resources. This is why most experts in business resilience recommend that companies should start with other, less disruptive exercises and training. It’s also helps to secure the support of top company leaders for emergency preparedness in general. You run the risk, when management believes all valuable training activities have to be as disruptive as full-scale active shooter drills, of the entire emergency preparedness process sliding down their list of priorities.