Active Shooter: Is Having A Plan Enough?

Active shooter incidents continue to occur at an alarming rate. In fact, FBI studies indicate that since the Columbine incident in 1999, active shooter incidents have steadily increased both in frequency and the number of victims involved.

These tragic events remind each of us of the unpredictable nature of troubled minds and the vulnerability that comes with getting caught up in chance circumstances. We grieve for the innocent lives lost and the heartbreak of families shattered. We speculate the motives behind violent exploits and mindless vengeance.

But we also internalize the threat and struggle with the realization that we, or our loved ones, could have just as easily filled the faces of the victims. Is your store’s active shooter plan enough?

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An active shooter is an armed person engaged in killing or attempting to kill people in a confined and populated area, one who continues to do so while having access to additional victims. In most cases, there is no pattern or method to their selection of victims. These situations are unpredictable and evolve quickly, often with the shooter continuing to move throughout the area until stopped by law enforcement, suicide, or other intervention.

Active shooter incidents don’t happen often, but casualties are increasing. However, the circumstances leading to the confrontation can vary significantly. Understanding how to react if confronted with an active shooter situation is critical. These decisions can literally mean the difference between life and death.

If you are in harm’s way, you will need to decide rapidly what the safest course of action is based on the scenario that is unfolding. However, regardless of the specific situation, our goals remain the same:

  • We want to survive the confrontation,
  • We want to reduce the risk that the individual will use the weapon, and
  • We want to minimize the opportunity for anyone to get hurt.

What is the potential threat for incidents in the retail environment? According to 2014 statistics gathered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, 40 percent of all active shooter events take place in business locations, including retail stores, office buildings, and warehouses. That places retail among the most frequent locations for active shooter attacks. The threat is real, and the concerns are legitimate.

However, our concerns don’t stop there. When responding to an active shooter incident, these same FBI reports note that it typically takes law enforcement seven to ten minutes to arrive on scene. In contrast, it takes active shooters on average three to five minutes to accomplish their intended objectives. Most often, the event is over before assistance arrives.

So realistically, who are the first responders? Who carries the burden of following a plan, mitigating the risk, and protecting lives? That responsibility falls on the shoulders of our loss prevention teams, our managers, and our associates. We must have a practical and actionable plan in place to help protect our associates and customers, and keep everyone as safe as possible until help can arrive.

The Importance of a Plan

 “You need to have a plan, and practice the plan,” says Jeremiah Hart, lead instructor and senior analyst at the Force Training Institute. “Planning to have a plan is not a plan. There’s a need for leadership. It’s important that we take the appropriate steps to ensure our people are prepared and put the plan in motion.”

Research indicates that practice and preparation are critical when responding to incidents that involve workplace violence, especially when dealing with situations involving a weapon. When faced with a traumatic, highly stressful situation, an untrained response can be unpredictable and may put us at greater risk. As the situation unfolds, our stress can mount and our anxiety can intensify. Rash or impulsive responses can lead to poor decisions and regretful outcomes.

What we need is a practical and responsible plan of action that helps guide us through these traumatic situations. Practice and preparation can help us organize our thoughts. It can have a significant impact on the end result by helping us to overcome some of our initial anxiety, recall valuable information that can help us through the situation, help prepare us for the situation we are facing, and ultimately build the foundation that supports our commitment to act. Knowing how to respond is the first step in keeping everyone safe.

Hart has worked with numerous retail organizations and Fortune 500 companies to create and implement active shooter mitigation programs. He is also a police sergeant in Los Angeles County and has testified as an expert in law enforcement training, policies, procedures, and use-of-force issues.

LP Magazine sat down with Hart, who offered many valuable insights that can improve our active shooter programs and help save lives.

Many retailers today have put plans to paper. We put great effort into taking the necessary steps to spell out what may happen, where we should go, who we should contact, and how we should respond. We then provide the plan to the stores, where the information is shared with the team. On paper, the plan may appear to be strong, reasonable, and strategic. But is it? Do we consistently take the next step?

The Value of Practical Training

“To create a true culture of safety, there has to be a common-sense approach,” said Hart. “Talking about the issue is a good step, but practical training is more valuable. Following the steps and practicing simple techniques that can be recalled under stress can save lives.”

Hart strongly urges that we need to take the time and make the effort to validate that the plan works, and ensure that our teams know how to respond. This has to go beyond a plan that is committed to paper, or simply sending a document, policy, or file that our associates sign acknowledging it has been read and received. This must be approached as an actionable learning experience.

“During a crisis, people don’t typically rise to expectations, but fall to the level of their training,” he said. “Abnormal responses to abnormal situations are normal responses.” Although our plans may be reasonable and strategic, we must consider that such situations are not; simply reviewing a written active shooter plan may not lead to the results that we expect. We can’t assume that people are going to react in the manner that we anticipate just because we provide them with a document that describes how we believe they should respond.

For example, we may tell our associates to run or hide during an active shooter incident, which experts tell us is the correct initial response.

However, as an actual active shooter situation unfolds, stress mounts, and anxiety intensifies. This may lead to confusion, panic, disbelief, denial, and even a feeling of helplessness. Especially if we haven’t been adequately trained, we may react to this in different ways, and running or hiding may not necessarily be our initial reaction. In fact, freezing can be a common response.

Practical training and simple exercises can help commit actions to memory, stress that employees need to run, and help others who may freeze. Even if it’s simply the importance of yelling, “Run!” to others as they flee the scene, these exercises can save lives.

“We tell our people to be aware of gunfire, but do they actually recognize the sound of gunfire? Very few people do. It’s not like on television. It can sound like a balloon popping, a pounding hammer, or other construction sounds that are very common in store locations. Also, gunshots can sound different depending on the environment. The sound may be different in a big-box store versus a small store, in the mall space, as well as inside versus outside. Employees should also know what gunfire smells like.”

Hart suggests contacting law enforcement agencies and requesting that they visit during off hours with employees in attendance and shoot off blanks in different environments. These types of exercises can provide opportunities for multiple stores or companies to attend, improve rapport, and further build relationships with other store teams, local police, and other emergency responders.

It may be emphasized in our training guidelines that if you’re going to hide, lock the door behind you and barricade it when possible. But as simple as this may sound, employees may experience difficulty under stress. Some struggle locking the door, especially if it’s a door that’s not familiar to them. Some doors in our facilities simply may not have locks.

Hart also recalled an incident at a hospital where he asked a nurse, “Show me where you would go and what you would do if you encountered a shooter.” She pointed to a room and said that she would move a heavy filing cabinet against the door. However, not only was the cabinet too heavy for her to move on her own, when they tried to move it together they discovered it was bolted to the floor. How might such decisions play out in a real-life active shooter situation? A simple walk-through with employees doesn’t take much time but can be extremely valuable.

Every plan should consider the design and limitations of the location in addition to the potential response of customers and employees. While by no means all-inclusive, here are some additional questions that should be answered as part of practical active shooter training exercises:

  • Are you familiar with all of the potential exits in your building? Are the exits clear?
  • Do you have an escape route and plan in mind?
  • Do you know where those exits go, and whether they take you out of the building?
  • Where would you go once you exited the building?
  • Are the floor plans for the building up-to-date?
  • How would you respond if the shooter was on a different floor in the building? Would it matter which floor?
  • Have you considered which rooms in the store would provide the greatest protection? Which would provide the least protection?
  • Do you know which doors in the building have locks, and those that don’t? What kind of locks do the doors have? Key, push button, push and turn, or other?
  • When choosing a place to hide, have you considered the difference between cover and concealment?
  • Do you know how to quickly silence your cell phone?
  • When should you come out of hiding?
  • How would you respond if you were directly confronted by the shooter?
  • How should you respond if confronted by a police officer?
  • If asked to describe the shooter and the situation, what information would you provide?

If you were to consider the layout of your store, the location of the store, the demographics of your typical customers, and the makeup of your employee teams, what additional questions should you ask?

“Off the Shelf” Doesn’t Work

Retail is not a “one-size-fits-all” proposition, and that goes far beyond the size and shape of the store. When putting together the store, we have to consider the products that we sell and how the store needs to be put together, from how we deliver merchandise, how merchandise will be displayed, and how to best service our customers. We have to consider the market and demographics where the store is constructed. We look at the type of customers that our stores will attract. We have to determine the size of the staff, and how the staff will be best constructed to meet store and customer needs. We need to consider how to build our store management, as well as support teams and leadership both within the store and within our market areas. All of these factors, and many others, determine how the store will be put together and how it will operate. There is no single retail model because we sell different products and attract different customers

Why then would we assume that our active shooter strategies should be bought off the shelf and applied universally? A single model won’t collectively meet every need. The basics will apply, and the concepts will be similar, but the application will differ based on the dynamics of the store.

Some stores may have a large support staff to include loss prevention, while others may only have a few employees running the entire store. Some stores may have vast areas to protect and multiple offices that are available, while others will have a small showroom and may not even have an office with a locking door. Incidents may not necessarily occur in a large department store. Active shooter incidents occur at grocery stores, convenience stores, and hardware stores. An active shooter incident at a Maryland mall occurred in a small surf shop with just a few employees.

This only further emphasizes the need to construct an active shooter plan that best fits the store and the environment, and carrying out practical training exercises that will effectively protect our employees and our customers. Our model and strategy must fit our individual needs and teach our associates to appropriately respond based on the environment as well as the particular circumstances.

See Something, Say Something

“See something, say something” is a good reminder and a positive message. It reminds us to keep our eyes open and to speak up when something appears odd or out of place. By the same respect, it’s important to recognize what may be considered odd or out of place, and who should be told. “At Virginia Tech, the shooter was seen chaining doors closed just days before the 2007 massacre took place,” said Hart. “Those were actually his ‘training runs.’ Although witnesses later admitted thinking that the behavior and what they saw was odd, they didn’t report it.”

Similarly, after other active shooter incidents witnesses have told investigators, “The guy wearing the hockey mask in the mall was a little strange,” and “The man wearing a heavy trench coat in an office building in June was weird,” but they paid little attention to what they saw. Do people shop that way? Does their dress and behavior fit the situation? If not, say something.

“Hear something, say something” can be just as important. Hart cited the case of a car dealership manager who overheard a female employee tell a coworker, “If my ex comes into the showroom with a gun, you need to be my witness.” The manager didn’t act on the information. Later that day, the ex did enter the dealership, fatally shot the woman and the manager, and injured several others.

Teaching employees what to say when calling 911 during an active shooter episode is vital and should be part of practical training sessions. State the facts and don’t make assumptions. For example: “There is a man in the store shooting at people. At least two people have been shot. He’s dressed in black and carrying a handgun.” Police can respond more quickly and appropriately when they have a clear understanding of the circumstances and the urgency of the situation.

“Workers should also not come out of hiding places until instructed to do so,” said Hart. “While this could take hours, they should wait until the scene is secured. They don’t want to be mistaken as potential suspects rather than potential victims when law enforcement arrives on the scene.”

Internalizing the Message

Every active shooter training program carries similar intentions—to save lives and keep people safe. Some of the information may not be new, but the message should be clear. In these situations, we can’t afford to make assumptions. We should take every reasonable step to give our employees and our customers the best opportunity to survive these events. If we don’t have a program, we should. If we do have a program, it doesn’t hurt to take another look to make sure that we got it right.

Hart himself has managed active shooter crime scenes. “Seeing the heartbreak and devastation in the families of the victims is overwhelming,” he says. “It’s real and it’s difficult. It stays with you as a harsh reminder. I decided that I would do everything in my power to avoid these types of tragedies from happening again.

“Too many of us think that, ‘It’s never going to happen to me, it’s never going to happen here.’ We don’t want to talk about it. We don’t want to think about it. But if and when it does happen, we’ll count our blessings that we were prepared. When you share the gift of safety, people take that gift with them wherever they go.”

This article was originally published in 2014 and was updated June 27, 2018. 

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