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“Soft Targets” Require a Proactive Emergency Response Plan

Developing a proactive emergency response plan may be a topic that makes people uncomfortable, but for those who work in a public environment, especially at mass gathering points and open-access businesses, the fact that these environments are “soft targets” for terrorism can’t be ignored.

The horrific acts of savagery and bloodshed executed in recent years mark an ominous turn in terroristic strategy, highlighting the vulnerable nature of public gathering places as ideal targets for terrorism.

As a society, we have grown accustomed to the threat of aviation and foreign travel-related terror risks which have been addressed for decades. However, for many, the fresh realization that premeditated violence designed to yield mass casualties can occur within our daily routines in our own neighborhoods has hit a raw nerve. These recent attacks have given rise to much conversation and assessments of preparedness.

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In 2014, the FBI published a statistical analysis of 160 active shooter incidents that occurred in the United States between 2003 and 2013. The study found that the majority of incidents ended in less than 5 minutes, and 60 percent ended prior to the arrival of law enforcement personnel.

This data further highlights the significance of how people initially react when an event first develops. While a significant number of suspects either committed suicide or were killed by law enforcement personnel, some of the attacks were interrupted and stopped by unarmed civilians. Without law enforcement on scene, well-prepared employees represent the first line of response to limit the casualties by either quickly evacuating, sheltering in place, or, in some cases, taking direct action against the assailant.

Active Shooter 2000-2013

While mass casualty events involving schools and college campuses generally receive the most widely broadcast and sustained media coverage, educational environments have had significantly fewer incidents than businesses. During the ten years studied by the FBI, 45.6 percent of all incidents occurred within the commerce sector, with 31 percent occurring in businesses open to pedestrian traffic. These open-access environments which include large gathering sites such as shopping malls and theaters, are the proverbial “soft targets” most vulnerable to attack.

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Practice What You Plan

Whether for a mass casualty event, natural disaster or emergency such as a fire, all businesses must have an emergency response plan in place to handle crisis situations with the potential for injury or loss of life. However, it is not sufficient to simply have an emergency response plan on paper. These plans must be routinely practiced to ensure employees understand the expectations and can actually adhere to the prescribed actions. Without a proactive approach and a commitment to train employees, even the best emergency response plan on paper will likely prove useless in an actual event.

“Training is essential to ensure that everyone knows what to do when there is an emergency or disruption of business operations.” –

Real emergency scenarios are accompanied by panic, stress, confusion, and misinformation, all of which exacerbate an already difficult situation. The first few minutes of a crisis are pivotal, and the actions taken at the onset will weigh heavily on the final outcome. Practicing emergency drills helps employees familiarize themselves with the actions that could save lives and instills a better sense of calmness. This preparedness alone will reduce the level of chaos in a real emergency and may be the difference between life or death.

It is also important to remember that while plans are typically written for employees, it is probable, especially for terroristic acts, that emergency events will occur while businesses are open and will therefore involve customers and the general public. Those non-employees will become part of the process, so emergency response plans must include the appropriate contingencies for employee and non-employees alike.

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In most situations, the focal point of an emergency response plan is the safe evacuation of people to a secure location. However, in active shooter scenarios, a portion of the population may be forced to shelter in place or may be injured and unable to evacuate. This adds to the complexity of accounting for everyone’s safety and managing the environment by first responders.

The chaos of an active shooter or terrorist act is a reality for the first responders as well as the intended victims. Upon law enforcement’s arrival, every person encountered is a potential assailant, even if they look like a victim. Arriving law enforcement personnel will be tasked with assessing the environment: Is the threat over or is it still active? How many actors are involved? Is the building cleared or are people still trapped inside? Is the threat limited to a specific location, or are there multiple locations?

Even though the hostilities historically span a mere matter of minutes, it will take hours for responders to access the situation, clear a building and declare the event under control. In addition to simply providing an evacuation plan, all comprehensive emergency response plans should include information that will assist law enforcement’s effort to secure a property, neutralize the threat, recover victims and rescue those sheltering inside.

“Realizing that the incident may end prior to the arrival of law enforcement demonstrates the need for workers to take responsibility for their own lives….which involves being ready (both mentally and physically) for the worst-case scenario….this type of mind-set has the three components of awareness, preparation, and rehearsal which can provide a foundation for survival.”  – excerpt from the FBI training, Workplace Violence Prevention Readiness and Response [source:]

Emergency Response Plan Essentials

Responding to a hostile emergency situation can be viewed in two phases. The preparation and implementation of the first phase involve the initial attempt to quickly and safely evacuate the premises or seek shelter if evacuation is not an option. Tools to assist in either scenario include:

  • Specified preferred evacuation routes for each area within the business.
  • Designated primary and secondary gathering locations outside the building.
  • Directional maps/signage in all offices, storage areas, etc. Signage should also identify the name/location of the room in the event people unfamiliar with the building are trapped there.
  • Dissemination of best locations within each area to shelter in place if evacuation is not possible.
  • Training employees how to remain undetected if forced to shelter in place.
  • Assignment of specific emergency responsibilities for key employee positions.
  • Training employees how to interact with law enforcement personnel, whom they may encounter while exiting the building.

The second phase of an emergency response plan specific to active shooter or potential hostage incidents involves providing as much detailed and accurate information as possible to emergency responders in the earliest stage of an ordeal. Having crisis plan information readily available via one source can become paramount to law enforcements ability to quickly intervene and begin to recover victims, isolate the threat and take control of the environment.

An effective means of providing pertinent information to law enforcement is via the creation of an emergency evacuation information kit. This kit should include a current list of employees, employee contact information, the daily schedule to identify who was likely in the building at the time of the emergency, a list of phone extensions within the building, floor plans, corporate office contact information, public utility information and–where applicable–master keys/security codes, remote viewing applications (CCTV feeds), etc. This data can be provided either in written form or, for even quicker dissemination by law enforcement, on a thumb drive or other portable storage device.

A good emergency response plan is essential to every business, big and small. It is worth the time and effort to create, manage and practice. Like insurance, you hope you’ll never need it, but it can make a significant difference if it ever becomes necessary.

This article was originally published in 2016 and was updated January 16, 2018. 

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