Most organizations concerned about active shooter risk have adopted the US Department of Homeland Security’s Run-Hide-Fight doctrine as the basis for designing facility emergency action plans and training employees. This simplified guidance is designed to be regarded as a prioritized list of preferred responses when an active shooter attack is recognized. “Run,” for instance, should always be the first option when the opportunity is present. If “Run” is not possible, then “Hide” is the next prioritized option. 

Although “Run” is generally the most preferred response, there are situations where attempting escape may be far more dangerous than simply remaining in place. A good example is a multi-story building when an attack is launched at ground level. Rarely during active shooter events do people in the “hot zone” have accurate information about the attacker’s location and safe routes of escape. In this situation, trying to evacuate through lower levels of the building where possible massacre is in progress may be far more dangerous than barricading in a nearby safe location. 

Effective implementation of active shooter response actions requires effective preparations in terms of facility infrastructure, physical security, life safety design, and employee training. When designing measures to reduce active shooter risk, the implementation of physical security considers the static Physical Protection System (PPS) design as well as preparations for employee and guest response to attack events. The following ten points summarize a number of key physical security and preparation measures for mitigating active shooter risk.

1. Concealment/obscuration of people located outdoors or adjacent to windowed areas to reduce risk of surprise attack from outdoor locations.

A noteworthy percentage of attacks executed by outsider adversaries commence against people located outdoors and in many cases, subsequently progress indoors. Some recent examples include assaults at the Route 91 Harvest Festival (Las Vegas, 2017), Eugene Simpson Stadium Park (Alexandria, 2017), Curtis Culwell Center (Gardland, 2015), Inland Regional Center (San Bernardino, 2015), Charlie Hebdo office (Paris, 2015), and Overland Park Jewish Community Center (Kansas City, 2014).

To reduce active shooter risk in outdoor locations, measures should be employed to obstruct sight lines of people normally congregated outdoors or located inside indoor work areas. This can be accomplished through the use of concealment screens, landscaping, and opaque glazing. Additional measures for reducing the impact of a surprise outdoor attack include providing flexible options for rapid egress and dispersal from outdoor patios and use of automated systems for detecting outdoor shooting events to expedite alert and response.

2. Delay the adversary’s ingress into populated areas to permit time for critical alerts, escape and refuge actions, and deployment of a response force.

Barrier layers in Physical Protection System (PPS) design should be implemented to delay adversary movement into populated areas. If the attacker is an ‘outsider,’ this includes exterior barrier layers (e.g., facade glazing, doors, locks, etc.) and delay measures inside unsecured lobbies. Additional protective layers securing work suites and high-valued assets (e.g., executive offices, etc.) should be used to frustrate adversary ingress further and provide critical delay against movement by ‘insider’ adversaries already located inside the building.

For purposes of barrier construction and delay performance during active shooter events, the most important barriers are glazing, doors, and locks. In most attacks, adversaries focus on targets of easiest opportunity by using visually-obvious pathways and unlocked/unobstructed portals (e.g., doors, windows, etc) to facilitate indoor movement.[1]

3. Early detection and assessment of the threat.

During active shooter attacks, time is critical and every measure that expedites detection of the attack and deployment of a capable response force is important in mitigating the consequences of an event. As part of the incident data collection process during Purdue University’s 2014 Mitigating Active Shooter Impact study, researchers collected information about response times and casualties related to 24 school shootings and 41 workplace shootings in the United States. The Purdue report describes: “The average time in shooting events ranged from 3 to 4 minutes with an average victim being shot every 15 seconds.”[2]

Measures that expedite event notification to security or authorities, such as panic alarms, can greatly reduce the typical detection and reporting times normally encountered when relying on witnesses to call an emergency number by telephone. Even better time performance can be achieved with the use of gunshot detection sensors. Gunshot detection sensors also automate detection and reduce the possibility of delayed notification if a person responsible for panic alarm notification is disabled or away from their station.

4. Rapid and reliable alert communications.

A critical part of effective response during active assailant events is fast and reliable alert to expedite protective actions by employees. Critical alerts should ideally be issued by audible means (public address) for the benefit of all facility occupants and followed by a redundant message via mass notification system (MNS) for those who may not have heard the initial announcement. When important developments occur, updates can be issued to employees as follow up messages. Circumstances warranting updates may include notification when police are clearing the building or if a unique threat emerges, such as a building fire.

To facilitate rapid alerts, security control rooms receiving event reports or assessing alarms should have direct access to the building’s public address system. There should also be adequate speakers available throughout the facility to ensure good audibility.

Mass notification systems should be easy to use under stress and optimally feature pre-configured messages for key alerts to minimize the time required to type and send messages. A good mass notification plan should also include facility-wide Wi-Fi access and employ a mass notification system with iOS and Android applications to facilitate Internet messaging in the event there are areas inside the structure with SMS signal interference.

The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS), Situational Awareness, and Active Shooter Risk

During life-threatening events, the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is often activated. The SNS governs human flight-or-fight response to imminent threat situations. Although the SNS served a survival function in human evolution, its effects can impair response actions by employees during high-stress events. As illustrated by the chart (right), when the SNS awakens a person’s heart rate may exceed 200 bpm resulting in cognitive impairment, loss of fine motor skills, irrational behavior, or freezing.

Effective active shooter preparations should anticipate the effects of the SNS and lack of situational awareness. Every effort should be made to simplify the expected actions of employees and communicate updates as the situation develops. Some practical examples of these measures include establishing emergency notification phone numbers that are easy to remember and dial under stress, ensuring that mechanical locks on doors feature a thumbturn and do not require a key for locking, providing abundant availability of safe rooms, and ensuring that escape routes do not require complex navigation to access discharge doors.

In addition to the SNS, rarely during armed attacks do employees have real-time situational awareness of the attacker’s location and activity. The combined effects of the SNS and lack of situational awareness may result in dangerous and sometimes irrational behavior. For example, employees may be hesitant to abandon a presently unsecured location and relocate to a nearby safe room if getting there requires moving through space they cannot see (e.g., around a corner and into another hallway). If a door is equipped with a single-cylinder lock and no thumbturn, employees may be hesitant to open the door to lock it if they fear the gunman may enter the hallway.

As another important point, employees and on-site responders are not the only ones affected during high stress events. Security control room personnel suddenly launched into action with life-and-death consequences (even when remotely located) may experience some of the same impairing effects as people in the ‘hot zone.’ For this reason, critical communications systems should be designed for simplicity and control room personnel should drill regularly to minimize delays or omission of key tasks.

5. Simple and rapid evacuation/escape by employees and facility guests.

For employees located at ground level or in building locations without safe refuge options, escape (DHS’ term ‘Run’) is the primary response. Easy to locate escape routes should be available that permit fast and unobstructed egress to safe outdoor locations away from the facility.

Although all buildings are required to comply with life safety codes related to emergency egress, life safety codes typically fall short in considering the unique dynamics of evacuation during armed events and do not account for issues such as sympathetic nervous system (SNS) impairment of evacuees, mobile adversaries, and lack of situational awareness that may render a number of exit routes perceived as potentially-dangerous by evacuees. Effective planning to reduce active shooter risk should ensure multiple escape options by providing access to alternative exits and easily navigated egress paths.

In active shooter attacks against multi-floor facilities, the main floor is often where the attack originates and may be a dangerous location while an attack is in progress. If building occupants are not aware of the  location of the attacker, the combined effects of fear and lack of situational awareness may make people hesitant to evacuate if they need to move through areas on lower building levels to access exits. This problem is often compounded further by the effects of the SNS on problem-solving ability. To address these issues, emergency exit stairwells from upper building levels should ideally discharge through exit doors directly to outdoor areas at ground-level. Employees should avoid stairwells that discharge into first floor lobbies or work areas.

Good preparation for reducing active shooter risk also considers the fail-safe or fail-secure function of doors equipped with electrified locking systems. International Building Code and NFPA codes dictate that egress doors equipped with electromagnetic locks fail-safe (unlocked) automatically when a fire alarm is activated.[3] However, during an active shooter event, doors equipped with electromagnetic locks that cannot be opened rapidly by evacuees can delay escape from the building and create dangerous congestion at exit doors. Conversely, interior doors secured by electrified locks programmed unnecessarily to fail-safe during fire alarms can compromise security during armed attack events. If a fire occurs during an attack (e.g., 2008 Taj Majal Hotel Mumbai) or someone activates a fire pull station handle (e.g., 2013 Washington Navy Yard, 2015 Corinthia Hotel Tripoli, etc.) access-controlled locks that automatically fail-safe can easily compromise any delay benefit provided by inner protective layers.

Lastly, exit signage should be clearly visible from all work areas and hallways and direct evacuees to the most accessible stairwells or egress routes.

See my recent article about the importance of egress planning in managing active shooter risk for more advice about this matter.

6. Availability of safe refuge options for employees and facility guests unable to safely evacuate or who are unaware of the threat’s location.

One of the most basic facility preparations is ensuring adequate availability of safe rooms for people to take refuge if escape is not feasible. For this purpose, safe rooms should be abundantly available capable of providing adequate delay against forced entry considering the methods and tools likely to be employed by attackers.

Optimal safe room designs specify delay time objectives based on the expected effective response time of police or on-site security forces. However, in the United States where most active shooter events are resolved in less than 10 minutes, simply providing enough delay to frustrate adversary attempts to gain entry is often a justifiable and practical compromise. Joseph Smith and Daniel Renfroe describe their observations on this matter in an article on the World Building Design Guide web site: Analysis of footage from actual active shooter events have shown that the shooter will likely not spend significant time trying to get through a particular door if it is locked or blocked. Rather they move to their next target. They know law enforcement is on its way and that time is limited.”[4]

Separate case research conducted by Critical Intervention Services also supports Smith and Renfroe’s perspective.[5]

To frustrate adversary attempts to enter rooms where employees are taking refuge, a basic-level safe room should provide at least 45 seconds of delay against a gunman using primarily firearm projectile penetration and impact force as the means of entry.

Safe rooms should be abundantly available throughout the facility and especially on upper building levels where egress through stairwells may require employees to move past potentially dangerous lower-level floors.

7. Ability to monitor adversary movement during an attack and relay critical information to emergency responders.

If an organization has a security operations center responsible for monitoring CCTV cameras or a CCTV system is capable of remote access, surveillance cameras can provide valuable real-time information about the adversary’s movement and activity. Any activity or technology that aids in locating the attacker and expedites intervention by police or armed security personnel can have a huge impact in mitigating consequences. Observation of the adversary’s actions can also provide critical information about developing threat situations (such as an adversary setting fire inside the building or forcibly entering rooms) that should be relayed as warning to facility occupants.

During the 2008 attack at the Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai, security officers and police located inside the hotel’s security control room were able to monitor the actions of terrorists by CCTV and relay information to outside police commanders for several hours until fire endangered their position. In the 2015 assault at the Corinthia Hotel Tripoli, the control room remained operational throughout the entire event.[6] Two security officers posted in a sublevel control room were able to track the terrorists’ movements by camera and relay valuable updates to hotel guests and Libyan security forces. Information provided by the control room even enabled the former Libyan Prime Minister’s security detail to evacuate their principal down a safe stairwell as the attackers were advancing upward through a different staircase.[7]

During attacks in large and complex structures, live CCTV tracking capability is invaluable. Without real-time information about an attacker’s location, police searching for an attacker in a large and unfamiliar building environment are greatly handicapped. As an example, during the 2013 attack at Washington Navy Yard Building 197, NCIS agents and D.C. Metropolitan Police officers spent 31 minutes searching the building before locating Aaron Alexis.[8] In the D.C. Metro Police Department’s After Action Report (AAR), the size of the building and its complex layout was described as one of the largest challenges affecting their response.

To be effective in this application, CCTV systems should provide coverage of locations along likely adversary movement paths (e.g., entrances/exits, lobbies, stairwells, hallways, etc.) and be easily navigated by control room personnel under high stress conditions.

To ensure reliable and safe operation during live attacks, security control rooms should be located away from high risk areas (e.g., entrances, lobbies, etc.), unmarked, and protected against forced entry.

8. Rapid deployment of a response force capable of neutralizing an armed adversary.

Although many active shooter attacks terminate in suicide before the intervention of police or security forces, the speed at which security or police arrive and locate the adversary has a direct impact on consequences of the event.

In an FBI-published analysis of 51 active shooter events in the US between 2000 and 2012 where data on response times was available, police response times ranged between 0-15 minutes with a median response time of 3 minutes.[9] However, this analysis does not necessarily describe the true Effective Response Time. The Effective Response Time is defined as the total time from commencement of the attack and subsequent emergency notification to the time that security or police forces located and neutralized the perpetrator. For example, at Sandy Hook Elementary School, police officers arrived on scene at 09:37 (~2.5 minutes after the first 911 call and only 3-4 minutes after Adam Lanza opened fire). However, officers did not tactically clear the building and arrive at Lanza’s location until 09:44 (~4 minutes after Lanza committed suicide).[10] In many incidents CIS has case studied over the past several years, the police dispatch and arrival times aligned with the findings of the FBI analysis but there was at least an additional 2-5 minutes of time before officers made entry and located the attacker.[11] In larger or more complex facilities, such as the Riverside Office Complex, effective response times could be much longer.

Effective security design for protection against active shooter attacks should ensure that other components of the system account for necessary response time (e.g., barrier delay, employee response actions, ease of access by responding police, etc.) and implement measures as possible to expedite detection and alert notification to authorities. If police response times are expectedly long in comparison to the delay provided by barriers or the value of assets on site justifies a high level of protection, then preparation may require having armed security officers on-site properly trained and equipped to deploy rapidly and neutralize the threat.

In 2014, Purdue University researchers conducted a study using agent/computer-based modeling to assess the potential effectiveness of several different response scenarios during active shooter attacks. The scenarios evaluated included Basic (off-site police dispatched in response to 911 calls), Resource Officer (on-site police or armed security), and four variations involving concealed carry weapon holders amongst the employee population.

As indicated in the chart (right), the results of the Purdue University study were very conclusive. Although the results deviated slightly for scenarios involving concealed weapon holders among the employee population, the greatest factor impacting both response time and casualties was the presence of  a professional on-site armed responder.[12]

Although having an on-site armed response capability can greatly mitigate the consequences of active shooter events, implementing this measure requires consideration of cost, training, location assignment, and liability.[13] Implementation in a previously unarmed workplace also requires careful planning to ensure the integration of armed officers into the environment and acceptance by the employee population.

If an organization cannot implement an on-site armed response capability, additional measures should be used to expedite the effective response of local police. Some examples of preparatory measures include distinctive marking of buildings on multi-building campuses to ease location, establishing procedures for coordinating and directing arriving law enforcement officers, and preparations for providing building keys, access control badges, and floor plans to facilitate unimpeded movement indoors by police.

9. Training employees in safe response actions.

Even the best designed plans and facility preparations will fail if employees are unprepared to take action for their self-preservation during active shooter events. As described elsewhere in this section, the combined effects of the sympathetic nervous system during high stress events and lack of situational awareness can have a debilitating effect on employee response and even lead to dangerous actions. The first step in combating this problem is training employees in emergency response procedures.

The Department of Homeland Security and various municipalities throughout the US have produced short videos useful for this purpose. It is also recommended that training include instructor-led discussion about facility-specific measures for contacting security or police, location of suitable safe rooms inside the facility, special egress considerations (e.g., feasibility of roof access, etc.), communications systems, and location of medical kits.

10. Preparation for delayed emergency medical response.

As detailed previously in this section, the effective response time of police during most active shooter attacks in the United States is between 5 and 8 minutes. However, treatment of victims by emergency medical services may be delayed much longer.

Some jurisdictions in the United States have started using ‘contact teams’ with EMS personnel following police as they tactically progress through the building in search of the shooter. In other situations, police may remove victims from the ‘hot zone’ to outdoor triage areas as opportunity permits using a “load-n-go” approach. However, these protocols have historically been uncommon and normally EMS operations only commence after police have cleared the building and declared it safe for entry by medical personnel. Although most incidents are effectively resolved in 5-8 minutes, it is often considerably longer before police progressively finish clearing the building, confirm neutralization of the adversary, and declare the facility safe for entry by EMT’s.

It is also possible that an event can escalate into a siege by police upon arrival and thus further delayed treatment by EMS. Although situations such as this are uncommon in the United States, recent incidents have occurred in Western nations with exceptionally long effective response times such as the 2016 Pulse Nightclub shooting (194 minutes from first call to 911) and Bataclan Theater (~156 minutes from first call to 112).[14][15][16]

Many victims have died from hemorrhage in the aftermath of attack events while awaiting medical treatment. Uncontrolled hemorrhage is the leading cause of death during the pre-hospital period in both military combat and civilian trauma cases.[17] To address this situation, most militaries around the world have adopted the use of hemostatic dressings and easily applied tourniquet systems to delay hemorrhage from trauma wounds under the expectation of delayed hospital treatment. Considering the potential delay of EMS response during active shooter attacks, good preparation for medical treatment includes equipping medical kits and security officers who may encounter victims while clearing buildings with hemostatic dressings and similar trauma supplies.

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