How to Train Like a First Responder in the Event of Workplace Violence

Once a subject seemingly relegated to the occasional news report or movies and TV, the reality of active shooter incidents has steadily crept into the social consciousness at an alarming rate. Such events have taken place an average of 18 times per year over the past five years, more than double the same period a decade earlier.

As organizations seek to adapt to this growing concern, a greater focus is being placed on what a person can do to be safe and how to impart this vital information.

With the daunting task of providing critical information as quickly and effectively as possible, leaders from organizations big and small are faced with the same question: where does one even begin to train active shooter mitigation?

Thankfully, the same training utilized by first responders can easily be adapted and incorporated by any group, regardless of size or type.

Breaking through the barrier of discussing uncomfortable subjects, understanding common characteristics, learning from past incidents, and mental (if not physical) preparation are all essential to equip individuals with the tools necessary to response to a critical situation.

Addressing the Elephant in the Room

The biggest obstacle most companies have faced in the past and present with such training is the inherent discomfort and disturbing nature of an active shooter scenario. As with anything, challenging the status quo is likely to encounter resistance. Introducing active shooter mitigation into regular training curricula faces even more apprehension since the topic may come off as fear mongering or negatively impacting an organization’s brand.

The workplace is naturally seen as a safe space; a place where the day-to-day environment does not drastically change and a person can rightfully assume they will not encounter anything remotely resembling life-threatening danger. However, clearing the hurdles of trepidation begins with stressing the importance of why everyone should know how to respond to a workplace violence event.

Understanding the Statistics

The majority of active shooter incidents last three-to-five minutes whereas the average response time for law enforcement is approximately seven-to-ten minutes. That discrepancy means the individuals present during the occurrence may need to bear the responsibility of ensuring the safety of themselves and those around them until first responders arrive.

No one wants to learn these lessons the hard way and as such company leadership should always be proactive to reduce risk in the workplace. By providing the necessary active shooter mitigation resources, employees become empowered with the knowledge and tools needed to make informed decisions in a potentially hazardous situation.

The most critical aspect of any active shooter training is that it should be based on objective fact-based information so people are not instilled with fear, but rather knowledge. Knowledge increases confidence, with confidence comes decisiveness, and decisive action is what saves lives.

Despite the unpredictable nature of violent encounters and a lack of a clear-cut blueprint on who or where such situations take place, several key traits and characteristics can help indicate where and how an active shooter event may occur:

  • Over half (54 percent) of active shooter incidents occur in either areas of commerce or educational institutions
  • 97 percent of active shooters are males
  • 98 percent of active shooters act alone
  • 80 percent of shooters had more than one weapon to inflict maximum harm
  • 95 percent of active threat incidents occur during daytime hours when more people are present

It is worth noting the above statistics by themselves are by no means concrete evidence an active shooter event will take place; a lone male on a school campus during the day does not necessarily mean he will do anything bad.

Recognize the Warning Signs

These statistics, however, may support any concerns when taken into context and coupled with additional peculiar factors that warrant action. The ubiquitous “See Something, Say Something” slogan seen in post-9/11 travel is generally the go-to mantra for proactively addressing suspicious behavior. Of course, a key problem lies within the otherwise sound motto: what should one be looking for and to whom should they say something?

The Clackamas Town Center Mall shooting in 2012 is an example of “See Something, Say Something” warnings and indicators that seem apparent in hindsight but were overlooked at the time. The shooter in this instance wore a hockey mask and was loading his rifle in the parking lot as shoppers passed him by. In interviews following the shooting, these individuals said they thought the assailant was wearing a paintball mask and had a toy gun.

Although playing paintball is not something people normally do at malls, it is common for the brain to process unusual circumstances as something more familiar, as unlikely or impractical as it may be.  Recognizing peculiar behavior in addition to understanding common characteristics of a shooter can aid in what to see. By developing situational awareness based on learned knowledge, a person may report what they see to local security or law enforcement so proactive measures can be taken to prevent a potentially harmful situation from taking place.

Warning signs may not always be presented as visual indicators, but rather as subtle comments that portend danger. A corollary to the previous motto can also be “Hear Something, Say Something.”

A 2000 incident in Torrance, CA was preempted by a woman asking her coworkers to “be a good witness” if her husband showed up at the workplace. The comment struck nearby employees as odd, but did not register as something that would foreshadow the subsequent shooting.

A key point needs to be made that such case studies should not be used to pass judgment on the actions of the brave individuals who endured a frightening situation. In their training on the subject matter, first responders leverage such situations into “what if?” thought exercises so they’re looking (or listening) for possible indicators of danger and can respond accordingly.

Develop a Plan, Practice the Plan

Emergency workers develop mental resiliency through a simple yet effective process: develop a plan and practice the plan. How these plans are developed and the means they are practiced will differ from organization to organization, based on company culture and values.

Regardless of differences, all emergency response plans are rooted in a firm understanding of common characteristics of an active threat, when to see/hear something and say something, and how lessons from past events can be adapted to avert future harm.

Providing employees the tools and knowledge needed to identify, prevent, or survive an active threat situation will not only enable them to save their own lives, but also those around them. This vital information extends well beyond the workplace and can empower individuals with the ability to make informed decisions in times of crisis. Under stress we never rise to the level of our expectations, but rather fall to the level of our training.