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Equipped for the Unthinkable

While the threat of active shooters is a growing reality of the workplace, tools and resources are emerging to help employers better prepare for the worst.

Friday, May 13, 2016
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The one-day training session may have already paid off at Aronson, a Rockville, Md.-based assurance, tax and consulting services provider.

In January 2016, the company hosted two active-shooter >-training sessions for a total of approximately 240 employees at its headquarters. K17 Security, a Rockville-based security and personal protection services, risk management and security consulting firm, conducted the training, sharing information learned from past incidents and case studies.

K17, which is owned and operated by current sworn police officers, also provided techniques to use when running from a workplace shooter, determined the most ideal on-site locations in which to hide as well as techniques to place time delays and cover between employees and would-be killers, and various response tactics to employ when running or hiding is not an option. Workers received the aforementioned tips in the first of two key drills, with the second creating a "live" scenario involving an < active shooter > and allowing employees to demonstrate how they could apply these new techniques when necessary.

Delivered in a classroom-type setting, the separate, two-hour sessions also relied on PowerPoint slides as well as videos and "what if" situations to keep employees engaged and prepared in the event they would need to confront and fight an intruder. For example, K17 trainers offer employees options in terms of the best places to take cover.

In April, roughly three months after completing this training, an Aronson employee spotted an unauthorized individual attempting to access the firm's offices.

"She heard a person knocking on the stairwell door, which, in and of itself, is not an unusual occurrence," recalls Dawn Bailey, director of human resources at Aronson. 

When the uninvited guest couldn't immediately state the purpose of his visit, however, "[our employee] made sure he remained on the other side of the locked door," as she was instructed by K17 months earlier, says Bailey.

"She remembered the prepared response training [we received], when we were told to 'trust our gut' [in this type of scenario]. She knew that this person was not a legitimate visitor, and potentially saved us from theft or other disruption."

There's no way of knowing what brought this individual to Aronson's doorstep that day, or what his intentions were. And, while the organization "does not have any particular known threat . . . it is clear to us that dangerous events [such as an < active shooter > situation] can take place any time, any place, for a variety of reasons beyond our control," says Bailey.

No one wants to imagine such a nightmarish scene unfolding in his or her workplace, of course. Yet it's one that's played out with truly frightening frequency. The most recent gruesome example comes from Excel Industries in Hesston, a rural Kansas town with a population of roughly 3,700 and the home to tiny, 450-student Hesston College, a two-year school founded by the Mennonite Church.

Late on the afternoon of Feb. 25, Excel employee Cedric Ford left work not long after a sheriff's deputy had arrived on the lawn-care-equipment manufacturer's premises to serve him a protection-from-abuse order.

Less than 90 minutes later, Ford returned. Now armed with an assault rifle and automatic pistol, he approached the plant, opening fire on co-workers and anyone else who happened to be in the vicinity of the Excel building. Ford ultimately killed three and wounded 16 others before being fatally shot by a police officer on the scene.

Relatively speaking, the possibility of your employees finding themselves in the crosshairs of someone like Cedric Ford is still very remote. But it's very real.

Consider that the Gun Violence Archive -- which collects and validates gun violence and crime-incident data from 1,500 sources on a daily basis -- reports that 330 incidents in which four or more people were shot or killed took place in the United States last year. And the workplace is where such events most commonly occur, with 45 percent of < active-shooter > incidents taking place in commercial settings, according to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

Sadly, it seems the need to put procedures in place to prepare for this type of event is growing. A 2014 FBI report, for example, found the average number of < active-shooter > incidents increasing more than twofold between the years 2000 and 2013. Employers and HR leaders are becoming painfully aware of this reality. Fortunately, however, a growing number of tools and resources are becoming available to help them prepare employees for the unthinkable and deal with the situation if, heaven forbid, it ever occurs. 

Broaching the Subject

Naturally, many employers may find the topic of workplace shootings "very uncomfortable to talk about," says Nickole Winnett, a principal in the Washington office of Jackson Lewis, and a member of the firm's employment litigation and workplace safety and health practice groups.

HR leaders, however, should be facilitating conversations and training that include preparation for an < active shooter > entering the premises, says Winnett, who urges HR professionals to educate employees on the "Run. Hide. Fight" training model, based on the six-minute, Department of Homeland Security-funded video the City of Houston produced in the aftermath of the July 2012 mass shooting that killed 12 and injured 70 others in a Century 16 movie theater in Aurora, Colo.

"Walk them through what that model would mean in your office," she says. "Where would employees run to, where could they hide if that would be safer, and what could they use in the office to fight [an attacker] if it came to that last resort?"

Such discussions aren't necessarily easy to initiate. No employee -- HR professionals included -- relishes the thought of preparing for such a ghastly event. For that matter, some may not be quite convinced -- or ready to accept -- that < active-shooter > training is really necessary, says Winnett.

"Employers encounter that cynicism," says Winnett. "Even when I've been invited to give talks or presentations about < active-shooter > preparation, I see some employees are skeptical. They think, 'Will this really happen here? Do I really need to focus on this training?' "

In some cases, HR professionals might have reservations of their own, says Jay Hart, director of the Force Training Institute.

"In our experience, HR [leaders have] usually played one of two roles in the organization when they do this training," says Hart, whose Sherman Oaks, Calif.-based group has provided crisis-management training, consulting, assessment and certification programs to hundreds of private and public organizations, including companies such as the Boeing Co., Ford Motor Co., The Gap Inc. and Rite Aid Corp.

"They're [either] the champions -- they want to bring this to the organization and they realize they need to bring this training to their employees," he says. "Or, they're the challengers -- questioning whether this kind of preparation is really needed."

Simple honesty is the best way to allay such concerns, says Winnett.

"You can tell employees that [< active-shooter > occurrences are] actually very rare, and it's probably never going to happen in your office ... . But you can also tell them that, if they're trained, they're more likely to know how to react, and have a better chance of survival."

Hart echoes Winnett's sentiment, saying that crisis-management training should not be "fear-based."

"The words we use are important," says Hart, a lieutenant in the Los Angeles County Municipal Police Department and former United States Marine who served on anti-terrorism security teams. "We stay away from calling it '< active-shooter > training.' When we come in to talk with an organization about doing the training, we focus on making it about workplace safety" in a broader sense.

Bailey and the HR team at Aronson emphasized that attendance at the January training session was strongly encouraged, but were careful to promote the event as " 'prepared response training' instead of '< active shooter > training,' which tends to elicit fear," she says.

"Our goal was to better prepare and provide our team members with tools they could use in an incident, should they ever encounter one in the office or elsewhere," Bailey continues, adding that HR monitored and participated in both training sessions, ensuring that any employee who might be uncomfortable "was guided and assisted as needed."

Another HR director, speaking to HRE on the condition of anonymity, notes the HR function at his/her organization sent multiple internal notifications to remind employees of upcoming on-site < active-shooter > training workshops that were being provided by Richmond, Va.-based crisis prevention training and risk management consultation provider Crisis Consultant Group.

"Rather than making it a mandatory training [and risking] employees feeling pressured into attended, we simply offered it as an option to attend. Due to the sensitive topic, we didn't want to spread fear that there were any current threats," the HR director says, adding that the company had a nearly 94 percent attendance rate and received "fantastic reviews" after completion.

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Gardner, Kan.-based SafeDefend is another firm providing training to help employers respond to an < active-shooter > situation and offering technology for the same purpose.

SafeDefend CEO and founder Jeff Green is also a former elementary school teacher and principal, starting the company soon after meeting with local and national threat-assessment experts in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting that killed 20 schoolkids and six adult staff members in December 2012. Green saw a need for improved protection and preparation in schools and workplaces in general, and founded SafeDefend. In addition to providing on-site training, the company also offers its Personnel Protection System technology, which includes a fingerprint-activated device that allows for controlled access and secure storage of items such as gel pepper spray and a trauma kit. Once activated, the system signals a nationwide monitoring company and notifies local law enforcement of the location where the alert was initiated.

In terms of pre-training conversations with HR leaders, Green takes an approach that resembles Hart's, adding that employers and HR must also give thought to how they will eventually get back to business in the aftermath of such an occurrence.

"Putting a system in place, doing the training and giving employees the ability to respond; you've changed things, as far as protecting your employees and protecting the company after the crisis," says Green. "To me, that's another critical element that employers and HR have to take into consideration.

"You have to protect the company, too," he says. "People are going to be counting on you to still function and provide for them."

Tools and Technologies

Along with the training that organizations such as FTI and SafeDefend provide, technology can aid employers' efforts to react swiftly and efficiently in the face of unspeakable violence.

Share911.com, for example, bills itself as the world's first workplace emergency management platform that enables communication, collaboration and continuity of operations before, during and after an emergency. The private and secure web-based application allows employees to share critical information with each other in real time during an emergency, which "increases response time and provides critical situational awareness to employees, management and emergency response personnel," according to Share911.com.

Black Swan Solutions, a Waukesha, Wis.-based provider of crisis-management technology and services, has developed a mobile app that's designed to improve companies' evacuation and shelter-in-place planning in crisis situations. According to the company, the app allows employees designated as "safety wardens," or those in comparable roles, to access via smart phone their pre-assigned group to report who is missing, provide details on those who are unaccounted for, and generate reports designed to assist first responders in focusing their search and rescue efforts.

"It's a huge undertaking that HR has to take on" in the event that an < active shooter > descends on the workplace, says Michelle Colosimo, director of Black Swan Solutions.

"Accounting for everyone is a big challenge," says Colosimo. "So, [HR] has to coordinate all of these things beforehand. What do you need to prepare for? And what will you need to do when and if this does happen?"

Readiness requires a multidisciplinary effort, she says, including risk managers and security personnel, for instance.

"What falls to HR is everything that relates to people, which means employees and their families, in terms of ensuring family members know their loved ones' whereabouts. So HR needs to make sure that people are trained on what to do if this happens," says Colosimo, who urges employers and HR to not only conduct training for employees, but to periodically simulate < active-shooter situations.

"You have to do drills," she says. "Create that muscle memory in your workers. It's one thing to be trained, but having your people go through the actual motions is so important in helping them to be better prepared for these situations."

Making such provisions are now more important than ever, adds Winnett, who notes that she's recently seen a "really noticeable uptick" in the number of client companies making requests for crisis-situation preparedness training.

"Employers are saying,'We need to have a policy to address this,' " she says. "That's good, but it's sad in another way. It's obviously sad that this is something employers have to do."

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