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How to Warn Occupants about Active Shooters

Prepared messages are a calm in the storm

By Jennie Morton

Prepared messages are a calm in the storm.

A siren screams when a tornado or hurricane approaches. Fire alarms blare when smoke is detected. But what happens if your building is threatened not by weather or an accident, but by a human being?

According to national averages, an active shooter situation only lasts 12 minutes. That’s very little time to react to the event, assess available information, notify emergency responders, warn building occupants, initiate safety protocol, and monitor subsequent developments.

Take a stand and make active shooter preparedness as integral to your workplace safety as fire, earthquakes, medical emergencies, and severe weather. You can easily leverage your existing mass notification system to anticipate these rare but deadly situations.

Prepare for the Unthinkable
An effective emergency broadcast can make all the difference when lives are at stake. Extreme emergencies may make the evening news on a regular basis, but building occupants remain woefully unprepared when facing an armed intruder. Even domestic violence situations, which are far more common than mass shootings or bomb threats, can be unnerving for bystanders.

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Click here to read about Emergency Alerts for Active Shooters.

Time is of the essence when facing workplace violence. Valuable moments are lost if occupants are milling around in confusion and panic, leaving them vulnerable and exposed. When they receive communication that is clear and actionable, however, people can quickly avoid a dangerous event unfolding. There’s nothing better to foil a shooter or stabber than to take away their targets.

“Every second of delay an intruder encounters is another second for people to reach safety, first responders to arrive on the scene, or the aggressor to consider abandoning his or her plan,” explains Sean Ahrens, a security expert with Aon Global Risk Consulting.

Any hesitation on your organization’s part to send out an emergency alert has a ripple effect as events unfold. The last thing you want is your safety leaders slowed down because they’re improvising for a situation they’ve never anticipated.

“If you don’t have a message prepared for active shooters, someone has to go to the microphone or control panel, use the technology, decide which message to use, broadcast the information, and call 911. That’s a lot of responsibility to place on one person,” notes John Stofa, municipal accounts manager with Honeywell Fire Systems.

The process can also be compromised if the individual responsible for alerts isn’t able to manually initiate the sequence. Those in a position to first encounter an armed intruder – front office staff or a security guard – are often the first to come under fire. If individuals haven’t received proper training, they may also freeze in fear or shock as their fight-or-flight mechanism takes over.

An emergency communications plan for mass shootings and other extreme violence should be part of your standard operating procedures. Prepare messages in advance, train your staff, and run practice drills. The only way occupants can react safely and calmly in the face of extreme violence is by following your lead.

Optimize Your Message
Communication policies for active shooters follow the same patterns as any other emergency alerts.

“Occupants always need to know three things: a clear understanding of the threat, what they can do to protect themselves, and who they should contact for help,” says Thomas Mitchell, senior vice president and COO for FM3IS & Associates.

Particularly for extreme emergencies, you need prepared messages that can be deployed at a moment’s notice. Active shootings are too dynamic to have someone making announcements off the cuff. Automated emergency communications allow personnel to remain nimble during an event in progress. They can draw from existing messages and fill in the specifics with live voice or updates as information is made available.

Shooter alerts should also be tailored to your unique security factors.

“Given the breadth of mass notification systems, there’s no single active shooter message that will suffice for all building types, situations, and occupancies,” Stofa stresses. “You need to decide what kind of broadcasts can be deployed quickly and will most effectively reach those in harm’s way.”

These messages are a calm in the storm, so think about their wording carefully. Remember that people operate differently under stress and can be easily overwhelmed by too much information.

“While the purpose of active shooter warnings is to get everyone’s attention, they run the risk of being overly descriptive and too long,” warns Chris Wilhelm, executive director of construction with Tech Electronics, a communications systems provider. “Keep alerts short and simple. Provide just enough information for people to get to safety.”

Use directives to give occupants specific instructions and leave no room for doubt or panic. Mitchell recommends you keep voice messages under 30 seconds. Another strategy to use is 27-9-3. That’s 27 words total, 9 seconds long, and 3 messages or sets of instructions with 9 words each. Developed by the Center for Risk Communication, a consulting firm, the formula ensures alerts are brief yet effective.

Opt for plain English rather than code words, says Ahrens. You don’t want people wasting time trying to decipher a cryptic message. Colored warnings, while suitable for missing children and medical emergencies, may be easily forgotten by building occupants, much less visitors who don’t know them. Even the Department of Homeland Security has discontinued its color-coded system for terrorism.

“Another benefit of scripted alerts is that they can provide a shield against liability,” Wilhelm adds. “Have your legal and insurance team review the wording and discuss the pros and cons of the message’s ramifications. Your security department should also have a say as they will be the ones coordinating emergency response efforts.”

Train to Calm the Nerves
Once your workplace violence alerts have been written, schedule tests so people become familiar with these messages.

“Lockdown drills are starting to be required in educational settings, so testing mass notification is a natural extension of your preparedness,” says Denise Walker, chief emergency management officer for the Lone Star College System.

Consider that the stakes are so much higher in an active shooter situation than a fire or bad weather. Instructions may not be as straightforward either. Some building occupants may need to go into lockdown mode while others could be directed to evacuate, Walker notes. The more you rehearse with your employees or students, the more this training will become engrained.


“Practice makes perfect. I can’t stress enough the importance of conducting drills with occupants,” Mitchell says. “People tend to react better during an emergency when they can demonstrate behaviors learned in simulated contingency situations to the point when they don’t have to consciously think about their response. The only way to effectively attain and sustain this level of desired performance is to practice repeatedly.”

Exercises are also crucial for those who are responsible for delivering messages, says Walker. Whoever oversees emergency communications – a crisis management team, security guards, or a trained receptionist – these points of contacts should have ample and frequent opportunities to put these skills to the test.

“The last thing you want is the person giving live messages to sound like he or she is on the edge. Active shooter alerts should provided by a voice of authority. If you share any message that doesn’t have a strong, confident voice behind it, occupants may perceive you as being just as afraid as they are,” Mitchell explains. “People need to have the reassurance that your organization is maintaining a level of control over the situation. You can achieve this with clear, calm, and concise messages.”

As you run practice drills, consider the difference between shelter in place and lockdown procedures. Both have a place in your emergency plans, but the two terms describe separate responses to different threats.

“Shelter in place doesn’t sound as harsh as lockdown, but it may not convey the seriousness of a situation. Sheltering is a safety response against inclement weather, not a security threat where one needs to seek protection,” Walker explains. “If there’s a lockdown, people need to become invisible, such as turning down lights, shutting off phones, and closing windows. Shelter in place doesn’t convey this behavior reaction.”

Leverage Your Channels
It’s important to make sure emergency messages are the same across all your mass notification channels. SMS texts, voice broadcasts, digital signage displays, social media updates, and email notifications should all be consistent. If people receive different information, it can cause confusion and delays.

As with any emergency messaging, you don’t want to put all of the information into one channel. The whole point of redundancy with mass notification is to have instructions distributed across multiple communication lines in case one is compromised.

Texts and emails may seem discrete, for example, but they’re not effective if someone doesn’t have a phone or computer nearby. You may also be tempted to use a complete message over voice and a shorter version across other platforms. But what happens if a person isn’t in a safe position to listen to the full voice message, isn’t within earshot of the speakers, or has a hearing disability? All recipients should have access to the same emergency information regardless of how they receive those alerts.

Don’t overlook the importance of communicating to those on the outside either. Emergencies tend to draw crowds, whether from media, concerned family and friends, or curious on-lookers. These groups, however, can become another risk if a critical incident is still in progress. You don’t want extra people congregating if the threat hasn’t been neutralized or if first responders are arriving at the scene. Additional people could be harmed, triage areas could be compromised, or traffic could become congested. Communication with the media, updates on your corporate or school website, and social media can carry your emergency broadcast to the public.

Also review what emergency systems are in place to report suspicious activity. Is there a software interface on a desktop someone can access? Are individuals required to go to the fire control panel, and if so, where is it located in relation to where they sit? If someone can’t get to a phone, what are the alternative options to send out a call for help?

“At any point of entrance where a threat might present itself, make sure there is a discreet way to communicate duress. A receptionist or secretary isn’t going to be able to pick up the phone or a walkie-talkie and say ‘There’s a guy here with a gun,’” Ahrens explains. “They need a quick and simple way to let someone know an incident is in progress. This alarm can then launch any lockdown sequences for elevators, doors, and lighting.”

“Private companies are using an emergency app that employees can access from their smartphones,” adds Mitchell. “It eliminates having to spend time dialing someone for help and instead sends a distress message to the emergency operations center.”

Many options exist to keep occupants informed and secure during a crisis. As active shooters and other extreme violence present new life safety challenges, make sure your communications plans and mass notification systems are poised to take action.