The Role of Buildings in Mass Shootings

02/25/2014 | By Jennie Morton

Strategies to decrease workplace homicides

This article was last updated on February 15, 2018.

An armed intruder approaches your building – what kind of resistance will they encounter?

Effective access control, automated communication, and rehearsed emergency plans are your best defenses against workplace violence. These measures may not prevent an aggressor from entering your building, but they will create necessary delays in a situation where every second counts.

Treat your building as a security tool, not a potential tragedy scene. It's time to bring facilities management to the table in our national conversation about mass shootings.

A Threat Unlike Any Other
Rewind the clock before 9/11 and only a handful of specialty facilities were concerned with counterterrorism measures. This is no longer the case and as the Las Vegas shooting illustrates, any building can be exposed to violence on this level. The Columbine, Newtown and Parkland shootings may have put school security in the limelight, but workplace homicides continue to occur in all building types regardless of form, function, or occupancy.

"The reality is that this type of violence is foreseeable and building owners need to respond accordingly," says Randy Atlas, president of Atlas Security & Safety Design. "Every industry is on notice."

In 2012, there were 463 workplace homicides, reports the Bureau of Labor Statistics – 80% of which involved firearms. There have been a total of 6,850 fatal shootings in the workplace between 1997-2010, an average of 525 deaths a year. It's no wonder that a Securitas survey of Fortune 1000 companies shows that workplace violence remains the second highest concern after cyber security.

Profile of an Active Shooter

What kind of person commits mass homicide in the workplace? The answer may surprise you.

Intent is one of the key distinguishing factors. A domestic assault perpetrator has a single target, a burglar is motivated by financial gain, and an arsonist is focused on property damage. But mass shootings are often a form of attention-seeking behavior.

"A robber generally wishes to remain anonymous, enter and exit quickly, and avoid contact with anyone during the crime. An active shooter, on the other hand, wants to be recognized, create fear and panic, and inflict as much damage as possible," posits Anthony Pizzitola, a certified facility manager and disaster recovery practitioner.

To pinpoint active shooter characteristics, researchers Seungmug Lee and Robert McCrie examined 44 incidences of workplace mass homicides since 1986 (schools were not included). Their 2012 ASIS report, Mass Homicides by Employees in the American Workplace, focused on deaths caused by a single perpetrator who was a current or former employee.

"The disgruntled employee is most likely a white male in his 30s or 40s, may have prior military service, lives alone, and possesses an antisocial or asocial personality," the authors found. "Contrary to general impressions, lethal employees rarely have a violent criminal record and are unlikely to have undergone psychiatric treatment. Further, they are not likely to be drug users."

Mass shooters may also be reported as aggressive, routinely ostracized by coworkers, and struggling with financial difficulties. Only 30% have military service and a scant 15% had a criminal history of violent behavior.

The report also identified these three red flags:

Job Performance
In many instances, the worker was struggling with job performance or interpersonal problems with colleagues. According to Lee and McCrie, "offenders are often motivated by revenge and anger over job termination, disagreement with job performance evaluation, or long-term arguments with coworkers."

Threatening Communications
Over 40% of mass shooters had previously made verbal or written threats, yet these exchanges were either ignored or undocumented. "Workers who make threats against others in the workplace should be regarded as risk factors, even months or years after their departure," the report cautions.

Intended Victims
While victims can be chosen indiscriminately, management personnel are frequently targeted. The study found over 65% of workplace homicides involve the death of a supervisor, manager, or employer.

Be aware that the decision to act out isn't a knee-jerk reaction. There is often a trigger event – such as a heated argument, poor review, or termination – that motivates the employee. However, the length of time between the final straw and the mass shooting could be days or months.

"In about half the instances, the worker had been discharged and returned months later to settle a score," the study finds.

Independent studies by the FBI, Secret Service, and Department of Education offer several insights on shootings committed by students. Like their adult counterparts, these students are often male, may be struggling with academic performance, have had conflicts with teachers or peers, and are described as loners.

Beyond these characteristics, however, there are few commonalities among mass shooters. This can make it difficult to weed out an employee or student who's just having a bad day and one who might act on their grievances.

"The fact of the matter is it's not our job as facility managers to psychoanalyze the intentions of employees or identify potential active shooters. We're here to protect the facility and its occupants," says Pizzitola. "Our only responsibility is to prepare the building so the exterior acts as a deterrent and ensure the interior can respond to a critical incident."

Compiled from reports by the FBI, ASIS, Department of Education, and Secret Service. 

Owners know that the ripple effects of a mass shooting extend far beyond the confines of the physical property. Whether lives are lost or not, public scrutiny quickly points the finger of liability at property management. The financial repercussions can be acute.

"Workplace violence has an annual estimated price tag of $5 billion in direct and indirect costs for building owners, managers, and employees," notes Thomas Mitchell, managing director of Facilities & Asset Management Consulting Services at Booz Allen Hamilton, a global strategy and technology consulting firm. "These costs include personnel replacement, lost productivity, property damage, administrative resources, and potential litigation."

No crime or disaster is completely preventable, but buildings still make an effort to create a safe environment and plan ahead for emergency response. You already have a number of risk mitigation tools at your disposal – it's just a matter of using them.

"The only barrier to hardening a facility is the checkbook," notes Chris Grollnek, an active shooter prevention expert with Countermeasure Consulting Group. "Your budget dictates how far your security can go."

Review Security Fundamentals
You don't have to put a moat around your property or turn it into a fortress to increase security. Turn to the basic rules of CPTED – crime prevention through environmental design. This concept limits opportunities for crime through strategic design choices. Focus on visibility, access control, and territorial reinforcement.

"You don't want to rely too heavily on only one or two of these principles. That's putting all of your security eggs in one basket," cautions Grollnek. "Research shows that each element of CPTED design you add exponentially increases security and safety levels."

The problem is that not all facilities were built with CPTED in mind, and these strategies may be counterproductive to business practices. Atlas points to malls as an example of just how vulnerable buildings can be.

"By design, a mall invites the mass public onto the property. Almost anyone can walk in unchallenged as there are virtually no security checks," Atlas says. "These large, open spaces often have poor boundary definition and dozens of unrestricted entrances."

Commercial facilities may also experience similar challenges. Recruit the help of a consultant to scrutinize every aspect of your building's layered security. If upgrades aren't on the table, focus on egress integrity. Security breaches can be enabled by something as simple as a broken door (see "6 Tips for Door Security").

"The best thing we can do is secure our facility internally and externally to slow down the progress of perpetrators so law enforcement can arrive and prevent the situation from escalating," Mitchell says.

Strengthen Access Control
Beyond physical deterrents, it's often the human side of security that can make the most difference in an active shooter situation, notes Grollnek.

"Most buildings aren't designed to prevent violence on this scale. The probability of an all-hazards event like terrorism or a shooter is very low and it may not be cost- effective to change the existing layout," Atlas says. "Policies and procedures, training, and communication are the most important things that will improve security and minimize the risk of an active shooter situation."

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