How to Warn Occupants about Active Shooters

“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.


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