How to Warn Occupants about Active Shooters

09/01/2014 | 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.

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