Emergency Alerts for Active Shooters

09/01/2014 | By Jennie Morton

Use key messages to update occupants

Workplace violence is more complex than other emergencies – you need prepared messages to address every stage of the situation.

“Active shooter scenarios are dynamic and they vary from situation to situation,” stresses Denise Walker, Lone Star College System. “Unlike a fire, the threat can change locations in sporadic ways and occupants are on their own until law enforcement arrives. You have to have flexible messaging to keep up with the fluidity of the situation.”

Here are four levels of emergency alerts that will help you guide a threatening event to a successful resolution.

1) Take Immediate Action
Just like Stop, Drop, and Roll, security professionals are advocating for a Run, Hide, or Fight mantra with mass shootings. Thomas Mitchell with FM3IS & Associates recommends using this basic message as a starting point:

Emergency – A suspect with a weapon is in the building. Go to the nearest room and lock the door. Follow directions from authorities. This is not a test.

As information can be easily found on social media, organizations must consider precisely how much information should be shared during a crisis. The idea of an internal email or SMS is a moot point when an occupant can immediately share it on Twitter or Facebook. There’s also concern that an aggressor might have time to use information in status updates to inflict more damage.

Despite the brief duration of an active shooter event, businesses and schools should make a case-by-case decision on whether explicit or minimal information is appropriate.

“Some organizations want to broadcast as much information as possible to give occupants the best chance of survival,” notes John Stofa, Honeywell. “Others don’t want to tip off the shooter that they’re closing in so they’ll only release limited alerts.”

Consider that most armed suspects are familiar with your building – the majority of workplace violence is committed by a current or former occupant. No matter which approach you use, ensure messages don’t reveal the location of people sheltering in place or details about police activities.

“Obviously what you share with emergency responders should be as full as possible so their situational awareness is complete. But if any information can be used to save lives, then it needs to be shared,” Mitchell concludes.

2) Situation in Progress
When occupants must barricade themselves for a lockdown, those handful of minutes may feel like an eternity. Even if the threat is neutralized quickly, it may take significant time for a building to be fully cleared.

“Make sure you have a way to update people as a situation progresses. Don’t send out a message and then let too much time pass,” warms Chris Wilhelm, Tech Electronics. “You need to rebroadcast what’s going on, even if it’s to repeat the previous message. People can deal with what they know, but they can’t deal with what they don’t know.”

“The worst thing you can have in an emergency is dead air,” reiterates Mitchell. “If people lack information, the human mind will start filling in the blanks. Regular updates assure occupants that the authorities are continuing to work on resolving the situation.”

3) The Coast is Clear
Don’t forget that people need to know when a situation has been contained and they came move about freely once again.

This message should also be easily recognized as coming from a voice of authority. If a shooter takes control of your mass notification system but those in lockdown sense a deviation from the standard message, they can wait until official confirmation.

“Don’t forget about the ‘all clear’ announcement after a situation has ended. Occupants need a way of knowing it’s truly safe,” Wilhelm stresses. “Decide whether they are supposed to wait until emergency responders physically come get them or if they need to wait to hear specific wording over the speakers.”

4) Unconfirmed Threats
What happens if your organization receives notice of suspicious activity but hasn’t verified that occupants are in immediate danger? It’s better to err on the side of caution rather than to hold back on potentially life-saving information.

“If a perpetrator is possibly en route to your location or you’re monitoring questionable behavior, you may want to go into a modified lockdown,” explains Walker. “This puts occupants on notice that a situation might be developing. You can ask them to lock the doors and stay put but keep activities going until further notice.”

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