active shooter

Wait -- is Code Yellow a shooter or a bus problem?

“Attention, Code Yellow.” The voice crackles over the intercom, stopping everyone in their tracks. Can’t quite remember -- isn’t Code Yellow a problem in the bus drop-off area? Or is that when we summon the imaginary “Ms. Smithers” to the office? Or isn’t that a Signal Three?

Anyone who’s watched a spy movie or one of those films showing the behind-the-scenes operations in the Pentagon has heard all sorts of interesting code words. “The President has ordered everyone to Defcon-Two, so we need to implement Code Green.” It’s pretty cool to know all those secret codes are in use, making sure people who shouldn’t have access to information won’t know what’s happening.

Schools and other facilities often adopt similar secret codes. The justification is usually that only the people who are required to take action (such as teachers or department managers) will know what’s happening, so other occupants of the facility (such as students or employees) won’t panic.

The intent may seem reasonable, but there’s an inherent problem with codes: people forget them. When they hear the code words, they may not remember what they’re supposed to mean. And if they’re the person in a crisis situation, they might not have the presence of mind to call for a Code Yellow, a Code Red, or a Code Fuchsia. Instead, they’ll panic or freeze.

We live in a different world than we did 10 or 20 years ago. Media coverage of mass shootings, school violence, and terrorist acts have sharpened awareness. That’s true even among young students. Even if they haven’t seen the news stories, they’ve heard their parents and classmates discuss shootings and other acts. Today’s students are every bit as uneasy about the potential for an incident as their grandparents were when they were practicing duck-and-cover drills.

Preparing to deal with dangerous incidents is serious business. Playing around with code words and similar strategies can compound the danger by creating confusion. It’s far better to use plain English and state exactly what you want people to do. If your school needs to be locked down because of a potential threat, saying “Lockdown now” over the intercom will stir people into action far more effectively than asking “Ms. Smithers” to visit the office.

There’s a part of our brains that’s sometimes derided as “reptilian.” It’s the area of the brain that makes instinctive responses to situations. If we see an object flying toward our heads, we duck. If our feet slip, we automatically reach out for something that will allow us to steady ourselves. As intelligent, rational animals, we’re a bit ashamed of our reptilian reactions, but they’re what keep us alive. When we see a shooter entering a building, we don’t have the luxury of carefully analyzing the situation and considering alternatives. We need to get to safety immediately.

“Code Yellow” doesn’t kick the reptilian brain into action, but “Shooter! Take cover!” will. If we want people to evacuate a burning building, we yell “Fire! Get out!” for a reason. Everyone knows what that means and what they’re supposed to do.

 In addition to using plain English, it’s important to make sure that everyone who can call an alert uses the same words. If one administrator says “Lockdown now!” and another says something about taking cover, they may not get the same response. That’s why many schools use common language such as the Standard Response Protocol [http://iloveuguys.org/srp.html] to notify occupants about emergencies. They also regularly practice the actions occupants are supposed to take when they hear those words. For example, lockdowns are triggered by the phrase “Lockdown! Locks, Lights, Out of Sight.” Even the youngest students can easily memorize that phrase, so they know exactly what to do to protect themselves.

If you’re responsible for occupants in multiple buildings, such as a school district with multiple schools, it’s a good idea to use the same protocol in every building. That way, if staff members are working in a different building, or if students move from an elementary to a middle school, they’ll automatically know how to react.

Standard protocols may not be as much fun as code words, but in a real-life emergency, they make a tremendous difference in protecting everyone’s safety.

Active Shooter: Facility Security Starts Far From Your Front Door

It never ceases to amaze me how many organizations establish “security” for their buildings by stationing a sleepy security guard or a doorman with a clipboard at the entrance. If someone who was planning mayhem … such as a shooter … shoved past the front desk, about the only defense that guard can offer is to yell, “Hey! You can’t go in there!” Then he might call his boss to see what he should do about it.

Even worse, those glorified hall monitors rarely pay attention to what’s signed on those clipboards. I could write “Charles Manson” for my name, and nobody would blink. Nor do most verify my credentials or check to see if I belong there. If I were a domestic abuser who wanted to get to my estranged spouse, all I’d have to do is claim I had a meeting with one of her co-workers (whose names I would know from conversations). I might have to wear a visitor’s badge, but that’s about it.

I’m not trying to be an alarmist, but we live in an era in which workplace and school shootings happen often enough that most earn just a quick spot on the news feed.

Take April’s shooting at YouTube’s headquarters in the heart of Silicon Valley. Nasim Majafi Aghdam simply walked into a courtyard in the company’s complex and opened fire on people she apparently didn’t know, wounding three before turning the gun on herself. She evidently had grievances with the company’s business practices, and these three just happened to be in the wrong place when she walked onto the property looking for someone to punish.

What’s to stop someone who’s unbalanced and has a gripe with your company or one of your employees from doing the same?

If you truly want to protect your students, your employees, your customers, or anyone occupying your facilities, you need to recognize that your front door is your point of last resort. It’s your last opportunity to control access to the facility. You may not be able to stop someone with criminal intent, but you can slow his or entry and alert authorities. Once the individual crosses that barrier, it’s too late. Even if the police arrive within a couple minutes, it’s likely that the damage will have been done.

So you need to shift your thinking. Instead of asking, “What do we do when someone enters our building?,” you need to ask, “What can we do to keep the wrong people out of our building in the first place? How do we make it clear that our location is unwelcome?”

Most people think of those as security decisions, but they’re really policy decisions that should become a central part of your organization’s culture. “Keeping our people safe” should be one of your organization’s guiding values. Finding the best way to do that then becomes the responsibility of everyone from the very top down.

There aren’t any one-plan-fits-all building security approaches, so you need to approach your situation with the specifics that make sense for your organization and facility. It may be a visitor management system, some kind of mandatory prior authorization for visits, moving the front line of security from the front door to the entry drive, creating an open-door policy in which victims of domestic abuse can feel comfortable sharing their concerns, holding a tabletop exercise to see how you’d handle specific scenarios -- the list of potential elements is endless.

We don’t need to be paranoid, thinking that everyone is out to get us in every manner imaginable, but we do need to be practical and realistic. We need to give serious thought to potential threats and ask ourselves what we can do to head each off. We need to invite first responders into our facilities and ask what makes them nervous, because they constantly have to assess risks as part of their job. They immediately notice things you’d never think about.

Employers and building managers don’t blink when they’re asked to install sprinkler systems, extinguishers, alarms, and other elements of fire protection. They don’t hesitate to identify shelter locations to protect employees and visitors during times of severe weather. So it’s no stretch to expand that thinking into protecting everyone from someone who means to do harm. Real security starts with intelligent thinking.

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School Active Shooters: Getting "Left of Bang"

There is so much noise these days about how to make schools safer.  The vast majority is counter-productive and pushing schools in the wrong direction.  Watch the following active shooter webinar by experts from law enforcement, Secret Service and school security as they walk you through a process of understanding that school active shooter incidents have predictable behaviors.

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Active Shooters: Stop Reacting, Start Preventing

Every time there’s a shooting at a school or a workplace, the arguments begin. We need more police officers stationed in the buildings. We need to arm teachers or encourage employees to carry handguns. We should invest in smokescreen systems or bulletproof partitions. Everyone should hide from the shooter. Everyone should run from the shooter. Everyone should confront the shooter.

We’re having the wrong argument. Once someone who intends to do harm is inside your school or your business, all you can do is react. And at that point, it’s too late. Whether you run, hide, fight, or something else, your school or business is going to be the site of violence and possibly death, permanently transforming the lives of everyone involved.

Instead of focusing on reacting to a shooter or other intruder’s presence, what we should concentrate on is keeping that shooter out of the school or workplace. If a shooter can’t get into your facility, he or she can’t cause mayhem.

We can learn from the professionals we trust to protect some of the world’s most important people: the U.S. Secret Service. The image that springs to mind is the agent who jumps in front of a would-be assassin, taking a bullet intended for the President, but the Secret Service puts far more effort into making sure people with bad intent don’t get anywhere near the individual they’re protecting. They’ll react if they have to, but far more of their time and energy goes into prevention.

In preparing, we first need to get past the myth that these shootings are random events triggered by someone’s temper or someone who just “snapped.” The FBI has studied shooting extensively, and says “these are not spontaneous, emotion-driven, impulsive crimes emanating from a person’s immediate anger or fear.” The reality is that most of events are not impulsive; they’re coldly and carefully planned.

There’s a parallel in domestic violence cases. The popular “wisdom” is that people who commit violence against family members were “pushed” into it or were “triggered” by something the victim said or did. As a former violent crimes detective, I can tell you that’s nonsense. There’s a discernable pattern that offenders follow. When law enforcement and the judicial system know that pattern and intervene in the early stages, there’s a marked reduction in homicide and other violent acts. (Another reason domestic violence is important to mention is that it’s actually been related to 54 percent of mass shootings.)

Prevention involves several components. Staff members need to be able to recognize the signs and behaviors that usually precede a violent act -- like the threats and other behaviors that have been observed before 85 percent of school shootings.

We have to create a culture in which people aren’t afraid to report suspicious behaviors. Too many people are afraid of hurting someone’s feelings or accusing someone who may be innocent. After most shootings, we hear that the shooter showed signs of being dangerous, but nobody was willing to speak up. Similarly, we have to share information. For example, school leaders need to be in regular conversations with local police. Police in one community need to talk with the county sheriff and their neighboring departments. And all parties to be trained in assessing threats through the use of lethality indicators.

Training is one of the most important components, and it can’t be a one-and-done approach. One of the best kinds is the “tabletop” simulation in which multiple parties gather to discuss a simulated scenario. For a school, the simulation might involve the building administrators, the superintendent, the head of security, and representatives from the local police and fire departments. An outside facilitator narrates a scenario, and everyone discusses their role and how they would respond. (I’d also recommend involving the head custodian, who knows the building inside and out, and who will have a practical approach to identifying flaws in the other participants’ responses.)

If you really want to protect the occupants of your buildings, don’t waste time in philosophical arguments over what they should do if an intruder is present. Instead, do everything you can to keep that intruder from getting in there in the first place.

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